Tracking the Growth and Decline of Religious Segments: The Rise of Atheism
For over 30 years, the Church has trusted Barna’s data and insights to help leaders know their city and effectively minister within their context. While in years past Barna offered printed reports on cities, states and the nation, all of this data plus more is now housed on FaithView, an online Barna tool that allows subscribers to sort, filter and extract custom data specific to their mission and relevant to their area.
One of FaithView’s key features is data tracking, offering users a look at religious trends recorded by Barna over the last 18 years and providing invaluable insights into the growth and decline of various segmentations, whether filtered by generation, denomination, faith segments and more.
In recent reports, Barna (and other researchers) have noted that Christianity is on a steady decline while Americans’ identification with atheism continues to increase. Barna tracking data show that in 2003, just a little over one in 10 Americans claimed to be atheist, agnostic or of no religion (“none”) (11%), while over eight in 10 identified as Christian (across Barna’s faith segments, this included 7% evangelicals, 33% non-evangelical born again and 41% nominal Christians) and less than one in 10 affiliated with other faiths (8%).
Percentage points for all religious segments saw little to no shift over a decade, from 2003 to 2012—but by 2018, Christianity in the United States had witnessed a significant loss of followers, from 81 percent in 2003 to 72 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, the atheist / agnostic / none segment has seen the greatest increase of all groups analyzed, nearly doubling in size from 11 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2018.
Note: FaithView tracking data offers analytics in three-year bundles, as seen in the chart above, with the last year included in the bundled labeling the group. This allows Barna to offer a more robust sample size and effectively note data trends and changes over the years.
So, what is leading Americans to shy away from not only Christianity but other religions as well?
Barna has identified a number of trends that might attribute to this move toward secularization, which may spark concern for the spiritual well-being of the next generation. Among young adults, Gen Z teens are much less likely to assert religious identity than generations before them; some of the rise in atheism could be attributed to Gen Z entering adulthood, and the fact that they are, thus far, significantly more likely than older generations to claim no faith. Additionally, faith-sharing is falling out of favor with younger adults, even religious ones; almost half of practicing Christian Millennials (47%) believe that evangelism is wrong. Across the generations, three in 10 Gen X (27%) and one in five Boomers (19%) and Elders (20%) share this sentiment.
In a Q&A published in Reviving Evangelism, a Barna report conducted in partnership with Alpha USA, Dr. Mary Healy, Professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, notes, “Many people in our time are affected by a kind of spiritual numbness. Beginning from childhood, they’ve been overstimulated, over-scheduled, over-indulged and overexposed to sexual content. They’ve been taught that self-fulfillment, sexual freedom and economic success are the highest values. So, they often seem to have lost interest in the most important questions of life: Why do I exist? What is my mission in life and how do I fulfill it? What is true love and how do I find it?”
“Many people today show indifference to these deeper questions, but no matter what, those questions are there beneath the surface,” Dr. Healy notes. “There’s no replacement for a real encounter with God’s power and the holiness of his people.”
Indeed, Barna studies have shown that personal connections to Christians can be even more impactful than experiences with the Church at large. Dr. Healy concludes, “I’ve seen again and again that when we are willing to take risks in faith as we evangelize, the Lord backs us up through the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is a message in words that addresses the human being’s capacity for truth, but it is also a message of power that brings people into a personal encounter with Jesus.”
This article was written using tracking data from Barna’s FaithView tool and research published in Reviving Evangelism, a Barna study conducted in partnership with Alpha USA. Subscribe to FaithView to discover current statistics relevant to your area, region or the nation. Purchase a copy of Reviving Evangelism to learn about the state of evangelism in America and compare the faith-sharing experiences of Christians and non-Christians.