Survey on the U.S. Religious Panorama

Author: LOR

Survey on the U.S. Religious Panorama

L'Osservatore Romano

Religion is 'on the move' in America

The United States population, increasingly disappointed in the answers provided by religion and less bound to traditional affiliations, with regard to choices of faith appears to be a rapidly changing entity, many of whose certainties are disappearing.

The number of Protestants is dwindling, the number of Catholics is stable because of the influx of immigrants, but above all, a vast number of people have changed their religion at some point or have abandoned it completely.

This is the picture presented by a widescale survey of the religious affiliation of Americans carried out by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans ages 18 and over, the survey shows that U.S. religious affiliation fluctuates and is extremely mobile.

Thus, we learn that more than a quarter of American adults, 28 percent, have abandoned the faith in which they were raised for another religion or no longer have any religion. Including giving up one kind of Protestantism for another, 48 percent of adults have either changed their religious affiliation, switched from having no religious faith to a specific faith, or have completely severed ties with any specific traditional religion.

In short, an enormous number of people are moving on in search of convincing responses.

But the fact that 16 percent declare they have no religion, while half this number received a religious education, suggests that these responses may not always be presented effectively.

Secularization seems most of all to affect the younger population. In fact, one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 says he or she currently practises no religion.

As mentioned, the full survey —which can be found on the Web site, confirms that the Protestant community in the United States is losing its status as the majority religion, since it has decreased to 51.3 percent of the faiths present in the Country.

Additionally, the survey notes that the Protestant population is marked by significant internal differences and fragmentation, including hundreds of different denominations that are gathered closely around three rather different religious traditions: Evangelical Protestant Churches (26.3 percent), mainline Protestant Churches (18.1 percent) and "historically Black" Protestant Churches (6.9 percent).

Americans raised Catholic: 1 in 3

With regard to Catholics, the situation is complex but not without some interesting points.

While almost one American out of three was raised as a practising Catholic, today less than one in four calls himself or herself Catholic. The losses, according to the Pew Survey, would be even greater were they not balanced by the impact of immigration.

According to the survey, among the adult population born abroad, Catholics exceed Protestants by almost two to one (46 percent Catholics as compared to 24 percent Protestants).

On the other hand, among U.S.-born citizens, Protestants exceed Catholics by a far greater margin (55 to 21 percent).

Although there are about half as many Catholics in the U.S. as there are Protestants, the number of Catholics is nonetheless equivalent to that of the members of Protestant Evangelical churches, and easily exceeds the number both of traditional Protestant Churches and of the "historically Black" Protestant Churches.

Other surveys, such as that carried out by the National Opinion Research Center of Chicago University since 1972, reveal that the Catholic segment of the adult population of the U.S. has remained fairly stable in recent decades, around 25 percent.

However, what this apparent stability conceals is the considerable number of people who responded that they were brought up in the Catholic faith but no longer call themselves Catholics, This means that about 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics.

These losses have been balanced in part by the number of people who have converted to the Catholic faith (2.6 percent of the adult population) as well as by the influx of immigrants.

As a result, the overall percentage of the population identified as Catholic has remained fairly stable. Yet this also means that people who have received a Catholic education and those who continue to consider themselves faithful Catholics constitute more than a third of the entire U.S. population.

To complete the picture of Christianity in the United States, it must be noted that the Orthodox account for 0.6 percent of the adult population. Nevertheless, there is also a noteworthy number of Mormons (1.7 percent of the adult population), of Jehovah's Witnesses (0.7 percent) and of other Christian groups (0.3 percent).

Increase of the non-affiliated

But one of the elements that most deserves attention is undoubtedly the increase in the number of the population — about 16 percent — who claim they have no religion. Although a quarter of this group consists of persons calling themselves atheist or agnostic (respectively 1.6 and 2.4 percent of the adult population), the majority of the non-affiliated (12.1 percent) is made up of people who simply describe their religious feeling as linked to "nothing in particular".

This group in turn is divided fairly equally between "non-affiliated lay people", that is, those who declare that religion is not important in their lives (6.3 percent of the adult population), and "non-affiliated but religious people", who say that religion has some importance or great importance in their lives (5.8 percent).

Thus, the survey shows that the American religious panorama is marked by constant movement, since every major group, including those that increase due to religious conversion, simultaneously loses and acquires adherents.

To illustrate this point one only has to note that the "non-affiliated" group has increased the most. People in the nonaffiliated category consequently exceed by three to one the number of those who drop out of this group.

At the same time, however, a considerable number of people (almost 4 percent of the total adult population) say that as children they did not belong to any particular religion but have since identified with some religious group. This implies that more than half of those who were not affiliated to any specific religious group as children are now affiliated to a religious group.

In addition to portraying the current religious situation in the U.S.A. and describing the dynamic changes in religious affiliation, the results of this research also provide some important clues to the future direction that religious affiliation will take in the Country.

Distinguishing, for example, between the different age brackets of various religious groups, results show that more than six Americans out of 10 who are over age 70 (62 percent) are Protestant, but this number is only four out of 10 (43 percent) among 18- and 19-year old Americans.

On the contrary, young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who declare they do not belong to any particular religion are far more numerous than people over 70 (respectively, 25 and 8 percent). If these generational trends persist, the recent decrease in the number of Protestants and the growth in the number of the non-affiliated may continue.

Important changes are looming on the horizon of American Catholicism. Hispanic Americans, formerly one Catholic in three, could form an even more consistent number of U.S. Catholics in the future.

Indeed, while Hispanic Americans account for approximately one in eight U.S. Catholics ages 70 or older (12 percent), on the other hand they account for almost half of all Catholics between 18 and 29 years old (45 percent).

Religious affiliations of the
U.S. adult population

CHRISTIANS                                     78.4

Protestants                                           51.3
Evangelical Churches                              26.3
Traditional Churches                              18.1
‘Historically Black’ Churches                   6.9

Catholics                                              23.9

Mormons                                                1.7

Jehovah’s Witnesses                              0.7

Orthodox                                                0.6
Greek Orthodox                                    <0.3
Russian Orthodox                                  <0.3
Other                                                     <0.3

Other Christians                                   0.3

OTHER RELIGIONS                          4.7

Jews                                                        1.7

Reformed                                                 0.7
Conservative                                            0.5
Orthodox                                               <0.3
Other                                                       0.3

Buddhists                                               0.7
Zen Buddhists                                        <0.3
Theravada Buddhists                              <0.3
Tibetan Buddhists                                  <0.3
Other                                                       0.3

Muslims*                                               0.6
Sunni                                                       0.3
Shiite                                                    <0.3
Other                                                    <0.3

Hindus                                                   0.4

Other world religions                         <0.3

Other faiths                                           1.2
Unitarian and other liberal faiths               0.7
New Age                                                0.4
Native American religion                       <0.3

NON-AFFILIATED                           16.1

Atheists                                                 1.6

Agnostics                                               2.4

No particular religion                        12.1
Non-affiliated lay people                          6.3
Non-affiliated but with a
   religious feeling                                     5.8


*From Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream, Pew Research Center, 2007                                           

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 April 2008, page 8

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