Membership of U.S. religious & spiritual groups
How many faith groups are there in the U.S.?That is an impossible question to answer. Definitions of many religious terms are ambiguous. There is no consensus on the meaning of words such as "religion," "denomination," even "Christianity."
Some people consider Christianity to be a single religion. Others say that it consists of two different religions: conservative Christianity and liberal Christianity -- two belief systems that share almost nothing in common. Some would point to the Encyclopedia of American Religions which lists 1,584 religious organizations in the U.S. and Canada, from A Candle to Zotheria; most are Christian. 1
Some people would consider Wicca to be a single religion. Circa 1950, there were two main groups within Wicca: the Gardnerians and the Alexandrians. Since then, the religion has proliferated. The members of tens or hundreds of thousands of individual covens have developed their own variations. And there are hundreds of thousands of Wiccan solitary practitioners, each of whom follows their own unique variation of Wicca.
The total number of faith groups in the U.S. cannot be calculated. The value depends upon exactly how one defines "faith group" or "religion." Perhaps we can say that every person's religion is, to somewhat, degree unique. Thus there are over 200 million religions in the U.S.
Nobody knows how many Americans follow various religions.
Two reasonably reliable sources are listed below:
Attendance at religious services
According to the ARIS survey, in the United States, 76.5% of adults identified themselves as Christians during early 2001. 2 This number is dropping almost one percentage point per year. There has also been a drop in the percentage of American adults who attend religious services regularly. It has gone from 49% in 1991 to 36% in 1996. Reduction in attendance is a worldwide phenomenon among industrialized countries. The US is believed to have the highest attendance rates; Canada has about 20%; Australia, England and the rest of Europe are 10% or less. The general trend is downwards as societies become more secular.
These numbers are almost always taken from public opinion polls, in which people are asked how often they attended church or other religious service during the previous month. Until recently, it was assumed that people tell the truth when asked this type of question. A second way of estimating these numbers is to take a small geographical area (e.g. a county) and actually count the number of attendees. This has been done in some counties in the U.S. and Canada. They show church attendance at about half the above figures. It seems that people often tell the pollsters what they think that they should be doing, not what they actually do.
Only rarely are people polled about the importance that religion plays in their life. It is simple to identify oneself as following a particular religion. But that term covers both the devout, sincere believer and the nominal adherent. One source 5 described the results of a 1993 in-depth survey of about 4,000 American adults. They concluded that:
The Barna Research Group specializes in conducting national surveys on all aspects of religion. They have detected a precipitous increase in the number of what the call the "unchurched" -- those who have not gone to a religious service during the previous six months. Special events like weddings, funerals, or holidays were not counted. 7 Comparing mid-1998 data to data collected 18 months earlier, they found:
A rise of 4 percentage points nationwide and 7 percentage points in the South may not seem that significant. But consider:
The Barna web site contains an interesting analysis of the unchurched by age, education, marital status, etc. Some of the more interesting data include:
We find these developments truly remarkable! Some factor appears to be actively driving church goers away from organized religion. And yet, this is happening at a time when Americans have an unprecedented interest in spirituality.
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