Religion in the U.S.

Wednesday, March 11, AD 2009

According to a recent study, the percentage of Americans who profess no religion has been increasing over the last 20 years:

The Catholic population of the United States has shifted away from the Northeast and towards the Southwest, while secularity continues to grow in strength in all regions of the country, according to a new study by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College. “The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning,” said Barry Kosmin, a principal investigator for the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). “Thanks to immigration and natural increase among Latinos, California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England.”

In broad terms, ARIS 2008 found a consolidation and strengthening of shifts signaled in the 2001 survey. The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million “Nones.” Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country, with Vermont, at 34 percent “Nones,” leading all other states by a full 9 points.

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent. Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “non-denominational Christian.” The last of these, associated with the growth of mega-churches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.

I had a few thoughts/questions after reading the study:

1) A Plateau For Non-Religion?: I would have expected the increase in non-religious Americans to be evenly distributed between 1990-2008, or, if anything, higher recently. But the study suggests the percentage of non-religious over the last seven or eight years has basically remained flat (14.2% v. 15%), while there was a large increase between 1990 and 2001 (8.2% to 14.2%). It strikes me as odd that non-religion would have plateaued during this decade, while increasing significantly during the 90’s. Has anybody come across any research explaining that trend?

2) Catholicism & Mainline Protestantism: Overall, the percentage of Catholics remained relatively stable, but Mainline Protestant denominations have continued to hemorrhage members. The sharp decrease in Catholics in New England (and increase in California) is interesting and potentially troubling. Does this suggest Catholicism is losing members as quickly as the Mainline Protestant denominations, but immigration and higher fertility rates among Hispanic and Latino Catholics are masking the decline? If so, the Church in the U.S. may be in worse condition than the numbers indicate.

3) Whither the Culture?: Perhaps it’s my East Coast bias, but the decline of Catholicism (and religion in general) in the Northeast strikes me as a matter for serious concern. New York is the media and financial capital of the country, and Washington DC, the political capital, is in close proximity to the Northeast.  While religious ignorance in cultural elites is occasionally amusing, an elite class almost entirely insulated from religious belief can result in troubling political and social consequences (see, e.g., Connecticut). Do these numbers suggest the political, social, and religious polarization of the U.S. is going to get worse?

5 Responses to Religion in the U.S.

  • In regards to question 2), I think the immigration does in indeed mask a similar hemorrhaging of members from the Catholic Church. While I think there’s a solid core of faithful Catholics, I think it is much smaller than the numbers suggest. I think in the near future, we’ll see an even greater loss of membership as the realities of the Church teaching and governmental policy butt heads.

  • Ryan, I agree with you that we are very likely to see the Catholic faith tested in America by the exact mechanism you suggest. I pray that God will change people’s hearts and that all Catholics will open themselves to the truth. I fear that large percentages of Catholics will formally depart the Church in the next 20 years. It is hard to say how big the faithful core is or will be in the end. I think the core is stronger in Faith than given credit for, but in numbers? I find reasons for hope, but certainly seems likely that we could lose up to 90% of the self- identified Catholics.

  • Point #4 deserves further scrutiny. In period when political/economic elites avoids all things religious, will be not only greater estrangement from the faithful but legislation like that swatted down in Connecticut. Could extend to our nation’s largest fudge factory. Note all the DC insiders who frequent Sunday morning chat shows. Not likely they will slip away to their house of worship. Thus the estrangement showing up in broad scale following the Porkapalooza Bill. Might be presenting the ultimate dilemma- God or Gummint as Ultimate Source of All That Is True And Good.

  • That unbelief is plateauing while membership in most churches is fallen suggests to me that part of what we’re seeing is a failure of established churches to reach people with anything compelling. There can be a laziness and self absorbtion to people who are “religious but don’t belong to a church right now” but I think a fair amount of it is also that far too often one can go to a church for years (sadly this would seem to be as true of many Catholic parishes as of protestant churches) without getting much to hold you in the way of real teaching, and explanation of what life means other than “community” or compelling liturgy. And so people often drift away into their own home-grown, wishy washy religious belief combined with non-practice.

    I suspect it would take a significant cultural shift to break this paradigm, because while at the same time people drift away from churches because they’re not compelling, there’s also a strong cultural prejudice against evangelizing and judging — which precludes most of the compelling things that could be said.

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