The next five decades could see the percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Christian drop below 50%, according to a Pew Research Center report published September 13.
The number of Christians in the U.S. has been in decline for decades, falling from 90% of the population in 1972 to 64% in 2020.
Analyzing data from 1972 to the present, Pew presented four possible scenarios in which the number of Christians in the U.S. population ranges from 35% to 54% by 2070. The number of religiously unaffiliated is projected to be in roughly the same range, between 34% and 52%, and the number of people affiliated with other faith traditions should to reach between 12% and 13% of the total population.
“These are not the only possibilities, and they are not meant as predictions of what will happen,” the report said. “Rather, this study presents formal demographic projections of what could happen under a few illustrative scenarios based on trends revealed by decades of survey data.”
For each of the four scenarios, Pew defined the criteria used to reach the projected figures:
- “Scenario 1: Steady switching” in which recent rates of movement out of and into Christian affiliation remain steady would result in 46% identifying as Christians by 2070, 41% as unaffiliated and 13% as other faith traditions.
- “Scenario 2: Rising disaffiliation with limits” in which no more than 50% of current Christians disaffiliated before age 30 would mean the U.S. in 2070 would have 48% of its population as religiously unaffiliated, 39% as Christian and 12% as other religions.
- “Scenario 3: Rising disaffiliation without limits” is the same scenario as above but without the 50% limitation, resulting in a population projected to be 52% unaffiliated, 35% Christian and 12% other faith traditions.
- “Scenario 4: No switching” in which the 2020 affiliations remained unchanged would mean 54% of the U.S. in 2070 is Christian, 34% is unaffiliated and 12% is affiliated with other religions.
Pew’s researchers acknowledge that patterns can change, such as a new trend in which Christian affiliation increases. However, the purpose of the report was to analyze the affiliation data trends over the past several decades and extrapolate out several possible scenarios if the current trends held.
Which scenario does the report suggest is most likely?
Pew described scenario four as “not realistic” and scenario one as “conservative,” while noting that scenario three requires two key assumptions: an “ever-increasing momentum behind religious switching” and children of the unaffiliated not deciding to affiliate with a faith tradition as adults.
As such, scenario two “seems to most closely fit the patterns observed in recent years,” the report said.