Would More Immigration Slow Secularization in the United States?
Or would it just accelerate the long-term shifts in the American religious landscape?
I read Matthew Yglesias’ book recently, One Billion Americans. He makes a pretty compelling case that American exceptionalism has largely stagnated. We aren’t leading anymore. China and India are gaining influence at a rapid rate. One reason? They have a ton more people than we do.
His solution is simple. We need a lot more Americans. Like triple the size of the country from 330 million to 1 billion. He lays out some pretty interesting proposals to get there. A lot of the book is focused on making it easier to have children and raise them. Bigger tax credits for children, free childcare, etc.
But he also devotes a section in the book to the idea of growth through immigration. That’s an intriguing possibility that would not require so much domestic spending to try and prop up the domestic fertility rate.
I have literally daily interactions with the immigration system in the United States. I’m the graduate coordinator for our master’s program at Eastern Illinois University. We offer six graduate assistantships per year. Last year we had over sixty applicants for those awards. 90% of them were from students not living in the United States currently.
So, I am having lots of direct contact with students from all over the world but primarily from West Africa. We get lots and lots of applications from two countries: Ghana and Nigeria. We had more applications from the University of Ghana than from all the universities in Illinois combined last year.
One thing that definitely piques my interest when I look through these files is the names of some of the students. I have seen several *very* Christian names in just the last twelve months from applications. These students are coming from incredibly religious backgrounds.
That got me thinking: is immigration to the United States actually having any type of measurable impact on the religiosity of the country?
The Cooperative Election Study asks folks, “Which of these statements best describes you?”
I am an immigrant to the USA and a naturalized citizen.
I am an immigrant to the USA but not a citizen.
I was born in the USA but at least one of my parents is an immigrant.
My parents and I were born in the USA but at least one of my grandparents was an immigrant.
My parents, grandparents, and I were all born in the USA.
For this analysis, I collapsed the first two options, because the sample size is too small to look at them separately.
Do recent immigrants to the United States have different overall composition than folks who have been here for generations? And has that changed over time?
First let me point out that recent immigrants are a whole lot less likely to be Protestant than Third Generation Americans - 23% vs 31%. They are, however, way more likely to be Catholic: 24% vs 14%. But the really big thing that jumps out to me is just how little recent immigrants differ from the Third Generation folks when it comes to the share who are non-religious.
In 2022, 13% of recent immigrants were atheist/agnostic compared to 14% of people who have been here for generations. 23% of new immigrants were nothing in particular, compared to 27% of those who have been in the country a long time. 36% nones vs 41% nones. Not a very large difference, really.
And, also notice how every single immigration category is a whole lot more likely to be nones today than the same category in 2008.
Recent immigrants have gone from 25% to 36% none.
First generation has gone from 27% to 40% none.
Second generation has gone from 22% to 34% none.
Third generation has gone from 31% to 41% none.
At every single level, it’s a ten-to-thirteen-point bump in nones. It’s not just the folks who have not been here forever who are leaving religion behind, it’s literally everyone, regardless of immigration status.
But, I wanted to give you all some nuance about the type of religion that immigrants ascribe to when they come to the United States and how that has changed over time. So, this is recent immigrants in 2008 vs 2022, broken down into smaller religious groups.
Without a doubt, the biggest shift is toward Protestantism and away from Catholicism. One third of all immigrants were Catholic in 2008. That’s dropped to just 22% in 2022. At the same time, Protestants have jumped from 17% of new immigrants to 22%. The other big shift is the increase in nothing in particulars (from 14% in 2008 to 22% in 2022). There’s also been a big drop in “something else” from 15% to 6%, but I think that’s more about survey methodology than anything else.
When it comes to smaller groups like Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, there’s basically no real change to report. The percentages in 2022 differ by just a percentage point or two from those same numbers in 2008. I do have to point out that the share of new immigrants who are atheists has now doubled from 3% to 6% and the agnostic percentage has also risen noticeably (4% to 6%).
Here’s the upshot of all of this, though. If I exclude recent immigrants from the overall sample does the share of people living in the United States who have no religious affiliation actually change?
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