Friday News Roundup: Whence religion?

istock_000003001750xsmallWe’ve known for a while that the U.S. is more religious than most of our European counterparts – even though a lot of European nations still have national churches (like Sweden – Lutheran) or strong ties to religious bodies (like Italy).   But the U.S., even with separation of church and state as a founding principle, continues to be one of the world’s most religious countries, with 80-90% of people…

…consistently claiming membership in a religious denomination (according to ongoing Gallup polls tracking Americans’ religious affiliation – which is what makes this new data from the American Religious Identification Survey so interesting.

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.

“Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly. We now know it wasn’t. The ‘Nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.”

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 megachurches, 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.

“It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism–mainline versus evangelical–is collapsing,” said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. “A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United State s.”  (bolding mine)

The U.S. has long been called a majority-Christian nation – and at 76% that’s still the truth – but these findings show some pretty remarkable shifts in our religious landscape.  You can plow through the full study reports, or, if you had other things you’d wanted to get done this weekend, check out these articles:

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