Protestants Close to Losing Majority Status
he United States is firmly 78 percent Christian but barely 51 percent Protestant, according to a survey released February 25.
"We're a society that over the long-term--meaning over the last several decades or the last century--(has) begun to embrace not just religious diversity but appreciate religious diversity," said Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke Divinity School.
In some ways, Protestants may be victims of their own success at founding a nation and society that cherished a full range of religious expression, said Diana Butler Bass, who has studied the mainline Protestant churches.
"Sure, it's a little rueful that there aren't as many Protestants as there used to be, but it's also a great pleasure to know that the Protestant experiment in religious pluralism has worked in America," said Butler Bass, author of "Christianity for the Rest of Us."
The survey reveals a fluid and diverse religious landscape in which Protestants are fragmented into hundreds of denominations loosely knit around three traditions -- evangelical Protestant (26 percent of American adults), mainline Protestant (18 percent) and historically black Protestant (7 percent of adults).
Catholics, meanwhile, account for 23 percent of American adults, making them the nation's single largest religious group. Other Christian groups are much smaller; Mormons account for just under 2 percent of adults, and Jehovah's Witnesses and the Eastern Orthodox each account for slightly less than 1 percent.
The survey found that as Protestants have shrunk in recent years --down from as high as two-thirds of Americans before the 1990s, based on figures from the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago -- the number of Americans not affiliated with any religious group has risen.
Catholics Lose More Faithful Than Any Other Group
In the marketplace of American faith, Catholicism is the big loser. Catholics have lost more members to other faiths, or to no faith at all, than any other U.S. religion, according to the new survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The survey, based on interviews with 35,000 U.S. adults, found that 31 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24 percent still identify as Catholic. Perhaps more worrisome for church leaders, while 2.6 percent of Americans converted to Catholicism, four times as many -- 10.1 percent -- of cradle Catholics have left for another faith or no faith at all. Roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, the study reported.
Still, despite the loss, Catholics remain steady at one in four of all Americans, the nation's single largest religious group. That stability is fueled in part, researchers said, by waves of Hispanic immigrants, much like generations of Irish and Italians built up the church in earlier generations.
"It may well be that a factor in the Catholic numbers are the repeated waves of immigration," said John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum.
The study found that almost half of all immigrants coming to U.S. shores are Catholics, most of them from Latin American countries. Latinos now represent 45 percent of Catholics aged 18 to 29, but only 20 percent of Catholics in their 50s.
Much of Catholicism's loss can be chalked up to previous generations of immigrants who assimilated into American culture and as a result became less faithful to their ethnic identities and religions, Green said.
"That kind of assimilation is typical for any ethnic group," said Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. "And it affects all religions--not just Catholicism."
Gautier listed interfaith marriages, a dwindling supply of priests and insufficient church facilities as challenges to keeping people in the pews.
Others, such as the Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, cited a lack of manpower. "The Church is falling behind," said Deck, executive director of cultural diversity for the bishops. "We don't have enough foot soldiers."
Deck downplayed the idea that church teachings are out of step with the times--the church's stand on birth control has alienated many Catholics, observers say--and said there simply aren't enough teachers to communicate the faith. "It's our mission to evangelize," he said, noting that part of that job involves changing hearts and minds, "and we are failing that."
`Unaffiliated' Represent Biggest
Change Among U.S. Faith Groups
Americans who aren't part of a religious organization or who identify as an atheist or an agnostic represent the biggest change among U.S. religious groups, according to a study released Monday February 25 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey estimates that about 16 percent of America's 225 million adults are unaffiliated with a religion.
When "childhood religion" is compared against "current religion," the unaffiliated show a net increase of 8.8 percentage points, compared to a 7.5 point loss among Catholics, for example, or a 2.6 percent loss among Protestants.
The study, however, also makes it clear that the "unaffiliated" aren't necessarily living out a strictly secular life. "There is a sizeable number of Americans who are not affiliated with any particular religious group but who nonetheless have religious beliefs or engage in a variety of religious practices," the study said.
Among the "unaffiliated," only about a quarter identified themselves as non-believers (atheists or agnostics). The remaining three-quarters were those who reported "nothing in particular" when asked about their religious affiliation.
Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture in Hartford, Connecticut, said many Americans are unaffiliated simply because they are dissatisfied with the current religious offerings. Kosmin also said the diversity among the unaffiliated isn't necessarily a surprise. "I have no religion, but I believe in angels and miracles" is just one example of the kind of belief people included in this group may hold, said Kosmin.
According to the study, younger adults are more likely to be unaffiliated, as are men and those living in the Western U.S. Those who are unmarried or living with a partner are also more likely be included in the group. "Almost every study of religion in North America has found that men are less religious than women. Men just don't buy into religious instruction as little boys as much as women do as girls," said Robert Altemeyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. "It carries over throughout life."
Kosmin said those who are unaffiliated are more likely to be found in the West because the region lacks the religious infrastructure of the more traditional East, South and Midwest, or longstanding family ties "that will lead you to be tied to a congregation," said Kosmin.
Kosmin also said marriage and religion frequently go hand-in-hand, and noted that previous studies have found that those who are divorced are the most likely to become unaffiliated.
Looking ahead, Kosmin believes the United States will follow the Western model of becoming less and less religious over time. But that's not a change that's going to happen overnight. "I can tell you that you're not going to call me in 10 years time and tell me that 40 percent of the population are atheists," he said. "It's not going to happen."