The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has just published their findings from the 2016 American Values Atlas in a study entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity. Their findings add further confirmation those of our research, The Religion Singularity, published in the International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society in July, which projects that institutional Christianity will become unsustainable in its current forms before the end of this century.
Of particular significance is the finding that, despite decades insistence to the contrary by their proponents, theologically conservative denominations and congregations are not immune to the decline that has affected mainline liberal denominations after all, but rather are making up for lost time, matching or exceeding the current rate of shrinkage of their mainline brethren and sistren. In fact, it may even be worse for them than it looks, as millennials are abandoning conservative evangelical congregations at a rate faster than they are leaving other segments of institutional Christianity.
Also consistent with our findings in The Religion Singularity is the fact that “religiously unaffiliated” is one of the fastest growing and “religious” groups in America, growing at such a rate that they could become a significant majority of the U.S. population in less than 15 years (our projection based on PPRI statistics). Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated is increasing as a portion of each new generation. More than a third (36%) of Americans 18-30 are religiously unaffiliated, compared to less than a tenth of those 80 or older.
Another finding of significance is how syncretized religious and political affiliation have become, with the two becoming so overlapped that political affiliation is fast becoming a predictor of religious affiliation and theological leanings. For example, if a person politically identifies as Republican, there is a 73% chance they will be a white conservative Christian, where white Christians make up only 29% of Democrats (14% of Democrats under 30).
Findings like these, Pew Research’s America’s Changing Religious Landscape (2015), and our own research, The Religion Singularity (International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 2017), are often greeted with a combination of fatalism (“We’re all gonna die”) and denial (“My church is growing, so this can’t be true”). But we see them as a vision-clearing wake-up call and a opportunity to rethink the way we do church so that, while we may see the end of institutional Christianity in this century, we can develop a Christ-following movement of faith-based communities from its remains.
Other findings include: