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Membership of U.S. religious & spiritual groups

Introductory information

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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. 

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Counting noses:

Nobody knows how many Americans follow various religions.

bulletData from faith groups is unreliable, because:
bulletIt is sometimes padded,
bulletIt is sometimes kept secret.
bulletDifferent groups have diverse definitions for membership.
bulletPublic opinion polls are also unreliable, because:
bulletA large percentage of subjects polled refuse to reveal their religion.
bulletMany subjects will not tell the truth; they will state that they follow a large religion because of fear; their own faith group is heavily oppressed.
bulletEven if accurate data were available, it would rapidly become inaccurate. Consider:
bulletThe percentage of adults who identify themselves as Christians is dropping almost one percentage point per year. 2
bulletPersons of no religion are increasing about a half percentage point per year. 2
bulletThe number of Wiccans is doubling approximately every 30 months. 2

Two reasonably reliable sources are listed below:

bulletIn 1997, the US Society and Values magazine published an overview of religion in the U.S., using data from the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. 3,4 They reported: 
bullet63% of Americans (163 million) state that they are actively affiliated with a faith group:
bulletRoman Catholicism is the largest single religious group (60 million; 23%).
bulletAnglicans, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches total 94 million members (36%) within 220 denominations.
bulletThere are 3.8 million religiously active Jews (1.5%) ; an additional 2 million regard themselves as cultural or ethnic Jews.
bulletEstimates of Muslims vary greatly. Some surveys show that there are about 3.5 to 3.8 million Muslims (1.4 to 1.5%) in the U.S. Most Muslim sources estimate about six or seven million.
bulletThere are over 300,000 congregations.
bulletThere are over 530,000 priests, ministers, pastors, etc.
bulletIslam is numerically the fastest growing organized religion in the U.S., in terms of numbers of adherents.
bulletThe most rapidly growing religious/spiritual/ethics grouping in the US is not an organized religion; it consists of non-believers (Atheists, Agnostics, etc.).
bulletDuring 2001-FEB to APR, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York conducted an American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). It was a massive poll, questioning 50,281 American adults about their religious affiliations during 2001-FEB to APR. 2 They obtained some results that are noticeably different from the Pluralism Project's data. The differences are mainly because they asked their poll subjects what religion they considered themselves to be, rather than what religion they were actually affiliated with. Results included:
bullet76.5% of American adults are Christian (52% Protestant; 24.5% Catholic).
bullet14.1% do not follow any organized religion; they are Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Secularists, or have no religious affiliation.
bullet1.3% are Jewish.
bullet0.5% are Muslim, followers of Islam.
bullet0.5% are Buddhist.
bullet0.4% are Hindu.
bullet0.3% are Unitarian Universalist.
bullet0.1% are Neopagan (Druids, Pagans, Wiccans, etc)
bulletThere are many more small religions, each of whom are followed by fewer than 0.1% of American adults.

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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:

bullet30% are totally secular in outlook
bullet29% are barely or nominally religious
bullet22% are modestly religious
bullet19% regularly practice their religion.

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The "unchurched"

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:

Group 1997-JAN 1998-JUL
All adults 27% 31% (60 to 65 million)
Southern states 19% 26%
Northeast 34% 39%
Midwest 26% 26%
Western states 34% 38%

A rise of 4 percentage points nationwide and 7 percentage points in the South may not seem that significant. But consider:

bulletThis change happen over a period of only 18 months.
bulletThe number of unchurched is now greater than the number of persons identifying with the largest single faith group: the Roman Catholic Church.

The Barna web site contains an interesting analysis of the unchurched by age, education, marital status, etc. Some of the more interesting data include:

bullet17% are an Atheist or Agnostic.
bullet22% believe that the Bible is inerrant.
bullet40% of adults aged 18 to 29 are unchurched.
bullet47% believe that Jesus engaged in sinful behavior while on earth.
bullet49% reject the God of the Bible (perfect, present, omnipotent, omniscient, creator of the universe).
bullet67% say that Satan is not a living being but a symbol of evil.

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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References:

  1. G. Gordon Melton, "Encyclopedia of American Religions," Triumph Books, (1991) Out of print.
  2. "American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)," Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/aris.pdf You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  3. The Religious Landscape of the United States", United States Information Agency, US Society and Values magazine, 1997-MAR.
  4. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University has a web site at: http://www.pluralism.org/. They distribute an impressive CD.
  5. Thomas C. Reeves, "The Empty Church: Does Organized Religion Matter Anymore?" Simon & Schuster: New York, NY (1998), Page. 64." Cited in http://www.adherents.com/Na_169.html under the topic "religious - modestly
  6. "One out of three adults is now unchurched," Barna Research Online, at: http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp?

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Copyright 1996, 1997, and 1999 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated: 2003-AUG-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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