The number of people who consider themselves Christian continues to fall around the U.S., including in the West.
The non-partisan think tank Pew Research Center recently found that those in the U.S. who identify as Christian fell 12% in the last decade to 65%. And in the Western U.S., it fell 9 points to 60%.
The center didn’t break down the data by state, but report author Gregory Smith did highlight national trends, like a small but significant increase in people practicing non-Christian faiths across the country.
“Today, about 7 percent of U.S. adults identify with Judaism, Islam, Budhism or Hunduism or another non-Christian faith,” he said.
In the West, that number increased one point to 8%.
Paul Flesher, a religious studies professor at the University of Wyoming, noted that before this research, the West had the largest percentage of non-Christian residents. Now, it’s only slightly behind the Northeast, where the number of self-identified Christians is about 59%.
Flesher said for small communities in the Mountain West, this number may be bolstered by a lack of religious diversity.
“Part of this may be the lack of religious choice. Not that these communities have no church, but that they don’t have multiple churches, they have only one,” he said, noting that many evangelical churches are closely tied to the Republican Party, which some residents may not be wholly in line with.
He said that leaves a decision of either saying you’re a member of that one church or not really participating in organized religion.
However, he said he’s also concerned about the decline of religion, which has historically been a community-building center for rural towns.
“One of the things I wondered about in my earlier career ... was, to what extent can you have social cohesion without religion?” he said.
He suspected religion wasn’t necessary, but “what I think I’m seeing is that that hypothesis didn’t work.”
Local communities haven’t really found other places to build cohesion, he said, pointing to social media and politics’ tendency of pushing people apart.
“I’m not actually very optimistic at the moment and I’m generally a very optimistic person,” he said. “I think we will come through it, but I don’t see it at the moment.”
Smith with Pew also said a decline in religion prompts interesting questions, like what will happen with community engagement championed by churches, like charitable giving and volunteering.
“What do these religious changes protend for all those other important elements to American civic life? And I don’t think we have the answers to those questions yet, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on,” Smith said.
For states around the region, the Pew Research Center has shown similar trends away from religious affiliation and general belief in God in the past. Here as some key state statistics from Pew’s research spanning 2007 to 2014:
Idaho - The number of people here who said they don’t believe in God more than doubled from 5% to 11%.
Nevada - The number of people here who said they don’t believe in God doubled from 6% to 12%.
Utah - The number of people here who are at least fairly certain they believe in God fell from 93% to 80%.
Coloradio - The number of people here who are at least fairly certain they believe in God fell from 84% to 78%.
Wyoming - Pew Research found in 2014 that Wyoming has one of the region’s highest levels of people who either don’t believe in God or aren’t certain at 13%, tying with California. However, it’s challenging to find a representative group in the sparsely-populated state.
Montana - The number of people here who said they don’t believe in God doubled from 4% to 8%.
Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8
Copyright 2019 Boise State Public Radio
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.