I find statistics on religion to be interesting, and helpful in understanding what is going on in the world. In previous posts I have outlined:
- The major religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) are growing in numbers worldwide, but (Religion statistics), but only Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are growing in percentage terms.
- Almost half of christians today are converts, with high growth rates in countries in Asia, Africa and South America that are not traditionally christian, but declining numbers in the once-christian west (Are many christians converts?).
- The current view of sociologists of religion is that religion is unlikely to die out or even decline greatly worldwide (Is religion dying out? Is this inevitable in the modern world?).
Belief is one side of the coin. How is unbelief going? Some survey information from the US is interesting.
Surveys tend to list people by their stated adherence to a religion, with the remainder being classified as “unaffiliated“, or “nothing in particular”. The unaffiliated category is made up of four groups, based on their self identification:
- secular unaffiliated
- religious unaffiliated, or unattached believers
Two surveys have been conducted in the last decade:
- The US Religious Landscape Survey (2008) conducted by the Pew Forum.
- The 2012 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
Both surveys give similar results, with some changes apparent in the intervening 4 years.
How many unbelievers?
The ranks of the unaffiliated are growing, now comprising almost 20% of the US population, made up as follows:
- atheists: 2-3%
- agnostics: 3-5%
- secular unaffiliated: 8%
- religious unaffiliated: 5-7%
The religious unaffiliated are the fastest growing of any group in these surveys. Other studies (e.g. by the Barna Group) suggest many of these are committed christians turned off by the churches, while others are believers in a more vaguely defined God.
Passing on belief to children
How successful are parents in passing on their religious beliefs, or lack of belief, to their children?
It turns out that children raised in religious homes are much more likely to remain believers than children raised in non-believing families are likely to remain non believers:
- Atheists’ children are only 30% likely to remain atheist,
- unaffiliated children are about 50% likely to stay that way,
- christian kids are 32-73% (depending on denomination – average is about 60%) likely to remain in their denomination, and
- Hindus, Muslims and Jews have the best retention rate of all (76-84%).
Growth and decline
At first sight, these retention percentages may seem inconsistent with the known fact that religious belief generally is on the decline in the US. But we need to remember the difference between numbers and percentages.
Children brought up in a religion are more than likely to remain in that religion, but because there are so many more believers than atheists and agnostics, the relatively small percentage who leave in a religion make a larger increase in the numbers of atheists and agnostics, and the largest increase of all in the religious unaffiliated.
Sociologists speculate that the children of non-believers will be more likely to remain non-believers when their total numbers rise.
What does it all mean?
The organised religions and denominations are effective in passing on their beliefs to the next generation, but are losing numbers because they are not making many converts.
But most of those who leave the belief of their parents don’t end up as non-believers, but as religious unaffiliated – people with some belief, or who see religion as having importance in their lives, but who don’t identify as part of any particular religious group. God, and maybe Jesus, are losing few followers while churches are losing more.
For whatever reason, stronger forms of unbelief (atheism and agnosticism) do not seem to ‘stick’ with half the children raised that way. It seems in the US, atheists do not beget atheists necessarily.
Meanwhile, outside the USA
All this applies to the US. In Australia and UK, there is much less religious belief, and I don’t have data for retention rates, but it seems likely that they may be similar. This is only a guess, but if things were very different, I’d expect there to be larger changes in overall religion statistics than actually occurs.
Studies show that generally non-believers have smaller families than believers. If this is combined with the low retention rates, one can speculate that organised religion may continue to decline in English speaking countries, but most of the losses will go to the secular or religious affiliated category, and not to hard-core atheism.
These two reports give somewhat different slants on similar information – the first looking at the retention rates and the second emphasising the changes in overall percentages.
- Vox on how the US is changing and Your atheism isn’t going to keep your kids from believing in God.
- PRRI on Born and Raised: More Americans Are Being Raised Without Religion and Choosing to Stay that Way.