Race, Generations and American Religion in 2023
Secularization is Not Advancing at Equal Rates in the United States
The nones are rising.
If there’s anything that I’m probably known for - it’s that simple statement. There are more non-religious people in the United States today than at any point in the history of the country. The best estimates put the share of folks who are non-religious right about 30% of the American population.
You can’t get to that share of the population without touching every single demographic group in a country. This can’t just be a phenomenon that impacts younger people, or white people. You name a niche demographic in the United States, there’s a very good chance that they are less religious today than that same demographic group fifteen years ago.
Obviously one of the biggest predictors of this phenomenon is age. Younger adults are way more likely to be non-religious compared to older Americans. The graph below makes that clear.
Among the Silent Generation (those born between 1925 and 1945), just over half are Protestant and nearly a quarter are Catholic. At the same time the share who are non-religious (atheist, agnostic, nothing in particular) is just 19%. Seventy-four percent are Christians and 19% are nones. Pretty big spread between those two groups.
But here’s that same spread - Protestant/Catholic vs Non-Religious by Generation:
Boomers: 67% versus 27%. +40 points
Gen X: 56% versus 39%. +17 points
Millennials: 45% versus 48%. -3 points
Gen Z: 38% versus 51%. -13 points
Generation Z is the first generation in American history where it appears clear that the share who are non-religious outnumbers the Protestants and the Catholics.
A very crucial part of this conversation needs to be laid out, however. This is not happening at equal rates among generations if you break it down by racial groups. The religious composition of white Americans looks much different than the patterns exhibited by Hispanics or Asians. The graph below makes that really clear.
The white graph at the top is just such a consistent stair-step down for each successive generation. Each younger generation is significantly less likely to be Protestant. A typical decline is six or seven percentage points from one generation to the next. For Catholicism, the drop is still there but it’s way more modest, just 2-3 points per generation.
At the same time, the nones are just exploding. Nineteen percent among the Silents, begets 27% among Boomers, 39% among Gen X, 49% among Millennials, and then 52% among Generation Z. 19% to 52% - that’s the rise of the nones among white Americans by generation.
That same stair-step down is also clear among Black respondents, too. The share of Protestants among Silent Generation African-Americans is the highest of any category in this graph - 70%. There are still a lot of Protestants among Black Boomers, too - 67%. But then, it just falls off a cliff. Fifty-two percent among Gen X, 40% among Millennials and just 27% among Gen Z African-Americans. A forty-three point drop from the top to the bottom.
At the same time, the nones are rising. It’s about a quarter of older Black respondents, but leaps to nearly forty percent of Black members of Generation X. That seems to be the biggest leap for African-Americans, by the way, between Boomers and Gen X. Something shifted there, big time. Now, 52% of the youngest Black adult Americans are nones. Basically the same share as white Gen Z.
For Hispanics, it’s not Protestants who take the biggest hits - it’s Catholics. I think this is fascinating. Among Hispanic Boomers, 21% are Protestant. It’s the same share among Gen X. It does drop slightly to 15% among Millennials and Gen Z. But that six point slide is minute compared to the forty point drop between Black Boomers and Gen Z. That same number for whites is 22 points. Hispanic Protestantism is just not declining that fast.
The Catholics, though, are a much bigger story. Nearly three quarters of the oldest Hispanics in the United States are Catholic (72%). However, there’s a huge decline between the Silent Generation and Boomers - down nineteen percentage points. Then, the declines slow down some. It’s a six point drop for Gen X, a five point drop for Millennials, and then a huge dip - 11 points for Gen Z. The total decline in Hispanic Catholic share is 41 points from the top to the bottom.
The nones are the big gainers among Hispanics, clearly. Just 23% of Boomer Hispanics are non-religious. It’s 30% among Gen X and 40% among Millennials. Nearly half of Gen Z Hispanics are non-religious. Not that much different than white or Black young adults.
The pattern for Asians is just completely different, no other way to describe it. The share of Asians who are Protestant or Catholic by generation doesn’t really deviate that much. I think it’s very fair to say that younger Asian Americans are just as likely to be Catholic or Protestant compared to their older counterparts. That’s the only racial group where that’s the case.
In fact, there are just not these huge generational differences between older Asians and younger ones when it comes to religion. About the same share are from the “other world religions” category, regardless of generation. When it comes to the share who are nones, I can’t definitively say that the youngest Asians are more likely to be atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular compared to older Asians. That really stands out in comparison to every other racial group in the sample.
However, I wanted to take an even closer look at the religious distribution by race and generation. Are there more young Black Muslims? Do young Asians have a higher concentration of Buddhists? What percentage of Generation Z are Latter-day Saints? What follows is four graphs that explore this with way more granularity than the prior analysis.
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