American Religious Identification Survey 2008

Tom Shipka

Last month researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, published the results of a national survey of beliefs about religion called the American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS for short. This is the third such survey from this group over an eighteen year span. (1) Perhaps the most startling finding in ARIS 2008 is about the Nones. That's N-O-N-E-S. The Nones are the non-religious among us. There are twenty million more Nones today than in 1990, an increase of 138 percent, and the percentage of Nones has jumped from 8.2 percent to 15 percent of the population. (p. 3) Indeed, Nones are the only group on the American religious landscape which has increased in numbers and percentage in every state in the past two decades. (p. 17)

Here are some of the survey's other findings:

  1. While the majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, and the number of Christians in the nation has increased since 1990 by 22 million, the percentage of Christians in the adult population has dropped by more than 10 percent. (p. 3)
  2. Mainline Protestants dropped from 18.7 percent to 12.9 percent of the population (p. 5) (2), and Baptists dropped from 19.3 percent to 12.9 percent of the population. (p. 5) At the same time, the number of Americans who self-identify as "generic Christians" or "non-denominational Christians" rose from less than 800,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million in 2008. (pp. 5-6)
  3. 27 percent of Americans say that they do not expect to have a religious funeral or service when they die. (p. 10
  4. )On the subject of divorce, except for Jews and Mormons, whose divorce rates are atypically low, Nones compare favorably to believers. The divorce rate for Catholics, Baptists, and Nones is 11 percent; other Christian groups, such as Pentecostals and generic Christians, have a higher divorce rate. (p. 13)
  5. The influx of Hispanics, now the nation's largest minority, (p. 15) has contributed significantly to a huge increase in the Catholic populations of California, Texas, and Florida. (3) Over the past two decades, the Catholic population rose from 29 percent to 37 percent in California, from 23 percent to 32 percent in Texas, and from 23 percent to 27 percent in Florida. (pp. 20-22) Migration of Catholics from the northeast and the mid-west also contributed to this trend. (pp. 20-22)
  6. The percentage of Catholics in New England declined from 50 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 2008. At the same time, the percentage of Nones in New England grew from 8 percent to 22 percent. (p. 18)

Does all this mean that we are witnessing "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," as the cover of a recent issue (April 13, 2009) of Newsweek magazine suggests? Hardly. A significant majority of Americans remain Christians, more and larger mega-churches are built each month, Christian media reach over a hundred million of the faithful daily, Christian groups spend hundreds of millions each year to proselytize and to shape public policy, and, as is the case today, the occupant of the White House for the foreseeable future will be a person of faith.


  1. The 1990 survey was published in 1993 under the title One Nation under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, and the 2001 survey was published in 2006 under the title Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans. The principal investigator for all three is Barry Kosmin, a sociologist. For the 2008 survey, see ARIS 2008 follows on the heels of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey which was published in February of this year. This survey found that a) 28% of Americans have left the religion of their youth for another religion or no religion, b) the fastest growing segment of the population is those who say they are religious but connect with no particular church and those who say that they are atheist or agnostic, c) more than one in ten Catholics born in the United States are no longer Catholic, and d) those embracing Protestantism – mainline, evangelical, and historically black – have declined to a bare majority – 51%. See my WYSU commentary on this survey at Click on "Public Affairs," then "Commentaries." Both surveys have been reported extensively in the media and ARIS 2008 serves as the basis of the cover story in Newsweek, April 13, 2009, pp. 34-38.
  2. Mainline Protestants are Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and members of the United Church of Christ.
  3. Surprisingly, the percentage of Catholics among Hispanics in America has declined from 66 percent in 1990 to 59 percent in 2008. Many Hispanics have gravitated to generic Christianity (from 8 percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 2008) and to the Nones (from 6 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 2008). (p. 14)

© 2009 Tom Shipka