Survey Predicts Huge Amount of Non-Religious Americans by 2035

The U.S. has been steadily losing its religion for decades — but that trend might ramp up significantly in the years to come.

The U.S. has been steadily losing its religion for decades. For the most part, Protestants have been leaving the church while the affiliation rates among Catholicism and other religions in the country have remained stable. But since 1990, Americans have been abandoning both belief and religious affiliation at such a fast pace that, by 2035, it's likely that 35 percent of the population will have no religious affiliation — outnumbering protestants.


In an article posted on his blog, Allen Downey, a professor of computer science at Olin College, used historical data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to generate predictions about the future of religious belief in the U.S., each with a 90 percent confidence interval

Downey wrote:

“According to the Theory of Secularization, as societies become more modern, they become less religious. Aspects of secularization include decreasing participation in organized religion, loss of religious belief, and declining respect for religious authority.

Until recently the United States has been a nearly unique counterexample, so I would be a fool to join the line of researchers who have predicted the demise of religion in America. Nevertheless, I predict that secularization in the U.S. will accelerate in the next 20 years.”

The graph above was generated using data from the GSS question that reads: “What is your religious preference: is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”

Downey summarized his findings on religious affiliation in the U.S.:

  • The fraction of people with no religious affiliation has increased from less than 10% in the 1990s to more than 20% now. This increase will accelerate, overtaking Catholicism in the next few years, and probably replacing Protestantism as the largest religious affiliation within 20 years.

  • Protestantism has been in decline since the 1980s.  Its population share dropped below 50% in 2012, and will fall below 40% within 20 years.

  • Catholicism peaked in the 1980s and will decline slowly over the next 20 years, from 24% to 20%.

  • The share of other religions increased from 4% in the 1970s to 6% now, but will be essentially unchanged in the next 20 years.

    In addition to religious affiliation, Americans also seem to be losing their religious belief — at least strong belief, as Downey's model shows.

    Downey also used GSS data to make predictions about people's interpretations of the bible.

    ...as well as their confidence in religious institutions.

    Startling as the numbers may be, there's reason to think these projections are actually conservative, considering:

  • Social desirability bias — On surveys like these, people tend to tilt their answers toward whatever is socially acceptable to say. Considering being atheist or nonreligious is stigmatized in many parts of the country, some people may be claiming allegiance to a religion when in fact they're nonreligious.
  • The 1990 inflection point — Around 1990, rates of religious affiliation seemed to be significantly disrupted, with a major drop-off among the Protestants. Any projections that factor in the data before 1990 might be too conservative seeing as the trend toward nonreligious affiliation has become more drastic in the past two decades. 
  • Although religion seems to be dying out in the U.S., other forms of spirituality might be just as present as ever.

    A 2014 Pew study found that, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who felt a "deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being" had increased from 52 to 59 percent, while the percentage of those who felt a "deep sense of wonder about the universe" increased from 39 to 46 percent. 

     

     

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    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.