March 13, 2009

American Religious Identification Survey is Third in Landmark Series

The Catholic population of the United States has shifted away from the Northeast and towards the Southwest, while secularity continues to grow in strength in all regions of the country, according to a new study conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College. “The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning,” said Barry Kosmin, a principal investigator for the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). “Thanks to immigration and natural increase among Latinos, California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England.”

Conducted between February and November of last year, ARIS 2008 is the third in a landmark series of large, nationally representative surveys of U.S. adults in the 48 contiguous states conducted by Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Employing the same research methodology as the 1990 and 2001 surveys, ARIS 2008 questioned 54,461 adults in either English or Spanish. With a margin of error of less than 0.5 percent, it provides the only complete portrait of how contemporary Americans identify themselves religiously, and how that self-identification has changed over the past generation.

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,” Keysar said. 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 States.”

Other key findings:

• Baptists, who constitute the largest non-Catholic Christian tradition, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population.

• Mormons have increased in numbers enough to hold their own proportionally, at 1.4 percent of the population.

• The Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .5 percent in 2001 to .6 percent in 2008.

• The number of adherents of Eastern Religions, which more than doubled in the 1990s, has declined slightly, from just over two million to just under. Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

• Those who identify religiously as Jews continue to decline numerically, from 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2008—1.2 percent of the population. Defined to include those who identify as Jews by ethnicity alone, the American Jewish population has remained stable over the past two decades.

Professors Kosmin and Keysar are, respectively, director and associate director of Trinity’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. The Program on Public Values at Trinity College comprises the Institute and the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, which is also directed by Professor Silk. ARIS 2008 was made possible by grants from Lilly Endowment, Inc. and the Posen Foundation.

Return to the Frontpage