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One overlooked factor in the American religious landscape fertility rates
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When it comes to understanding the changing landscape of American religious life, the impact of fertility cannot be underestimated. - photo by JJ Feinauer
Arguably the most pervasive takeaway of The Pew Research Center's recent report on the religious landscape of America is that Christianity in America is on the decline, and religion itself may be falling out of fashion.

"A dramatic rise in the number of spiritually 'unaffiliated' Americans, mirroring a decline in the number of American Christians, has occurred in the past seven years," Mark Kellner of the Deseret News wrote of the study's findings.

As Kellner points out, these trends mark "significant changes for mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church." The future of America, it seems, looks increasingly secular.

"Today one of the largest categories of religious affiliation in the worldwith more than a billion peopleis no religion at all," Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennet wrote in The Wall Street Journal in reaction to the study. "If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West."

But there is one important factor when considering the shifting religious makeup that changes the story, at least a little bit: Fertility rates.

"Unaffiliateds gain ground in the conversion only model of religious churn, but they wind up below their current share of the population when fertility is taken into account," FiveThirtyEight's Leah Libresco wrote Tuesday.

As Libresco further explained, "A new member of your church doesnt just increase your faiths relative share of todays population, he or she changes what share of America your church will represent tomorrow."

When a certain category also has a low fertility rate, as the unaffiliated do (Libresco points out that the "unaffiliated" birth rate is "below replacement" at 1.7 children per woman) it counterbalances the gains made or lost through conversion.

The most striking example of the difference fertility rates make, according to Libresco, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which also owns this publication).

As Libresco's data analysis shows, without considering fertility rates, the LDS Church's growth projections are essentially stagnant. But the average Mormon family has 3.4 children the most of any of the surveyed groups. Muslims also see a large uptick in growth when fertility is considered.

But that doesn't change the fact that Pew's data still represents an important shift in the American religious landscape. While fertility rates among certain religious groups are high enough to counteract the shrinking number of converts, especially in Christianity, fertility rates are still less than they used to be.

Which is why trying to guess if America truly is on the fast track to becoming a predominantly secular nation remains a difficult question to answer, one that may require as much prophecy as prediction.