Snapshot of Religion in America

Author: Father John Flynn, LC


Snapshot of Religion in America

Survey Reveals a Fluid Situation

By Father John Flynn, LC


More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were brought up. This is one of the most important findings of a survey published last Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

As always, polls have to be taken with a grain of salt, but the "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" was based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans aged 18 and up, giving it greater credibility than most opinion polls. Nevertheless, the Pew Forum did warn that they relied on people's self-description of their religious affiliation, regardless of specific beliefs or if they are active members of their churches.

Not only did the study find that 28% have changed their childhood religion, but if switching among different Protestant denominations is included, a hefty 44% of adults have changed their religious status in one form or another.

Another major finding of the survey was that Protestantism will soon lose its status as the majority religion. A bare 51% now declare they are members of one of the Protestant denominations. Other surveys in the 1970s and 1980s put the Protestant numbers at between 60-65%.

There are three main strands in the Protestant churches. Evangelical Protestant churches account for 26.3% of the adult population and roughly one-half of all Protestants. Mainline Protestant churches represent 18.1% of adults and more than one-third of all Protestants. The historically black Protestant churches can count 6.9% of the adult population and slightly less than one-seventh of all Protestants.

The Pew survey cited research by scholars who have stated that it is the mainline Protestant denominations that have suffered a major decline in the last decades, while evangelical Protestants have grown.

Catholic losses

Another group that has lost large numbers is the Catholic Church. The Pew survey noted that while 31.4% of Americans were raised Catholic, among adults only 23.9% consider themselves still to be Catholics. In fact, the survey calculated that approximately 10% of all Americans are former Catholics.

What has saved Catholic numbers from dropping further is the large number of Catholic immigrants, mostly of Hispanic origin. The Pew document puts at 46% the number of immigrants who are Catholic.

The growing Hispanic presence in the Catholic Church has frequently been commented on in the media. On Feb. 19 the Chicago Tribune reported on the ordination of seven permanent deacons of Hispanic origin in St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish, on Chicago's South Side.

Citing official sources, the article said that out of the more than 600 permanent deacons in the archdiocese of Chicago, about 150 are Hispanic.

The Vietnamese presence in the Catholic Church is also growing. Although the Pew survey did not report on this, a feature article published last April 15 in the Los Angeles Times went so far as to call them the "new Irish."

Asians are only 1% of Catholics in the United States, but they account for 12% of seminary students. In California's Orange County, which is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, already almost 28% of the diocesan priests are Asian, mostly Vietnamese.


A category that is notably on the increase is the number of those not affiliated with any religion. According to the Pew survey, 7.3% of the adult population say they were unaffiliated when they were growing up. As adults, however, this increases sharply to 16.1%. All religions are affected by this tendency to lose members in the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Among those who are currently unaffiliated with any particular religion, 44% were raised Protestant and 27% were raised Catholic.

The loss of childhood religion was commented on in an article published Dec. 8 in the New York Times. The article reported on research by sociologist Christian Smith, who found that many young adults are prolonging their adolescence. Such behavior includes delaying marriage until after 30, and relying on parental support for a longer time.

Smith also found that those who prolong adolescence are also more likely to leave the faith of their earlier years and to drift free of religion. Often once they marry and have children they will return to religion, but the longer the period of extended adolescence the less likely this becomes.

The Pew survey also looked at which religions are more heavily made up of people who have switched beliefs. Buddhists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarians and members of New Age groups are among those with large numbers of members who have come from other backgrounds.

For example, no less than two-thirds of Jehovah's Witnesses were raised in some other faith or were not affiliated with any particular religion as a child. This rises to nearly three-quarters for Buddhists.

These two groups also have the lowest retention rates of believers. Only 37% of adults who were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses still identify themselves as such. Just half of all of those who were raised as Buddhists still proclaim the same faith.

Other groups, by contrast, have much lower proportions of members who are converts. Nine out of 10 Hindus were raised Hindu, 89% of Catholics were raised Catholic and 85% of Jews were raised Jewish.


One factor standing out in the Pew survey is the danger of making generalizations, given wide differences that exist once factors such as ethnic origin and age are taken into account.

For example, 35% of Latinos and 37% of Asians report having changed their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised. By contrast the rates for blacks — 42% — and whites — 45% — is higher.

Black adults are the group least likely to be religiously unaffiliated, with only 12% of those surveyed putting themselves in this category. Asians are most likely to be unaffiliated, at 23%.

A majority of Hispanics — 58% — identify themselves as Catholic, but 24% are members of Protestant churches.

Age is another factor that accounts for big differences. Among people aged 70 and older, more than half of those who have changed affiliation did so with the same religious tradition, for example, from one Protestant denomination to another. By contrast, among those under age 30, approximately three-quarters of those who have changed affiliation either left one religious tradition for another or for no religion at all.

In fact, a quarter of all adults under age 30 are not affiliated with any particular religion. This compares to just 8% of unaffiliated adults who are 70 and older.

Age counts

Mainline Protestant churches are particularly affected by an aging membership with 51% at age 50 and older. This compares to 40% in the Catholic Church. Overall, in the United States 41% of adults are in this age category.

Ethnicity and age make for some interesting combinations within some churches. The vast majority of Catholics — 85% — aged 70 and over is white, while 45% of Catholics under 30 are Hispanic.

Another variable is sex, with 16% of men declaring they have no formal religious affiliation, compared to 12.8% of women. As well, 5.5% of men say they are atheist or agnostic, as opposed to 2.6% of women.

The survey also found that 27% of married people are in religiously mixed marriages. If this is extended to include different Protestant denominations, then the percentage of mixed marriages is 37%. Among the major religions, Hindus — 90% — and Mormons — 83% — are most likely to have a spouse with the same religion. Catholics follow closely at 78%.

The survey also looked at how income, marriage rates, numbers of children and geographical distribution are related to religion. A valuable overview of the state of religion in America today.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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