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Religious identification: How American adults view themselves

2001 to 2011: Switching faiths. Interfaith marriages.
Retaining the young. Gender. Political affiliation.
Geographical distribution.

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This topic is a continuation from a previous essay.

People who have switched denominations or religion:

The 2008 ARIS survey asked the subjects whether they had changed their religious identification during their lifetime. Some results:

bulletAbout 16% of adults have changed their identification.
bullet For most of them, the change was abandoning all religion.
bulletBaptists picked up the largest number of any religion: 4.4 million. But they also lost 4.6 million.
bulletRoman Catholics lost the greatest number, 9.5 million. However, they also picked up 4.3 million.

The pollsters commented:

"Some groups such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses appear to attract a large number of converts (in-switchers), but also nearly as large a number of apostates (out-switchers). It is also interesting to note that Buddhists also fall into this category of what one might call high-turnover religious groups." 1

Inter-faith marriages:

The survey found that 22% of couples reported that they identified with different faith groups. Defining the term "couple" broadly to include both married and living together partners, some 28 million adults live in a mixed religion household. Percentages range from a high of 42% for Episcopalian to a low of 12% for Mormons. Adults for whom over 30% live in a mixed-faith home include Buddhists, Non-denominational and Jehovah's Witnesses. Adults for whom fewer than 20% live in mixed-faith homes are Baptist, Churches of Christ, Assemblies of God, and Church of God.

One problem with these data is that a couple consisting of, say, a Southern Baptist and United Church of Christ member would be considered as being of the same religion, and not in a inter-faith relationship. Yet the theological and social beliefs of the two might well be as different as between a Methodist and Muslim spouse. 1

Retaining the young:

It is common for young adults to drift away from the faith group of their youth. Some never return. The large liberal and mainline Christian denominations seem to lose large numbers in this way. Only between 10 and 12% of those identifying with the Congregational, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and United Church denominations are between the ages of 18 and 29. Islam and Buddhism appear to fare the best in this area; 56 and 58% of persons identifying with these religions are in this age group. 1

Gender differences:

The ratio of females to males who identify with different faith groups varies over a wide ratio. Only 38 or 39% of Seventh-Day Adventists, Buddhists, and Muslims are women; 55% or more of the persons identifying with the Episcopalian, Methodist, Pentecostal, or Presbyterian denominations are female. 1

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Political affiliation:

Adults identifying with a specific faith group are almost evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. But those who do not identify with a religion are 43% Independent, 39% Democrat, and 17% Republican.

59% of Assemblies of God followers prefer the Republican party; only 13% of religious Jews and 9% of Buddhists agree.  56% of Jews prefer the Democratic party; only 14% of Mormons and 12% of those who identify themselves simply a Evangelical or Born-again agree. 2

Geographical distribution of faith groups:

Over 40% of adults in many Northeastern states identify with the Roman Catholic Church: Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Vermont. Baptists number over 40% in Southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Those who identify with "no religion" are in the majority in some Northwestern states, including Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. 1,3

A Barna survey titled "Markets 2011 and States 2011" involved interviewes by 39,423 adults. Two reports from this survey discuss the percentage of residents in various cities within the contiguous U.S. states who are either Christian or are skeptic -- defined by Barna as being either Atheist or Agnostic. They found:

"The cities (measured in the Barna research as media markets) with the highest proportion of residents who describe themselves as Christian are typically in the South, including: Shreveport (98%), Birmingham (96%), Charlotte (96%), Nashville (95%), Greenville, SC / Asheville, NC (94%), New Orleans (94%), Indianapolis (93%), Lexington (93%), Roanoke-Lynchburg (93%), Little Rock (92%), and Memphis (92%)."

"The lowest share of self-identified Christians inhabited the following markets: San Francisco (68%), Portland, OR (71%), Portland, ME (72%), Seattle (73%), Sacramento (73%), New York (73%), San Diego (75%), Los Angeles (75%), Boston (76%), Phoenix (78%), Miami (78%), Las Vegas (78%), and Denver (78%).

An interesting difference is the markets that tend toward skepticism about religion in general – including Portland, ME (19% of the population identify as being atheist or agnostic), Seattle (19%), Portland, Oregon (16%), Sacramento (16%), and Spokane (16%) – as compared to markets that have a high proportion of faiths other than Christianity represented – including New York (12%), San Francisco (11%), West Palm Beach (10%), Baltimore (8%), Denver (8%), Los Angeles (8%), Portland, Oregon (8%), and Miami (8%). 3,4

Graphical state-by-state display of ARIS data:

USA Today has a very informative graphic of religious affiliation across the U.S. See: http://www.usatoday.com/

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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. Barry A. Kosmin, et al., "American Religious Identification Survey 2008," Trinity College, 2008-DEC-19, at: http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read them. Software can be obtained free from: 
  2. "Exhibit 14: Political party preference by selected religious groups, 2001" at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/
  3. "Barna Report: Markets 2011 and States 2011." Barna Group, at: http://www.barna.org/
  4. "New Barna Report Examines Diversity of Faith in Various U.S. Cities," Barna Group, 2010-OCT-11, at: http://www.barna.org/

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Copyright © 2001 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-DEC-15
Latest update: 2012-DEC-04
Author: B.A. Robinson 

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