By Daniel Schiff
Volunteer Network Coordinator 
Secular Student Alliance, Northeast Network

A new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released October 9, 2012 offers an intriguing look into generational religious change in the United States.

Central to the study is the growth of the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “unaffiliated” with a particular religion from 15.3% in 2007 to 19.6% in 2012. Meanwhile, the portion of self-defined atheists and agnostics has risen from 3.7% to 5.7% in the same time period.

For secular/atheist organizations like the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, and the Secular Coalition for America, this new research is an example of the turning tides of American religiosity.

Importantly, the shift in religious affiliation is primarily due to the Millenials, as nearly a full third (32%) of adults 18-29 have no religious affiliation. The under 18 category, which isn’t captured in this Pew research, shows signs of being even more estranged from religious affiliation and organized religion.  More than a third – 34% –  of the “Young Millenial” category, currently ages 18-22, is unaffiliated.

The Secular Student Alliance, whose affiliates include both college and high school organizations, has grown exponentially in the last 5 years, from 81 groups in 2007 to now 400 affiliates with the addition of its most recent affiliate, Irmo High School in South Carolina.

In fact, the SSA is projecting membership of over 1000 groups by 2017.

It is important to note that the unaffiliated demographic is not synonymous with atheism. 68% of the unaffiliated still believe in a god or universal spirit, and 40% pray at least once a month. However, only 30% of the unaffiliated believers are absolutely certain of their belief in a god or universal spirit, compared to 77% of the affiliated. Even more curiously, 38% of atheists/agnostics share this belief in a god or universal spirit.

Are these self-defined atheists and agnostics lapsed Christians/theists who are confused about the definition of atheism or something else entirely?

A few other statistics from Pew that warrant recognition:

This is the first survey in which the Protestant portion of the population is no longer a majority (at 48%, compared to 53% 5 years earlier). This has sparked some concern that America is “no longer a Christian country.”

80% of Americans agree that they “never doubt the existence of God”, down from 88% in 1987. 49% of Americans seldom or never attend religious services, down from 38% in 2007.

56% of the unaffiliated are men (44% women), 64% of atheists/agnostics are men (36% women), and 82% of atheists/agnostics are white.

Atheists/agnostics are also significantly more likely to have a college (25%) or post-graduate education (19%) than most other groups (e.g. 16% and 13%, respectively, for affiliated).

Looking Ahead: What do these figures mean?

As the Pew research and other research have noted, the trend is primarily a generational one; Millenials are far more likely to be unaffiliated with a religion as well as more likely to be atheist or agnostic than their older counterparts. Generational change can seem slow, but it remains powerful nonetheless.

As Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, noted at the 2012 Secular Student Alliance conference, nearly 70% of Americans under 30 would vote for a qualified atheist candidate for president of the United States, in contrast to the unpopularity of atheist candidates among older voters.

In 20 years, then, this means that at least 70% of Americans under 50 would potentially elect an atheist for president, assuming that both generational trends and the progress made by secular organizations continue.

The hard-working secular organizations will most likely not rest contented with the minimum projection of 70% and will instead aim much higher. Indeed, this research is indicative that their efforts have not gone unrealized, and should serve to invigorate both organizations and individuals invested in the secular movement.

However, there remains much work to be done, both in broadening and diversifying the base.

By Daniel Schiff
Volunteer Network Coordinator 
Secular Student Alliance, Northeast Network

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  1. What’s up, just wanted to say, I enjoyed this post. It was practical. Keep on posting!

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