U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

Tom Shipka

In February of this year, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of one of the most extensive surveys in history of the views of Americans toward religion. The survey, titled the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, was conducted in 2007 among a sample of 35,000 adults. (a) Thousands of facts about believers and non-believers in America can be found in the narrative or tables in this 250 page document, including these:

  • Members of historically black churches are least likely to be married (67)
  • More men than women are likely to claim no religious affiliation (62)
  • Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists have much larger percentages of members with high incomes and advanced education than members of other religious groups (9)
  • Approximately one-in-twenty-five Americans are atheists or agnostics (24)

But these interesting revelations are peripheral to the principal findings of the survey. Let's focus on three such findings.
Firstly, "...religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid." (5) More than one-quarter of us - 28% - have left the faith in which we were raised in favor of another religion or no religion. (5) The fastest growing segment of the population is the unaffiliated which comprises two groups - those who say they are religious but connect with no particular church and those who say they are atheist or agnostic. 16.1% of Americans fall into this unaffiliated category today. (5, 7) In the 18-29 age group, one-in-four Americans are unaffiliated. (5)
Secondly, the fluidity of the American religious landscape is particularly evident in the declines in Catholicism and Protestantism.
"Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group." (19) While 31.4% of U.S. adults were raised Catholic, only 23.9% identify with the Catholic Church today. (23) More than one-in-ten Americans today who were raised Catholic no longer are. (25) Despite the huge loss of Catholics raised in this faith in the U.S., the Catholic Church, paradoxically, has retained its traditionally large share - 25% - of the American adult population. (19) This is due to immigration.

  • Nearly half of all immigrants to our shores are Catholic. (36)
  • Half of all adult Catholics in the U.S. under age forty are Hispanic. (45)
  • One-in-five Catholics in the U.S. were born outside the U.S.; and of these, four-in-five are from Latin America and the Caribbean. (53)

Protestantism has also declined in America. Through the 1970s, 60% to 65% of Americans identified themselves as Protestant. (18) Today that figure has dropped to 51%, a bare majority. (18) Further, the survey divides Protestantism into three groups - mainline, evangelical, and historically black - and notes that "the proportion of the population identifying with the large mainline Protestant denominations has declined significantly in recent decades, while the proportion of Protestants identifying with the large evangelical denominations has increased." (18) Today only 18.1% of the U.S. adult population are members of mainline Protestant churches compared to 26.3% who are evangelicals. (10)

a. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2008. See religions.pewforum.org for the online presentation of the findings of the survey. Quotes of the survey and reference to it herein are by page number.
b. Hindus and Mormons are most likely to be married - 78% and 71% respectively - and Hindus have the lowest divorce rate - 5%. Only 33% of members of historically black churches are married and 34% were never married. (67)

© 2008 Tom Shipka