How American adults view themselves
Is the U.S. losing its Protestant majority?
leave. About religious data.
The U.S. losing its Protestant
Prior to 1492 CE, the entire population of what
was to become the United States of America and Canada followed
about 500 forms of
Native American Spirituality. With the influx of
immigrants from Europe and the genocide of the native population, the U.S.
became predominately Protestant Christian by the time of the Revolutionary
War. The percentage of Protestants in the U.S. has been diluted because of:
||Immigration from Roman Catholic countries,
||More recent immigration from the Middle East and Asia, and
The rise in numbers of Agnostics, Atheists,
Humanists and other non-theists.
From 1972 to 1993, the General Social
Survey of the National Opinion Research Center found that
Protestants constituted about 63% of the population. This declined to 52% in 2002.
Protestants are believed to have slipped to a minority position sometime between 2004 and
2006 for the first time since the year 1776. 1
were defined as Protestant if they said they were members of a Protestant
denomination, such as Episcopal Church or Southern Baptist Convention. The
category included members of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints and members of independent Protestant churches."
However, the data may be deceiving. Some subjects simply reported themselves
as "Christians" and were not counted as Protestants since they were
not affiliated with a Protestant denomination. 2
About people who walk away from organized religion:
Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology at the
University of Washington and a co-author of "Acts of Faith: Explaining the
Human Side of Religion" commented:
"People who believe in God ' and
they do ' who pray ' and they do ' are not secular, they are just unchurched.
They've never been to church and, in many cases, their parents didn't go
Mark Galli, managing editor of the Evangelical magazine
Christianity Today, said:
"It's a clich' now to call institutional
religion 'oppressive, patriarchal, out of date and out of touch.' So
what else is new? I feel sorry for those people who don't think there's
anything greater than themselves. It must feel like a lonely and
frightening world for them. Lone-ranger spirituality is not conducive to
taking us to the depths God designed us to go. It leaves out the
communal dimension of faith. If you leave out the irritations,
frustrations and joy that community entails, you miss something about
About religious data:
Reliable religious information is hard to come by.
||Some religions count every person that has been baptized into the
denomination as a member. Many individuals change their religion later in
life and thus may be double or triple-counted.
Other religions have no accurate accounting system. For example,
Wiccans and other
Neopagans are almost completely decentralized; probably half are
solitary practitioners who do not belong to a coven.
Estimates of their
total number in the U.S. vary over a 20:1 ratio.
Some religions, like Christian Science and
the Church of Satan have a
policy of not releasing membership statistics to the public.
||Some faith groups count only confirmed, baptized or initiated members;
others count total adherents. Some count only adults; others include
There is an enormous range of estimates of the number of Muslims in
the U.S. The ARIS study in 2001, described below, estimates "a national
total population, including children, of up to 2.8 million." However,
the Council on American-Islamic Relations states that "There are an
estimated 7 million Muslims in America."
Many U.S. sources of religious information include the major religions
-- Christianity, Islam, Judaism -- and many of their denominations or
sub-divisions. But they often ignore what might be called "underground"
religions. These are religions that often keep a very low profile to avoid
conflict attacks from an uninformed public -- religions like
Vodun, and Wicca.
Many sources also ignore an amorphous group who may variously describe
themselves as Agnostics, Atheists, Ethical Culturalists, Freethinkers,
Humanists, or Secularists. In addition, there are also the "none
of the aboves" -- individuals who may believe in God and may
follow the Golden Rule, but regard themselves
as not being part of any organized religious group.
Although the Canadian census does collect religious information from its
citizens, the U.S. decennial census does not. Fortunately, the
The Graduate Center of the City University
of New York has conducted two major surveys in recent years which fill in
many of the gaps.
About the ARIS surveys:
The Graduate Center conducted a National
Survey of Religious Identification
in 1990. It questioned 113,723 individuals about how they viewed
themselves religiously. A similar American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)
was conducted in 2001-FEB to APR. The latter included telephone interviews
of 50,281 persons who were 18 years of age or older. Phone calls were
limited to residential households from the contiguous 48 states. Often, data was
obtained for two spouses or partners in the home. For a
reason that is unclear, Hawaii and Alaska were left out of the survey.
Additional questions were added, about religious beliefs, affiliation and
change. Although ARIS involves less than half the number of subjects
than NSRI, it is still very accurate; ARIS's margin of error is
'0.3 percentage points for the main questions. Additional questions were asked at
a smaller sample of 17,000 households; the margin of error for those
questions is '0.77%. The U.S. census relies on the Aris study when it reports on
religious makeup of the country. 3
There are some concerns about this, and any other, telephone survey:
The accuracy of data for "underground" religious groups is
suspect. Many followers of Wicca, Druidism, other Neopagan traditions,
Santeria, Vodun and similar faith groups are reluctant to reveal their
religious faith to a stranger over the telephone. Many of the public fear
them because of the high levels of misinformation spread about their
religions. They in turn fear attacks, loss of job or loss of accommodation
if they are open about their religion.
||A large number of persons declined to reveal their religion. This rose
from 2.3% in 1990 to 5.4% in 2001.
Many subjects gave their religion simply as "Christian," "Protestant,"
"Evangelical," or "Born-again." This lowers the accuracy of
data for individual Christian denominations.
Cultural and ethnic groups:
Hispanics consist of the largest minority group in the U.S.
Although many assume that they are overwhelmingly Roman
Catholic, their religious identification is quite diverse: 57% Roman
Catholic, 22% Protestant, 5% other religion; 12% no organized religion.
Jews in America consist of about 5.3 million adults: 53%
followers of Judaism, 26% of other religions, and 20% of no organized
Native Americans consist of 20% Baptist, 17% Roman Catholic, 17% of no
organized religion, 3% tribal religion. 5
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"Study finds number of Protestants is falling," Houston
Chronicle, 2004-JUL-21. Posted on the Free Republic bulletin board at: http://www.freerepublic.com/
"Poll: Protestant majority in U.S. eroding. Dropped from 63 percent to
52 percent in a decade," The Associated Press, 2004-JUL-20, at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/
"#79: Self-described religious identification of adult
population: 1990 and 2001," Section 1 Population, U.S. Census Bureau, at: http://www.census.gov/ **
"Religion and Identity: Hispanics and Jews," at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/ ** http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/religion_identity.htm
"Religion and Ethnicity," http://www.gc.cuny.edu/ **
** These are PDF files. You may require software to read them. Software can be
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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