Study Finds Fluid Religious Affiliation: A New Survey of More Than 35,000 Adult Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Captures the Depth and Breadth of Religious America

By Banks, Adelle M. | National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2008 | Go to article overview

Study Finds Fluid Religious Affiliation: A New Survey of More Than 35,000 Adult Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Captures the Depth and Breadth of Religious America


Banks, Adelle M., National Catholic Reporter


If you're Buddhist in the United States, you're most likely a white convert who lives in the American West.

If you're a Jehovah's Witness, you're likely to be a white Southerner, but almost half of your fellow believers are either African-American or Hispanic.

If you're a Midwesterner, you're living in the region that best reflects the religious diversity of America.

A new study of more than 35,000 adult Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life captures the depth and breadth of religious America--78.4 percent Christian, 4.7 percent members of other faiths and 16.1 percent unaffiliated.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, released Feb. 25, estimates the religious makeup of the country's 225 million adults in groups as large as evangelical Protestants (26.3 percent) and as small as Unitarians (0.3 percent).

The study also paints a picture of people who often move from one faith to another, as well as the religious landscape of various parts of the country. Pew researcher John Green called the Midwest a "microcosm of American religion" and said it closely matches the overall religious profile of the U.S. population's largest religious groups:

* Evangelical Protestant: 26 percent

* Mainline Protestant: 22 percent

* Catholic: 24 percent "In religious terms, the Midwest really ... does reflect, of all the regions, the great diversity, at least in terms of affiliation," said Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum and an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.

Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religion department at Boston University, said that description fits, given the predominantly Catholic Northeast, mostly Baptist South and a Western region known for Buddhists, Hindus and people with no religious affiliation.

Other key findings of the study include:

* Of the 16.1 percent of Americans who are not affiliated with any faith, just 4 percent describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. The remaining 12 percent are almost equally divided between the "secular unaffiliated," who say religion is not important in their lives and the "religious unaffiliated," who say religion is at least somewhat important.

* Catholics are the religious group with the greatest loss of adherents, with former Catholics making up about 10 percent of the U.S. population. Hindus, on the other hand, are best at retaining their faith; eight in 10 Hindus who were born into the faith remain connected to it.

* More than a quarter of Americans--28 percent--have left the faith of their childhoods for another--or no faith at all. Including changes from one form of Protestantism to another, 44 percent of Americans have changed their affiliation or dropped their connection to a faith. Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhists are among the faiths with the lowest retention rates of childhood members.

* The nation's Protestants make up just 51 percent of the U.S. population, meaning that segment of Christianity is close to becoming a religious minority. Young people are helping fuel that trend: While 62 percent of Americans 70 and older are Protestant, only 43 percent of Americans ages 18-29 are.

* Barry Kosmin, a sociologist of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut, said he first detected a drop in Protestant identification in the 1990s. " 'Christian' has kind of replaced 'protestant' as a term for most Americans," he said. "If you ask most students 'What is a Protestant?' they don't even know the term."

* Muslims are the most racially diverse faith group, including 37 percent who are white, 24 percent who are black, and 20 percent Asian.

* More than a third of married Americans--37 percent--are married to someone with a different religious affiliation, including a different Protestant faith. Hindus and Mormons are most likely to be married to someone of the same religion, while majorities of Buddhists and the "unaffiliated" have married someone of a different religion. …

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