Eliza Campbell had spent her entire life as an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
She was born in Utah, a state where the majority of residents belong to the church, and attended Brigham Young University, a private institution owned and operated by the church.
“It’s part of your whole professional network, your whole emotional community,” she said. “Basically, it touches every facet of your life.
Then, two years ago, after nearly three decades, Campbell left the church.
She is one of a growing number of Americans who were raised in the Christian faith but are disaffiliating from the religion.
America’s Christian majority faces steep declines
Christianity remains the majority religion in the United States, as it has been since the founding of the country, but it is in decline.
A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that America’s Christian majority has been shrinking for years, and if recent trends continue, Christians could make up less than half of America’s population within decades.
The study found that Christians made up around 90% of the population 50 years ago, but by 2020 that figure had dropped to around 64%.
“If recent trends in change [changing one’s religious affiliation] we projected that Christians could make up between 35% and 46% of the US population in 2070,” said Stephanie Kramer, the lead researcher who led the study.
The study modeled four scenarios for how religious affiliation might change, and in all cases found a sharp decline in Christianity.
Although the study does not address the question of why Christians are disassociating themselves with their religion, Kramer said there are some theories that could help explain this phenomenon.
“Some scholars say that the secularization of societies is just an inevitable consequence of development. Once there are strong secular institutions, once people’s basic needs are met, there is less need for religion” , said Kramer.
“Other people point out that affiliation really started to drop in the 90s. And it might not be a coincidence that it coincides with the rise of the religious right and more associations between Christianity and conservative political ideology.”
For Campbell, the conflict between the teachings of his faith and his own personal identity and values were central to his decision to leave.
“For me, in particular, when I started coming out as queer, it became impossible for me to reconcile this church that was basically admitting that they wanted kids like me dead or suicidal,” she said. “I decided that I had to choose myself and my well-being.”
Those “without religious affiliation” could become the majority
Along with the downward trend in the number of Christians in the United States, the Pew study also found that the percentage of people who identify as “not affiliated with any religion” is increasing and may one day become the majority.
“That’s where the majority of the movement is headed,” Kramer said. “We don’t see many people leaving Christianity for a non-Christian religion.”
Importantly, Kramer said, “without religious affiliation” is not synonymous with atheist, as the term also includes those who identify as “agnostic”, “spiritual” or “nothing in particular”.
In the four scenarios modeled by Pew, Americans who were not affiliated with any religion were expected to approach or outnumber Christians by 2070. At the same time, the percentage of those who followed other religions was expected to double.
“It’s almost what I expected,” Stanford University student Hasan Tauha said of the growing number of people with no religious affiliation in the United States.
“I don’t think it’s surprising. I think it’s a product of modern conveniences. I think when life is good, when it’s better, you know, religion just isn’t as important. “
Tauha was not raised a Christian. He has spent most of his life as a devout Muslim but decided four years ago to leave his religion and now identifies as an atheist.
Like Campbell, Tauha’s process of turning away from her faith was not just a matter of changing her beliefs; it involved disconnecting from the religious community in which he had been involved all his life.
“The process of letting go of faith, for me, was kind of torture,” he said. “[But] I look back on my experience and letting go of faith as generally productive and positive. In fact, I would say it remains the formative experience of my life. [and] gave me a new sense of direction. So I look back on it with emotion.”