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Religious identification: How American adults view themselves

Is the U.S. losing its Protestant majority?
Those who leave. About religious data.
Ethnic groups

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The U.S. losing its Protestant majority?:

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:

bullet Immigration from Roman Catholic countries,
bullet More recent immigration from the Middle East and Asia, and
bullet 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

"Respondents 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 either."


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"It's a clich' now to call institutional religion 'oppressive, patriarchal, out of date and out of touch.'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 God."

About religious data:

Reliable religious information is hard to come by.

bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet Some religions, like Christian Science and the Church of Satan have a policy of not releasing membership statistics to the public.
bullet Some faith groups count only confirmed, baptized or initiated members; others count total adherents. Some count only adults; others include children.
bullet 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."
bullet 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 Santeria, Vodun, and Wicca.
bullet 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.

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About the ARIS surveys:

The Graduate Center conducted a National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) 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:

bullet 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.
bullet A large number of persons declined to reveal their religion. This rose from 2.3% in 1990 to 5.4% in 2001.
bullet 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:

bullet 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. 4
bullet Jews in America consist of about 5.3 million adults: 53% followers of Judaism, 26% of other religions, and 20% of no organized religion. 4
bullet Native Americans consist of 20% Baptist, 17% Roman Catholic, 17% of no organized religion, 3% tribal religion. 5

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References used:

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

  1. "Study finds number of Protestants is falling," Houston Chronicle, 2004-JUL-21. Posted on the Free Republic bulletin board at:
  2. "Poll: Protestant majority in U.S. eroding. Dropped from 63 percent to 52 percent in a decade," The Associated Press, 2004-JUL-20, at:
  3. "#79: Self-described religious identification of adult population: 1990 and 2001," Section 1 Population, U.S. Census Bureau, at:  **
  4. "Religion and Identity: Hispanics and Jews," at: **
  5. "Religion and Ethnicity," **

** 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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