America Is Less White and Christian Than Ever. How Is This Changing Us?

New landmark research of 101,000 Americans shows stark religious and ethnic changes.

In a recent interview with Ezra Klein, Dan Rather reminds listeners that “considering the great sweep of history, America is still a young country. He continues, 

Since our very beginning we’ve been engaged in an experiment which had never been tried before. No people in the history of the planet had ever tried to do what America set out to do, and that is to prove that a multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society could be united on principle values enough and long enough to rule itself. 

Our current interconnectedness, provided by ever-evolving technologies, sometimes distorts our view of just how true Rather’s statement is. Newer generations assume this is how it’s always been, which, while not without its benefits, proves perilous to the historically ignorant. The civil war fomenting right now between those assuming America to be a white, Christian nation and those championing a nation inclusive of all value systems is indicative of this centuries-old struggle.

Landmark research of 101,000 Americans conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that we’re moving in the right direction—if you’re hopeful about Rather’s observation about inclusion, that is. Nationalists won’t fare as well, which is creating a large part of the problem. You can’t turn history back, but you sure can scream and kick the whole way. 

How much of this trend is religious and how much is actually ethnic is up for debate—religion provides convenient cover for xenophobia—but the religious data uncovered by PRRI shows a more multi-dimensional America than ever before.

Just forty years ago 81 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, the majority (55 percent) Protestant. Today only 43 percent identity of white Christians, 30 percent claiming Protestantism. While evangelical Protestants still lead the charge in home schooling, they’ve dropped to 17 percent of the population, with mainline Protestants at 13 percent and Catholics down five points from 2006 to 11 percent. 

The Catholic church is also changing. Whereas 87 percent of Catholics were white twenty-five years ago, today that number is 55 percent. The church is experiencing a generational ethnic shift in America, with 36 percent of Catholics under the age of thirty being white and 52 percent Hispanic. 

Religious change is being driven by millennials and the Generation Z (with hopes that a better name is coined for those born in this millennium—iGeneration sounds corporate; Homeland Generation nationalistic; Centennials archaic; and Post-Millennials? Would Millennials prefer Post-Generation Xers?). America’s youngest groups are non-Christian: 42 percent of Muslims, 36 percent of Hindus, and 35 percent of Buddhists are under thirty. The predominant amount of white Christian groups are over fifty. 

While the old guard is aging, the religiously unaffiliated is ticking up. Fifty-eight percent consider themselves secular, with 27 percent claiming to be atheistic or agnostic. Sixteen percent state they’re religious while claiming no particular affiliation, another growing trend in a multi-cultural society with so many choices to consider. 

Interestingly, 46 percent of the LGBT community is religiously unaffiliated. The total number of Americans claiming no religion in particular is 24 percent, a group that has tripled in size since the early nineties. The younger you are, the more likely you are to not label yourself.

When it comes to education, the three biggest groups of post-graduate degree holders are Unitarian-Universalists (43 percent), Hindus (38 percent), and Jews (34 percent). Researchers note that one-third of Muslims hold a four-year college degree, compared to one-quarter of white evangelical Protestants. 

In a nation suffering from a stark political divide, the Democratic party is much less likely to be white and Christian (29 percent) than the Republican party (73 percent). In 2006 half of Democrats identified as white Christians. Thirty-five percent of Republicans are white evangelical Protestants. 

The gender divide is interesting to note. Groups such as Mormons, Jews, white Catholics, and Hispanic Protestants are roughly even. Hindus and Muslims are outliers in male dominance, with 66 percent and 59 percent being men, respectively. (Third is the religiously unaffiliated, with 55 percent of men claiming the title.) Women lead the charge as Unitarian-Universalists (64 percent) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (63 percent). 

As for income levels, the lowest levels come from racial and ethnic minority Christians, with 43 percent of black Protestants, 45 percent of Hispanic Protestants, and 49 percent of Hispanic Catholics reporting less than $30,000 of household income every year. In contrast, white Christian groups fare better. The economic winners are Jews and Hindus, with 30 percent of the former and a quarter of the latter earning over $100,000 per year. The religiously unaffiliated fall right into national median levels.

