AUSTIN - This may still be the buckle of the Bible Belt, but a survey released this week shows that far fewer Texans claim to be Christian - or any religious affiliation, for that matter.

Seventy-six percent of Texans identified as Christian last year, down from 83 percent seven years earlier, according to the Pew Research Center’s study, "America's Changing Religious Landscape."

At the same time, 18 percent reported no religious affiliation, up from 12 percent in 2007, when the Pew center conducted a similar survey. Each study polled about 35,000 Americans.

The recent survey - which weighs in at well over 100 pages and parses an array of factors such as education and income - paints a picture of a diverse nation in transition from Catholicism and mainline Protestant denominations such as Methodist and Baptist.

Younger people are less likely to identify with once dominant denominations as Hindus, Muslims and other religious minorities gain ground statistically, albeit from a small base.

Mainline Protestants are getting older, with the average age 52 among adults. The average age of Catholics is 49.

“It doesn’t appear that millennials and post-millennials are returning to church upon having children,” said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a Rice University sociology professor who studies religion. “The mainlines are not replacing members. Those are dying denominations.”

Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas at Austin sociology professor, said attention gets heaped upon the topic of acceptance of religion among millennials - the generation born between the early '80s and early '00s.

“First, it's not about the believability of religion, or that younger people are so much more scientific today. Nonsense," he said.

Factors outside of church are forcing change, he said. Millennials spend more time connected and online. Social media elevate exposure to different ideas and different ways of identifying oneself.

"So, it's not surprising to me that the most wired group of Americans is also detaching themselves from a longstanding pattern of religious belongingness," he said. "Don't read into ‘less religious’ that they've become atheists. They've just unplugged from organized religion as they've become more plugged in to the Internet."

Younger Americans also are more willing to "own" a lack of religious connection.

“Their parents would likely have been Catholics or Protestants that didn't attend much but still identified as such,” he said. “Their kids would drop the identity part."

Changes in the religious composition of Texans follow national patterns. Now, 70.6 percent of Americans identify as Christian - down from 78.4 percent seven years earlier.

Those who are "none" - because they are atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular" - is up from 16.1 percent of the country to 22.8 percent. This group, according to the report, is now more numerous than Catholics or mainline Protestants.

“The unaffiliated are now second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S.," the study's authors wrote.

The withering of mainline Protestantism isn't new, Regnerus said, as churches compete for people's time and attention but without enough "attractive theology or boundaries or requirements."

“It’s liberal humanism at prayer, and most American liberal humanists figure they really don't need to be in church to be what they already are. So, the numbers shrink," he said.

Meanwhile, the proportion of evangelical Protestants declined at a much more modest rate, about 1 percent over the seven-year period.

Americans identifying with non-Christian faiths rose, from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent, particularly among Muslims and Hindus.

Those changes - driven in part by immigration - have implications beyond houses of worship, said Ecklund, the sociologist at Rice.

“On the weekend I can choose to go to my church. But when I go into the workplace, I have no choice," she said. "The biggest thing migration brings is the changing face of religion. You’re going to have to work with Hindus. You have your Christians having to deal with your mosque around the corner.”

Trends away from mainstream religion have accelerated since the 1960s, said David Williamson, a University of North Texas sociology professor.

Changes in practice and preference relate to broader social phenomenon, he said, many involving individuals and groups that were once marginalized and now find acceptance. He noted various "emancipation" movements - for civil rights, women’s liberation, LGBT rights and atheists.

"The larger river flowing through society has been what I think of as universal emancipation. There has been a progressive throwing off of authority – or at least authority that is not of one’s own choosing," he said.

David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, also describes social trends tied to demographics, technology and worship style that are moving people away from the religious mainstream. Mixing with those influences are greater skepticism and people more aware of each other's differences "on a global scale," he said.

Americans' religious choices are also affected by rising levels of education - a change set into motion decades ago.

“Boomers, they went off to school. It breaks your social bonds to your immediate family and neighborhood,” said Roozen, who is also a professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

“For those that are living where they grew up, it’s very hard not to follow the religious trajectory set by your parents. In a small town, it’s probably hard to become anything but a Baptist. In Salt Lake City, it’s very hard for a Mormon to become anything else," he said.

College education, however, leads people to more analytical thinking about everything - including religion.

"Higher education is going to expose you to a broader awareness of the world and diversity," he said.

Still, things change even in towns such as Rio Vista, population 873, in Johnson County, south of Fort Worth.

A symbol of that change is the old Methodist church in the heart of town.

The white-frame church, which looks like something you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting, has been unused for four or five years, said Shannon Clewis. She and her family own the Mustang Creek Feed & Supply Store, a stone’s throw from the old church.

The local Baptist church, on the other hand, is “huge," she said.

That's maybe not surprising given that nearly one-third of adult Texans identify themselves as evangelical Protestants - a classification that includes Southern Baptists, according to the Pew study.

The area’s cowboy churches - another evangelical ministry - also draw a lot of her neighbors.

As for the old Rio Vista United Methodist building?

“It just sits there,” she said. “It’s sad."

John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Texas newspapers. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com.

Texas Religious Affiliations

Affiliation 2007 2014
Evangelical Protestant 34% 31%
Mainline Protestant 15% 13%
Historically black Protestant 8% 6%
Unaffiliated 12% 18%
Changing U.S. Religious Landscape
Estimated Number of Christians Declines

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