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Religious identification: How American adults view themselves

Quotations.
ARIS polls of 2001 & 2008.

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A parallel report for Canada is located elsewhere

Quotations:

bullet"The proportion of the [American] population that can be classified as Christian has declined from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001." ARIS Study, 2001. 1 (It reached 76.0% in 2008)
 
bulletThe 2008 findings confirm the conclusions we came to in our earlier studies that Americans are slowly becoming less Christian and that in recent decades the challenge to Christianity in American society does not come from other world religions or new religious movements (NRMs) but rather from a rejection of all organized religions." ARIS Study, 2008. 2
 
bullet"'We the people' of the United States now form the most profusely religious nation on earth." Diana Eck. 3
 
bullet "We are also among the most diverse and the most changing. Often lost amidst the mesmerizing tapestry of faith groups that comprise the American population is also a vast and growing population of those without faith. They adhere to no creed nor choose to affiliate with any religious community. These are the seculars, the unchurched, the people who profess no faith in any religion." ARIS 4
 
bulletGeorge Barna of The Barna Group:
 
bullet"There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions." George Barna. 5
 
bullet "...evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994....less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria." (N = 1003; margin of error = '3.2%). 6 (It is important to note that Barna use a very restrictive and atypical definition of "evangelical.")

bullet"...the number of Protestants soon will slip below 50 percent of the nation's population." National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey, 2004.

Polling data from the 2001 ARIS study:

More recent data is shown below.

The "American Religious Identification Survey 2001," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York followed up their earlier study done in 1990: the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI). The 2001 survey sampled 50,281 American adults by telephone among the contiguous 48 states between 2001-FEB to JUN.

bullet81% of American adults identify themselves with a specific religion:
 
bullet76.5% (159 million) of Americans identify themselves as Christian. This is a major slide from 86.2% in 1990. Identification with Christianity has suffered a loss of 9.7 percentage points in 11 years -- about 0.9 percentage points per year. This decline is identical to that observed in Canada between 1981 and 2001.
 
bullet52% of Americans identified themselves as Protestant.
 
bullet24.5% are Roman Catholic.
 
bullet1.3% are Jewish.
 
bullet 0.5% are Muslim, followers of Islam. This deviates greatly from estimates by Muslim groups in the U.S. who typically estimate that the number of practicing Muslim adults is about 6 million. Muslims, like Wiccans and other Neopagans, may under-report their religion in the ARIS study out of fear.
 
bulletThe fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- a Neopagan religion that is sometimes referred to as Witchcraft. Numbers of adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months. 7,8 Wiccans in Australia have a very similar growth pattern, from fewer than 2,000 in 1996 to 9,000 in 2001. 2 In Canada, Wiccans and other Neopagans showed the greatest percentage growth of any faith group. They totaled 21,080 members in 1991, an increase of 281% from 1990.
 
bullet14.1% do not follow any organized religion. This is an unusually rapid increase -- almost a doubling -- from only 8% in 1990. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. 9
bullet

The unaffiliated vary from a low of 3% in North Dakota to 25% in Washington State. "The six states with the highest percentage of people saying they have no religion are all Western states, with the exception of Vermont at 22%." 9

A USA Today/Gallup Poll in 2002-JAN showed that almost half of American adults appear to be alienated from organized religion. If current trends continue, most adults will not call themselves religious within a few years. Results include:

bulletAbout 50% consider themselves religious (down from 54% in 1999-DEC)
bulletAbout 33% consider themselves "spiritual but not religious" (up from 30%)
bulletAbout 10% regard themselves as neither spiritual or religious. 9

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Polling data from the 2008 ARIS study:

This study was essentially a repeat of the 2001 poll. It involved 54,461 respondents.

Between 1990 and 2008, an interval of 18 years, some of the more notable changes were.

bulletThe percentage of American adults identify themselves with a specific religion dropped from 89.5% to 79.9%:
 
bulletAmericans who identify themselves as Christian dropped from 86.2 to 76.0 -- a loss of 10.2 percentage points in 18 years -- about 0.6 percentage points per year. A similar decline was observed in Canada.
 
bulletAmericans identifying themselves as Protestant dropped from 60.0 to 50.9%.
 
bulletCatholics declined from 26.2% to 25.1%
 
bulletThe Catholic population in the Northeast fell: From 1900 to 2008, it went from 50% in New England to 36%, and from 44% to 37% in New York state. Apparently to immigration, it rose during the same interval from 29% to 37% in California, and 23% to 32% in Texas.
 
bullet Religious Jews declined from 1.8% to 1.2%.
 
bullet Muslims increased from 0.5 to 0.6%.
 
bulletThe fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- a Neopagan religion that is sometimes referred to as Witchcraft.
 
bulletFrom 1990 to 2001: Numbers of adherents went from 8,000 to 134,000. Their numbers of adherents doubled about every 30 months. 7,8 Wiccans in Australia have a very similar growth pattern, from fewer than 2,000 in 1996 to 9,000 in 2001. 11 In Canada, Wiccans and other Neopagans showed the greatest percentage growth of any faith group. They totaled 21,080 members in 1991, an increase of 281% from 1990.
 
bulletFrom 2001 to 2008: The ARIS website does not appear to have released any specific numbers. They give numbers only for New Religious Movement "NRM & Other Religions" -- a classification that includes Scientology, New Age, Eckankar, Spiritualist, Unitarian-Universalist, Deist, Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, Indian Religion, Santeria, and Rastafarian. However they state that: "Adherents of New Religious movements, including Wiccans and self-described pagans, have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s." 2 It is curious that they use the term "self-described" to refer to pagans, while they report Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. without the qualifier.

However, ReligionLink does have data available. They state:
"Specifically, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 2001 to 2008, from 134,000 to 342,000, and the same held true for neo-pagans, who went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008."

"Experts say the growth reflects not only increasing numbers of neo-pagans, but also a rise in the social acceptability of paganism. As a result, more respondents would be willing to identify themselves as followers of some pagan tradition.

bullet 15.0% (14.1%) do not follow any organized religion. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. 10

 

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_studies/aris.pdf   **
  2. Barry A. Kosmin, et al., "American Religious Identification Survey 2008," Trinity College, 2001-DEC-19, at: http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/   **
  3. Diana Eck, "A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001). "Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, delivers a stunning tour de force that may forever change the way Americans claim to be 'one nation, under God.' Drawing on her work with the Pluralism Project, an ongoing study of religious diversity in the United States, Eck focuses here on the explosion of Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities in America, particularly since 1965." Excerpt from Publishers Weekly book review. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. 18
  5. "Annual study reveals America is spiritually stagnant," Barna Research Group, Ltd., at: http://www.barna.org/
  6. "Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America's Religious Beliefs and Practices," The Barna Group, 2005-APR-11, at: http://www.barna.org/ They define the term "evangelical" very narrowly: "In addition to meeting the born again criteria (described below) evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; contending that they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; stating that Satan exists; maintaining that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not by being good or doing good deeds; asserting that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today."
  7. "American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_studies/aris.pdf   **
  8. "Survey indicates more Americans 'without faith', " American Atheists, 2002-NOV-22, at: http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/atheist4.htm
  9. Cathy Grossman, "Charting the unchurched in America," USA Today, 2002-MAR-7, at: http://www.usatoday.com/life/dcovthu.htm
  10. "American Religious Identification Survey 2008," at: http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/

** These are PDF files. You may require software to read them. Software can be obtained free from: 

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Copyright © 2001 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-DEC-15
Latest update: 2010-OCT-11
Author: B.A. Robinson 

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