Below is their own summary of findings in their most recent very detailed survey:
Summary of Key Findings
An extensive new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life details statistics on religion in America and explores the shifts taking place in the U.S. religious landscape. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds that religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.
Key Findings and Statistics on Religion in America
More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
The Landscape Survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%. Moreover, the Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds of different denominations loosely grouped around three fairly distinct religious traditions - evangelical Protestant churches (26.3% of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1%) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9%).
While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, the statistics show that Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic). Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the U.S., including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Although there are about half as many Catholics in the U.S. as Protestants, the number of Catholics nearly rivals the number of members of evangelical Protestant churches and far exceeds the number of members of both mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. The U.S. also includes a significant number of members of the third major branch of global Christianity - Orthodoxy - whose adherents now account for 0.6% of the U.S. adult population. American Christianity also includes sizeable numbers of Mormons (1.7% of the adult population), Jehovah's Witnesses (0.7%) and other Christian groups (0.3%).
Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as "nothing in particular." This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the "secular unaffiliated," that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the "religious unaffiliated," that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).
Even smaller religions in the U.S. reflect considerable internal diversity. For instance, most Jews (1.7% of the overall adult population) identify with one of three major groups: Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism. Similarly, more than half of Buddhists (0.7% of the overall adult population) belong to one of three major groups within Buddhism: Zen, Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism. Muslims (0.6% of the overall adult population) divide primarily into two major groups: Sunni and Shia.
A Very Competitive Religious Marketplace
The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. Those that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths.
To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition - the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all "religious" groups.
Another example of the dynamism of the American religious scene is the experience of the Catholic Church. Other surveys - such as the General Social Surveys, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1972 - find that the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has held fairly steady in recent decades at around 25%. What this apparent stability obscures, however, is the large number of people who have left the Catholic Church. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics. These losses, however, have been partly offset by the number of people who have changed their affiliation to Catholicism (2.6% of the adult population) but more importantly by the disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S. The result is that the overall percentage of the population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly stable.
In addition to detailing the current religious makeup of the U.S. and describing the dynamic changes in religious affiliation, the findings from the Landscape Survey also provide important clues about the future direction of religious affiliation in the U.S. By detailing the age distribution of different religious groups, for instance, the study's statistics on religion show that more than six-in-ten Americans age 70 and older (62%) are Protestant but that this number is only about four-in-ten (43%) among Americans ages 18-29. Conversely, young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%). If these generational patterns persist, recent declines in the number of Protestants and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population may continue.
Major changes in the makeup of American Catholicism also loom on the horizon. Latinos, who already account for roughly one-in-three adult Catholics overall, may account for an even larger share of U.S. Catholics in the future. For while Latinos represent roughly one-in-eight U.S. Catholics age 70 and older (12%), they account for nearly half of all Catholics ages 18-29 (45%).
Finally, the Landscape Survey documents how immigration is adding even more diversity to the American religious quilt. For example, Muslims, roughly two-thirds of whom are immigrants, now account for roughly 0.6% of the U.S. adult population; and Hindus, more than eight-in-ten of whom are foreign born, now account for approximately 0.4% of the population.
Other Survey Highlights
Other highlights in the report include
- Men are significantly more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation. Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13% of women.
- Among people who are married, nearly four-in-ten (37%) are married to a spouse with a different religious affiliation. (This figure includes Protestants who are married to another Protestant from a different denominational family, such as a Baptist who is married to a Methodist.) Hindus and Mormons are the most likely to be married (78% and 71%, respectively) and to be married to someone of the same religion (90% and 83%, respectively).
- Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one-in-five Mormon adults and 15% of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.
- The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.
- Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Even among those blacks who are unaffiliated, three-in-four belong to the "religious unaffiliated" category (that is, they say that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives), compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.
- Nearly half of Hindus in the U.S., one-third of Jews and a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall. Hindus and Jews are also much more likely than other groups to report high income levels.
- People not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions. Among the unaffiliated, 31% are under age 30 and 71% are under age 50. Comparable numbers for the overall adult population are 20% and 59%, respectively.
- By contrast, members of mainline Protestant churches and Jews are older, on average, than members of other groups. Roughly half of Jews and members of mainline churches are age 50 and older, compared with approximately four-in-ten American adults overall.
- In sharp contrast to Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism in the U.S. is primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. Only one-in-three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three-in-four Buddhists say they are converts to Buddhism.
- Jehovah's Witnesses have the lowest retention rate of any religious tradition. Only 37% of all those who say they were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses still identify themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses.
- Members of Baptist churches account for one-third of all Protestants and close to one-fifth of the total U.S. adult population. Baptists also account for nearly two-thirds of members of historically black Protestant churches.
About the Survey
These are some of the key findings of the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which draws primarily on a new nationwide survey conducted from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007, among a representative sample of more than 35,000 adults in the U.S., with additional over-samples of Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. The study also takes advantage of the 2007 survey of American Muslims ("Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream"), which was conducted by the Forum in partnership with its sister projects, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In total, these surveys included interviews with more than 36,000 Americans.
Detailed data tables provide extensive demographic information on the 14 largest religious traditions, 12 large Protestant denominational families and 25 individual Protestant denominations in the United States.
Summary of Key Findings
A major survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. This openness to a range of religious viewpoints is in line with the great diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice that exists in the United States, as documented in a survey of more than 35,000 Americans that comprehensively examines the country’s religious landscape.
This is not to suggest that Americans do not take religion seriously. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey also shows that more than half of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, attend religious services regularly and pray daily. Furthermore, a plurality of adults who are affiliated with a religion want their religion to preserve its traditional beliefs and practices rather than either adjust to new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices. Moreover, significant minorities across nearly all religious traditions see a conflict between being a devout person and living in a modern society.
