Over the past week or so you may have seen some soundbites or headlines stating that a recent study shows Americans are losing their faith. The headlines were inspired by an ambitious effort called the Religious Landscape Study, which was carried out by the Pew Research Center.
The study is an intriguing attempt to do something nobody’s ever done: use modern sociological tools to try to discern what Americans actually believe about religion. Its results are rather stunning, but not surprisingly, the media is getting the study wrong or, worse, giving it only shallow and superficial attention.
We need to pay attention to the study because of its scope. The Pew Center conducted intense interviews of 35,000 people from all 50 states to gather its data. The conclusions might be far from accurate, but they are the best we have. They also paint a picture of the religious landscape that a lot of Americans may not want to see.
The Most Important Revelations from the Pew Study
The most important revelations about America’s faith and values that the latest version of the Pew Study uncovered include:
- America still considers itself a “Christian” nation. Around 70.6% of Americans listed their faith as Christian. That means there are around 223.23 million Christians in America.
- The term Christian is a catchall phrase that encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and traditions, some of which have little in common. Included in Pew’s definition of Christians are groups that many traditional Christian theologians would not consider Christian, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- American Christians are still deeply divided along doctrinal, denominational and theological lines. They cannot be regarded as a coherent block or group.
- The largest religious group in America is what Pew calls Evangelical Protestants, who make up 25.4% of the nation’s Christians. If Pew’s statistics are correct, there are around 81 million evangelicals in the United States. That means roughly one out of four Americans out of a population of 318.9 million is an evangelical.
- The second largest religious group in America is what Pew calls Unaffiliated, or people with no religion, who make up around 22.8% of the population. That means there around 72.7 million Americans with no religion. As you can see, this could make for an interesting conflict.
- The number of atheists and agnostics, those that reject all religion, is larger than you think. These two groups make up 7.1% of the population, or around 22.64 million people. For the record, 3.1% of the population, or around 9.89 million people, call themselves atheists, and 4%, or 12.78 million people, claim to be agnostic.
- This makes active secularists; agnostics and atheists, the largest non-Christian group in the United States. The 7.1% of the population, or 22.64 million people, that describe themselves as agnostic or atheist exceeds the number of people that claim to practice non-Christian faiths. Non-Christian believers make up 5.9% of the population, or 18.82 million people.
- Agnostics (people that doubt all religions) are the largest faction of non-Christians in the United States with 4% of the population, or 12.78 million people.
- Atheists are the second largest non-Christian group in the United States with 3.1% of the population, or 9.89 million people. That means there are nearly 10 million self-described atheists in the USA.
- The number of atheists in the United States now exceeds the number of Jews. Self-described atheists make up 3.1% of the population, or 9.89 million people. Self-described Jews account for 1.9% of the population, or 6.06 million people.
- The number of Muslims in the United States is statistically insignificant: .9%, or 2.87 million people.
- There are three times as many atheists in the United States as Muslims.
- The number of atheists in the United States is twice that of Mormons. Mormons make up around 1.6% of the population, while atheists make up 2.1%. That means there are around 9.89 million atheists and 5.1 million Mormons.
- The number of Hindus and Buddhists in the United States is statistically insignificant. Around .7% of the population, or 223,230, claims to belong to each of these faiths. That means both of these faiths account for around 446,460 people, or less than half a million.
- The fastest declining faith in America could be Roman Catholicism. Around 20.8% of the population, or around 66.33 million people, claims to be Catholic in the United States.
- The mainline Protestant churches—Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.—are still a more potent force than you may think. They have around 46.88 million members, or 14.7% of the population.
- The black Protestant churches are also still a potent force. They have around 20.73 million members, or about 6.5% of the population.
- A lot of Americans simply do not care about religion. Around 15.8% of the population, or 50.39 million people, told Pew their faith was nothing in particular.
- By the numbers, “Nothing in Particular” is the second largest faith in America behind Evangelical Protestants.
- The number of people that admit to believing in Nothing in Particular now exceeds the number of Mainline Protestants in America—around 50.39 million as opposed to 46.88 million, or 15.8% of the population compared to 14.7%.
What Can We Learn from the Pew Study?
Okay, so what can we learn from the Pew Study, and how could it affect politics and society in the future? Here are what I consider to be the most important takeaways:
- America is not as religious a nation as we thought; over 50 million Americans admit they do not care about religion. Another 22.8 million are officially noncommittal or actively hostile to religion. That means there could be 72.8 million non-religious Americans. They now outnumber Catholics and Mainline Protestants, and they’re closing in on Evangelicals.
- Atheists now have the sheer numbers to become a significant and influential minority in America if they wish. They now outnumber other influential groups, such as Jews and Mormons. Like the Jews, the self-described atheists are disproportionately represented in the more affluent and influential classes of our society, such as journalists, investment bankers, professors, writers, etc. Something else to remember is that it only takes small numbers of voters to decide elections in some parts of the United States.
- Actively or militantly non-religious people (agnostics and atheists) are now a significant minority in the United States. There are around 22.8 million of them, and they are more likely to be affluent and educated. There are enough of them to form a significant political and cultural force. At some point, politicians will have to start paying attention to them.
- Evangelicals are now the most significant group among Christians in the United States.
- Traditional Christians are now a distinct minority in the United States. They are outnumbered by both the non-religious and Evangelicals.
Basically, Pew has determined that America is a far more secular place than we care to admit. I have to wonder if this study is predicting the future political and cultural battle that will shape America in the decades to come: militant secularists vs. evangelicals. One has to wonder if these groups can find common ground with each other or if we are in for some sort of interfaith conflict in the United States.