Where We Are Now: The Current American Religious Landscape
In 2008 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published The U.S. Religious Landscape
Survey, the most extensive research to-date on the religious affiliations of adult
Americans. Based on over 35,000 interviews, the Survey’s findings are a snapshot
of America’s current religious lay-of-the-land (the numbers are percentages of the
total adult population):
Such statistics show that “religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse
and extremely fluid.” Among the Survey’s other findings are the following:
- Nearly four out of five adult Americans still identify themselves as Christian. The
rest of the religious landscape is made up of followers of other religions (4.7%)
and those who say they have no religion at all (16.1%). So why do Christians feel
like somebody else is running their culture?
- Almost half of all adult Americans are religiously mobile. They have either switched
from one denomination to another, joined a particular faith after being unaffiliated,
or given up all connections to organized religion. This means that present figures
will not stay the same for long.
- The U.S. is about to lose its Protestant majority. Only 51% of adult Americans now
call themselves Protestants. They are “diverse, fragmented, and declining in number.”
This Protestant “market share” has been declining since the mid-19th century, when
nearly three-fourths of the U.S. population was Protestant.
- Roman Catholics have experienced the heaviest losses. Nearly one-third of adult Americans
were raised Catholic, but only one-fourth self-identify as Catholics today. Such
losses would have been even greater without the recent influx of large numbers of
Catholic immigrants, who outnumber Protestants by almost two-to-one.
- The Unaffiliated now make up about one-sixth of the adult population. This group
has doubled in size since the 1980s and contains both secular and “religious” people
who nevertheless have dropped out of organized religion. There are now about as many
Unaffiliateds as mainline Protestants, which makes them the fourth largest “religious”
group in the U.S.
- Young adults are disproportionately Unaffiliated. Nearly one-third of this cohort
is under age 30; and almost three-quarters are under age 50. (That compares with
20% and 59% respectively for the entire adult population.) If the trend continues,
the future of religious affiliation in America will look much different than it does
What do these statistics prove? Does having over three-quarters of adult Americans
self-identify as Christians mean that they are in the cultural driver’s seat? When
it comes to exerting cultural influence, why do small minorities often trump majorities?
If there are so many Christians in America, why don’t their values carry over into
the country’s laws and mores? What’s the long-term significance of one-in-four 18-29
year olds not having any religious affiliation?
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey provides more than this snapshot of the big picture.
Its other data help us get answers to those important questions. In coming Perspectives
we will explore how the role of religion keeps changing in America and how religions
around the world influence our life at home.