The Landscape Survey confirms the close link between Americans' religious affiliation, beliefs and practices, on the one hand, and their social and political attitudes, on the other. Indeed, the survey demonstrates that the social and political fault lines in American society run through, as well as alongside, religious traditions. The relationship between religion and politics is particularly strong with respect to political ideology and views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, with the more religiously committed adherents across several religious traditions expressing more conservative political views. On other issues included in the survey, such as environmental protection, foreign affairs, and the proper size and role of government, differences based on religion tend to be smaller.
Religion in America: Non-Dogmatic, Diverse and Politically Relevant
Most Americans agree with the statement that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those who are affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including more than half of members of evangelical Protestant churches (57%). Only among Mormons (57%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (80%) do majorities say that their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.
Most Americans also have a non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion. For instance, more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions. The exceptions are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 54% and 77% of whom, respectively, say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.
The lack of dogmatism in American religion may well reflect the great diversity of religious affiliation, beliefs and practices in the U.S. For example, while more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there is considerable variation in the nature and certainty of this belief. Six-in-ten adults believe that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship; but one-in-four – including about half of Jews and Hindus – see God as an impersonal force. And while roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence, more than one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.
A similar pattern is evident in views of the Bible. Nearly two-thirds of the public (63%) takes the view that their faith’s sacred texts are the word of God. But those who believe Scripture represents the word of God are roughly evenly divided between those who say it should be interpreted literally, word for word (33%), and those who say it should not be taken literally (27%). And more than a quarter of adults – including two-thirds of Buddhists (67%) and about half of Jews (53%) – say their faith’s sacred texts are written by men and are not the word of God.
The diversity in religious beliefs and practices in the U.S. in part reflects the great variety of religious groups that populate the American religious landscape. The survey finds, for example, that some religious groups – including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of historically black and evangelical Protestant churches – tend to be more likely to report high levels of religious engagement on questions such as the importance of religion in their lives, certainty of belief in God and frequency of attendance at religious services. Other Christian groups – notably members of mainline Protestant churches and Catholics – are less likely to report such attitudes, beliefs and practices. And still other faiths – including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims – exhibit their own special mix of religious beliefs and practices.
The Landscape Survey also reveals that people who are not affiliated with a particular religious tradition do not necessarily lack religious beliefs or practices. In fact, a large portion (41%) of the unaffiliated population says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, seven-in-ten say they believe in God, and more than a quarter (27%) say they attend religious services at least a few times a year.
The findings of the Landscape Survey underscore the importance of affiliation with a particular tradition for understanding not only people’s religious beliefs and practices but also their basic social and political views. For instance, Mormons and members of evangelical churches tend to be more conservative in their political ideology, while Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists tend to be more politically liberal than the population overall. But the survey shows that there are important differences within religious traditions as well, based on a number of factors, including the importance of religion in people’s lives, the nature and certainty of their belief in God, and their frequency of prayer and attendance at worship services.
One of the realities of politics in the U.S. today is that people who regularly attend worship services and hold traditional religious views are much more likely to hold conservative political views while those who are less connected to religious institutions and more secular in their outlook are more likely to hold liberal political views.
The connection between religious intensity and political attitudes appears to be especially strong when it comes to issues such as abortion and homosexuality. About six-in-ten Americans who attend religious services at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while only about three-in-ten who attend less often share this view. This pattern holds across a variety of religious traditions. For instance, nearly three-in-four (73%) members of evangelical churches who attend church at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, compared with only 45% of members of evangelical churches who attend church less frequently.
These are among the key findings of a major survey on religion and American life conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life between May 8 and Aug. 13, 2007, among a representative sample of more than 35,000 Americans. The first report based on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was issued in February 2008 and focused on the religious affiliation of the American people, including the impact of immigration and changes in affiliation. This report provides information on the core religious beliefs and practices as well as the basic social and political views of the various religious traditions in the U.S. as well as people who are not affiliated with a particular religion.
The report includes information on members of many religious groups – such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and agnostics – that are too small to be analyzed in most public opinion surveys. More detailed tables, provided in an appendix to this report, also summarize the basic beliefs, practices, and social and political attitudes of a dozen Protestant denominational families and 25 of the largest Protestant denominations in the U.S. These detailed tables also include information on what the survey classifies as “other Christians,” which includes such smaller groups as Spiritualists and other Metaphysical Christians, as well as on members of a variety of other faiths, including Unitarians and New Age groups.To read the Summary of Key Findings in full, download the PDF (18 pages)
One of the frustrations the Pew researchers face is a general religious ambiguity and agnosticism on the public's part. I don't mean agnosticism in the theist/nontheist sense- I mean many Americans could not tell you the difference between Protestants and Catholics, that Protestant and Catholic are Christian subgroups, what denomination they are, what a denomination is, or what would make their denominational tradition historically distinct. Pew researchers have really had to earn their money to craft a methodology and get people to offer answers of any statistical value.
Another issue, not of specific import to the researchers (unfortunately so, to my mind) is the nature of civic religion in the US. The findings of the US Religious Landscape Survey seem to tell of a type of Americana that is its own religiosity rife with regional variations, cultic rites, priestly class, and metaphysical assumptions. Consider that most American Christians would not find anything problematic with the idea that the state guarantees and protects religious freedom and you get a sense of in what faith lies or where metaphysical lines are anchored.
Sheesh, I'm turning into a comment hog.
You beat me to it. Thanks for your thoughts.
As an Australian i find this fascinating, really fascinating.....i found it interesting how peoples ideologies become more politically 'concervative' the more they pray, i am interested to explore this a little more and will follow some links and see where i end up....thanks again Ben.
I'd be willing to bet there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem there. Do people who pray more become more conservative, or a conservatives more likely to pray more? The answer is important.
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