The trend toward not having a religious affiliation is growing, though not everywhere. Thirty percent of Australians are unaffiliated according to recent census data. Levels of believers in Western Europe are down. Yet with 94 percent of Thailand and 93 percent of Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia, and Morocco claiming religious affiliation, the idea that religion is disappearing globally does not hold weight.

In America, these shifting demographics speak volumes. Dan Rather thinks the American experiment is working out well overall, though numerous minority groups would argue with that sentiment. He does express great concern regarding how cultural and ethnic concerns are being handled by the current administration, however. It’s impossible to argue with him on that.

America may be heading toward a new kind of Civil War. This religious data show one aspect of how the teams are being drawn. Beyond belief persists the tribal nationalism that is part of our biological inheritance. If future generations are to inherit something greater, our persistence in fighting for the values and rights of all Americans, as well as those who aspire to become Americans, is necessary. A united planet looks a bit too ambitious right now. Is an open-minded country too much to ask?


Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Articles

Quantum computing is on the way

Ready your Schrödinger's Cat Jokes.

Quantum entanglement. Conceptual artwork of a pair of entangled quantum particles or events (left and right) interacting at a distance. Quantum entanglement is one of the consequences of quantum theory. Two particles will appear to be linked across space and time, with changes to one of the particles (such as an observation or measurement) affecting the other one. This instantaneous effect appears to be independent of both space and time, meaning that, in the quantum realm, effect may precede cause.
Technology & Innovation
  • For a time, quantum computing was more theory than fact.
  • That's starting to change.
  • New quantum computer designs look like they might be scalable.

Quantum computing has existed in theory since the 1980's. It's slowly making its way into fact, the latest of which can be seen in a paper published in Nature called, "Deterministic teleportation of a quantum gate between two logical qubits."

To ensure that we're all familiar with a few basic terms: in electronics, a 'logic gate' is something that takes in one or more than one binary inputs and produces a single binary output. To put it in reductive terms: if you produce information that goes into a chip in your computer as a '0,' the logic gate is what sends it out the other side as a '1.'

A quantum gate means that the '1' in question here can — roughly speaking — go back through the gate and become a '0' once again. But that's not quite the whole of it.

A qubit is a single unit of quantum information. To continue with our simple analogy: you don't have to think about computers producing a string of information that is either a zero or a one. A quantum computer can do both, simultaneously. But that can only happen if you build a functional quantum gate.

That's why the results of the study from the folks at The Yale Quantum Institute saying that they were able to create a quantum gate with a "process fidelity" of 79% is so striking. It could very well spell the beginning of the pathway towards realistic quantum computing.

The team went about doing this through using a superconducting microwave cavity to create a data qubit — that is, they used a device that operates a bit like a organ pipe or a music box but for microwave frequencies. They paired that data qubit with a transmon — that is, a superconducting qubit that isn't as sensitive to quantum noise as it otherwise could be, which is a good thing, because noise can destroy information stored in a quantum state. The two are then connected through a process called a 'quantum bus.'

That process translates into a quantum property being able to be sent from one location to the other without any interaction between the two through something called a teleported CNOT gate, which is the 'official' name for a quantum gate. Single qubits made the leap from one side of the gate to the other with a high degree of accuracy.

Above: encoded qubits and 'CNOT Truth table,' i.e., the read-out.

The team then entangled these bits of information as a way of further proving that they were literally transporting the qubit from one place to somewhere else. They then analyzed the space between the quantum points to determine that something that doesn't follow the classical definition of physics occurred.

They conclude by noting that "... the teleported gate … uses relatively modest elements, all of which are part of the standard toolbox for quantum computation in general. Therefore ... progress to improve any of the elements will directly increase gate performance."

In other words: they did something simple and did it well. And that the only forward here is up. And down. At the same time.

Why Japan's hikikomori isolate themselves from others for years

These modern-day hermits can sometimes spend decades without ever leaving their apartments.

700,000 Japanese people are thought to be hikikomori, modern-day hermits who never leave their apartments (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images).
Mind & Brain
  • A hikikomori is a type of person in Japan who locks themselves away in their bedrooms, sometimes for years.
  • This is a relatively new phenomenon in Japan, likely due to rigid social customs and high expectations for academic and business success.
  • Many believe hikikomori to be a result of how Japan interprets and handles mental health issues.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less