Pew Survey on U.S. Religion

Recent Pew Survey on US Religion: Something Old, Something New?
By Luke Harlow

According to this article in the New York Times, the American religious landscape is uncertain as ever. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and it includes some interesting statistics. Among them:

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimates the United States is 78 percent Christian and about to lose its status as a majority Protestant nation, at 51 percent and slipping.

More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, the survey found. Factoring in moves from one stream or denomination of Protestantism to another, the number rises to 44 percent.

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution."

And there's also this data:

"On the Protestant side, changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

Many Americans have vague denominational ties at best. People who call themselves ''just a Protestant,'' in fact, account for nearly 10 percent of all Protestants.

Although evangelical churches strive to win new Christian believers from the ''unchurched,'' the survey found most converts to evangelical churches were raised Protestant.

Hindus claimed the highest retention of childhood members, at 84 percent. The group with the worst retention is one of the fastest growing -- Jehovah's Witnesses. Only 37 percent of those raised in the sect known for door-to-door proselytizing said they remain members.

Among other findings involving smaller religious groups, more than half of American Buddhists surveyed were white, and most Buddhists were converts.

More people in the survey pool identified themselves as Buddhist than Muslim, although both populations were small -- less than 1 percent of the total population. By contrast, Jews accounted for 1.7 percent of the overall population.

Much of this data seems to confirm what the scholarship on American religion has suggested for some time: the declining significance of of the denomination, believing Americans' lack of deeply held ties to traditions and institutions, and the tenuous nature of any sorts of claims that the United States is a "Christian nation," are classic themes in the literature.

From another perspective, however, I wonder if we have scholarly answers for all the questions this data raises. In what sense, for example, are religious non-affiliates--a group that seems to be growing, especially among younger Americans--religious? (Of course, that might just be begging a question about how we most effectively assess religiosity.) Put another way, do these statistics force us to reassess our views on American religious life?


Luke Harlow said…
Thanks to Rusty Hawkins for bringing this story to my attention.
Edward Carson said…
As the son of black parents from the deep South, I still find it interesting that many assume that black southerners are becoming more religious; I sense a shift here, esp. among the young newly minted black middle class.

A number of my black friends and colleagues have shifted away from the black church and religion in general. The interesting thing here is that many are conservative. I suspect more in the model of Max Weber's economic synthesis than because of social matters. They tend to be pro gay, pro lesbian, pro social justice, etc.
Anonymous said…
Whenever this data comes out, the number of non-affiliates and non-religious Americans seems to grow, leading me to wonder if the much-maligned secularization thesis is correct after all (just slower than previously predicted).
DEG said…
I'm not sure what this study shows us in terms of "secularization." If we're talking about secularization in the classic sense - the reorganization of societies around secular/state/legal authorities instead of religious doctrines and institutions - then I don't think it's debatable that the late 19th-20th centuries brought that sort of secularization about in the U.S. Yet, I'm not sure that I agree that "secularism" is slowly on the rise just because folks don't go to church or don't affiliate with the same religious bodies as their parents. Bellah's Habits of the Heart knew better, and I think his lessons still apply today, no?
Art Remillard said…
I found a blog from Amy Welborn, who has some provocative comments on why Catholic numbers are diminishing...

After making many valid points (in my opinion) she concludes...

"In the US, at least, the Church (we’re generalizing here) hasn’t made the case for Christ. Hasn’t made the case for the necessity of Christ being the center of one’s life and the sure means of finding and staying connected to Christ being through His Church. Part of what makes me cringe as I read studies like this is that I imagine the response of Church bureaucrats, ordained and lay - when they bother to respond. At that response always seems to involve 'programs' that will 'energize' and make everyone all 'vibrant' and everything."
Anonymous said…
I'm surprised that no one yet has mentioned the abysmal response rate (24%) on this Pew survey. Most sociologists would question whether the findings of this survey are worth talking about.

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