Secularism, Fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The USA in 2043!

Secularism, Fundamentalism or Catholicism? The Religious Composition of the United States in 2043. by Vegard Skirbekk, Eric Kaufmann, and Ann Goujon Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2010) 49(2): 293-310.

The US Census Bureau makes population projections by race to 2050; they predict that non-whites will be a majority by 2042. Since the census does not contain a religion question, several social scientists associated with the World Population Program in London, England have combined census projections with recent immigration and General Social Survey (GSS) data to make sophisticated demographic projections for the largest religious groupings in 2043.

The Recent Databases

These particular projections take into account total fertility rate (TFR), age structure, religious transmission, and religious switching data from the combined 2000-2006 GSS surveys (12,674 people). These surveys show Fundamentalist Protestants (19.5%) and non-Hispanic Catholics (18.7%) had replacement level 2.1 TFRs. Hispanic Catholics (9.6%) had a 2.8 TFR and Black Protestants (9.8%) had a 2.4 TFR; both are above replacement level. By way of contrast, moderate Protestants (8.9%) had a 2.0 TFR and liberal Protestants (8.8%) had 1.8 TFR; these are below replacement level. Religious attrition and switching data are computed from questions about religion at age 16 and current religion.

The immigration data is from 2003-2006. Religion of immigrants was estimated from averages based on country from which they emigrated. Illegal immigration was not estimated, but the authors note that a substantial amount of legal immigration consists of persons granted amnesty. Catholic Hispanics are 35% of immigrants, and non-Hispanic Catholics are 10% of immigrants. Fundamentalist Protestant immigrants (5%) are estimated to be less than Muslims (8%), Hindu/Buddhists (10%) and Nones (16%).

The 2043 Projections

If fertility, immigration, transmission and switching rates remain the same until 2043, Hispanic Catholics will rise to 18% of the population, surpassing both declining Fundamentalist Protestants (17%) and non-Hispanic Catholics (15%.).

Fundamentalist Protestants will decline as a percentage of the population despite their favorable birthrates, retention rates and conversion rates. Increasing deaths among their graying population will partially offset these advantages. Although total numbers will increase, they will not increase as much as the Hispanic Catholics who are favored by birthrates, immigration, age structure, and high retention rates.

The growing numbers of Hispanic Catholics will increase the total Catholic population from 28 to only 32 percent because of the declining numbers of non-Hispanic Catholics due to both their age structure and poor retention rates.

However total Protestants will decrease from 47 to 39 percent. This will occur because of the lower birth rates and retention rates among liberal Protestants, and far fewer immigrants and an unfavorable age structure among all Protestants.

Catholic and Protestant numbers and percentages will begin to converge even though conversion trends favor Protestants against non-Hispanic Catholics. In fact without many non-Hispanic Catholics leaving for Protestantism and the Religious Nones, Catholicism would actually overtake Protestantism by 2043! Even with all these non-Hispanic Catholics leaving, by 2043 younger cohorts of Catholics will outnumber younger Protestants. If these trends continue, Catholicism will overtake Protestantism sometime in the second half of the 21st century!

The Religious Nones are projected to remain at about the same percentage, rising slightly from 16% to 17% , reaching a peak in 2033 and then declining slightly in percentage but not in actual numbers. The surprising news is that they will overtake the declining Fundamentalist Protestants! Why? Because they will continue to benefit from switching, even more than the Fundamentalists. Mostly Nones will benefit from their relative youth since fewer will die. Also, they will benefit some from immigration. But secularism (even the “non-denomination” variety characteristic of Religious Nones) is not the future. The Nones have only a 1.7 TFR – they do not have many children. While they gain many from other traditions, they also poor at retaining people, They and their children often become members of denominations. And, of course, they will have an aging structure as time goes on.

Jews have an even lower TFR (1.43) than Nones and are the only group projected to decline in absolute numbers. Other religions are projected to grow from 6 to 11 percent of the population, mostly through immigration and high birth rates (e.g. Muslims have a 2.84 TFR).

Authors’ Comments

Based upon all these projections the authors suggest that the Democratic party will increasing be favored in the coming decades. However, they also suggest that Hispanics resemble white working class Democrats and will drive the Democratic party back to a more conservative past.

The authors argue that religious polarization will continue to increase between fundamentalists and secularists among the White elite. However, these will continue to fight past culture wars among a White population shrinking into minority status.

This Reviewer’s Comments

This article provides a useful complement and foil to American Grace (AG), reviewed in a previous post. This article’s sophisticated demographic model of the future emphasizing birth rates, immigration, and age structure are a good balance to keep in mind when reading American Grace’s equally complex model emphasizing the cultural and political forces at work during the last half century. Both models have a similar emphasis upon age cohort data and cohort effects as a means of understanding change.

American Grace’s important chapters on ethnicity and religion become much more salient when read in light of this article’s predictions. Religion, race and ethnicity have been strongly linked historically and geographically in America; “most churchgoer’s attend ethnically or racially homogeneous congregations (AG).” Chapter 9 of AG makes the persuasive case that Black Protestants are in many ways more religiously conservative than Evangelical Protestants yet vote Democratic and have many of the social programs typical of mainstream Protestants. Similarly Hispanics, whether Catholic or Evangelical are more religious than their Anglo counterparts. Ethnicity is a powerful factor in religious retention. “The comparatively low rate of retention among Catholics reflects the dissolving of Catholicism’s ethnic roots (AG).”

American Catholicism in the first half of the twentieth century could be seen as strongly ethnic congregations held together by a Roman “ethnicity” of Latin language and ethnic like practices (e.g. Friday fast) and an Irish clerical leadership that interfaced with the WASP culture. All that ethnic glue was coming apart long before Vatican II. Much of the inability of both mainline Protestant as well as Catholic congregations to maintain their membership can be seen as a decline of ethnic congregations as people moved out into middle class suburbs.

Some Suggestions for Discussion

American Grace gives vignettes of two Hispanic parishes. One in a very Latino neighborhood has a heavily subsidized school, a community activist pastor, personal counseling programs, and a strongly inculturated Mass. Yet the pastor remarks that Mexican Catholics “don’t have the concept of being a parishioner, or a member of a particular Church.” This works both ways since some Latinos commute long distances to this parish after they move to more affluent places. Another parish is composed of two communities. The much smaller Anglo has separate Masses and runs most of the parish activities since they have the time and talent. The much larger Latino has a very vibrant ethnic Mass. There is little friction but also little integration. Commentators might like to add their own vignettes to these.

How will the growing Latino presence influence Catholic liturgy and our common culture, such as the celebration of Advent and Christmas? One Catholic website already trumpets Guadalupe as the Stateside church’s Biggest Night. Another website claims to cover religion in an unbiased manner (perhaps that means they don’t pay attention to polls). They do not include Guadalupe on their Religion Editor’s calendar even though they have American Atheists with Winter Solstice! Keeping track of Guadalupe celebrations over time could be an interesting barometer of Latino influence on both Catholicism and our country.

The reviewer, Jack Rakosky, has an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology, and spent twenty years in applied research and program evaluation in the public mental health system. His current interests are spirituality and voluntarism, especially among highly educated people at retirement age.

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