Personal religious affiliation:
Comparing the U.S. with the rest of the world
Definition of religion:
We define religion very broadly: "Religion
is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a
philosophy of life, and a worldview." Thus we consider Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Native American Spirituality, and
Neopaganism to be religions. We also include Agnosticism, Atheism,
Humanism, Ethical Culture etc. as religions, because they also contain a
"belief about deity" -- their belief is that they do not know
whether a deity exists, or they have no knowledge of God, or they sincerely
believe that God does not exist.
The United States has been described as the most religiously diverse country
in the world. In spite of this, it is relatively free of religiously motivated
violence. Some observers attribute this to the First Amendment of the U.S.
Constitution which guarantees:
All of the world's major religions, from Asatru to
Zoroastrianism are practiced throughout the U.S. However, the
percentage of adherents of a given religion in the U.S.
is often quite different from the corresponding value elsewhere in the world.
- About 75% of American adults identify themselves with Christianity; only
33% of the world's population is Christian.
- About 2% of Americans regard themselves as Muslim; the corresponding
world-wide figure is 20%.
It may make sense for some meditation rooms, or school libraries or other religious locations
visited by the public, to provide sacred texts on the basis of the popularity of
religions within the U.S. However, meditation rooms located in international airports on the
East and West coast might consider the religious makeup of their international
visitors as well.
Estimating the size of each religious group:
Listed in the table below are the major religions, in order of decreasing
numbers of adherents in the U.S. These numbers are based on the American
Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). 1
This was a telephone survey of 50,281 American households conducted in 2001
between February and June. Often, the religions of both partners or spouses were
recorded, so the sample size is probably on the order of 75,000. This is
unusually massive, compared to most public opinion surveys which only sample
about 1,000 people. They were asked the simple question: "What is your religion, if any?"
Various almanacs and religious encyclopedias list some data that are very
different from the ARIS survey data. The former are generally based on
information provided by individual denominations -- data that is often
not particularly reliable.
- Some faith groups count as a member anyone who has
- Others count only active members;
- Some include only adult
- Others count children as well;
- Some pad their numbers;
- Others refuse to
release membership data.
Comparison of religions in the U.S. and the world:
The numbers of U.S. adherents which are shown (in brackets) were taken from the
World Almanac and Book of Facts 2005. The lack of agreement between the ARIS
and Almanac are quite remarkable for some faiths. Another estimate of worldwide
adherents is provided by Adherents.com. 11
||Number of adherents
in the U.S. (millions) 1
U.S. population 2
Number of adherents in the world (millions) 3
world population 4
|No religious affiliation
||Torah, Tanach, & Talmud
1.10 (4.6) 5
||Qur'an & Hadith
||The Tripitaka (consisting of the Vinaya, the Sutras, and the Abhidharma)
||Bhagavad-Gita, Upanishads, & Rig Veda
Wicca & other
|Native American Spirituality
Oral tradition 10
||Guru Granth Sahib
|Church of Scientology
||Books by L. R. Hubbard
Notes and references used:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) data
for 2001 is at:
http://www.gc.cuny.edu/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from:
Based on a total U.S. adult population of 207,980,000 --
persons who have reached their 18th birthday at the time of the survey.
Based on The World Almanac and book of facts, 2005,"
Page 734. These data were based on the 2004 Encyclopedia Britannica Book
of the Year.
Based on a world population of 6,288 million.
Estimates by some American Muslim groups are as high as seven
Agnostics are lumped together with the "Nonreligious"
in the Encyclopedia Britannica data.
Atheists, Humanists and Secularists are lumped together as "Atheists"
in the 2004 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year data and total
148.7 million (2.4% of the world's population)
Unitarian Universalists follow a variety of belief systems:
Agnosticism, Atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, Humanism, Judaism, Wicca and
other Neopagan religions, etc. No specific theological beliefs are imposed
by the denomination.
This number may be grossly underestimated. Because of
considerations of personal safety, many Wiccans and other Neopagans would be
unwilling to reveal their faith to a stranger on the phone. Also, the group has
been doubling in size every 30 months or so. By now, this religion may be the
fourth or fifth most popular faith in the U.S.
Many Aboriginal religions are taught by an oral tradition
without having been set down in book form.
"Major Religions of the World, Ranked by Number of Adherents,"
An estimate by an authority in the Church of Scientology®
based on the number of people who have participated in a basic or major service
of the Church.
Copyright © 2005 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-DEC-11
Latest update: 2008-AUG-10
Author: B.A. Robinson