Anyone even mildly interested in religion ought to spend some time perusing the Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey. It’s full of all sorts of fascinating data. Here are some the highlights…
Mainline Protestants, once the dominant religionists in the 2oth century, now make up only 18.1% of the population. (Presbyterians edge out Episcopalians 1.9% to 1.4%. Evangelical Protestants make up the largest religious group in the United States, constituting 26.3% of the population. Catholics make up 23.1% of Americans. The fasting growing group, the “unaffiliated”, are at 16.1% and will certainly outnumber Mainline Protestants in the near future.
71% of Americans contend that their belief in God is “absolutely” certain, 17% hold belief in God with “fair” certainty, 4% are not to certain in their belief, while only 5% explicitly don’t believe. Pennsylvania on the whole mirrors the country almost exactly where these percentages are concerned. New Hampshire and Vermont on the other hand are a bit more skeptical, with only 54% claiming certain belief in God. These states also contain proportionately more professed unbelievers than the national average at 9%. Mississippians seem to find it easiest to believe than the rest of us, with 91% of them professing faith with absolute certainty. Only 1% of Mississippians are professed non-believers. It must be lonely being an atheist in the deep south.
Only 24% of Americans believe that their religion is the true faith that leads to eternal life. 70% of Americans believe that many religions can lead you to eternal bliss. The fact that more and more Americans are becoming religious relativists isn’t altogether shocking. But what did come as a major surprise to me was how the evangelicals polled in this regard. Evangelical Protestants, 59% of which hold that the Bible is literally true word for word, believe that many religions lead to salvation to the tune of 57%. That’s downright fascinating and certainly challenges the stereotype that conservative Christians think everyone who doesn’t accept Jesus goes to hell. Only 36% of evangelicals believe that. (The most pessimistic about the possibility of salvation outside their ranks are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, 80% of whom believe you have to be on their team to be saved.)
When asked how important religion is in daily life Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to be the most devoted, with 86% claiming their faith is very important. Members of historically black churches come in second with 85% of their adherents making the same claim. Mormons (83%), evangelicals (79%) and Muslims (72%) come in third, fourth and fifth respectively. Only 52% of Mainline Protestants make the same claim.
Another surprise came when I looked at the political statistics. Only 38% of evangelicals identify as Republicans. Compare this to 31% of Mainline Protestants who claim to be G.O.P. members and the idea that the Evangelical Protestants churches are the background of the Republican party seems like it needs qualifying. If you’re unaffiliated with any religious tradition it doesn’t mean you’re lack religious or theological beliefs. It doesn’t even mean you don’t engage in religious practices. 41% of the unaffiliated population says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, 70% say they believe in God, and more than a quarter (27%) say they attend religious services at least a few times a year.
Americans are becoming increasingly less loyal to “brands” where religious choices are concerned. 28% of Americans have left the religion they were raised in for another tradition or for no tradition at all. If you count switching from one type of Protestantism (say Presbyterianism to Anglicanism), roughly 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
There’s much more that could be written about. The survey is full of fascinating data which you can cross reference and compare very easily on Pew’s website. I’d be remiss if I didn’t conclude this post with a few implications for churches like mine. First, it’s a competitive religious market and people will go where they feel their needs are being met. Loyalty to tradition is on the decline, and quickly. Churches have to be able to communicate who they are and why it matters in compelling ways because Americans are truly religious consumers. This isn’t an argument against tradition. Far from it. In fact the best most committed members turn out to be the ones that hold to more traditional understandings of their religious traditions. But communicating the tradition in fresh ways to people who might have to acquire an appreciation for its relevance and dynamism will be the challenge.
On a more encouraging note, evangelism is not a lost cause. 4% of Americans say that they went from being unaffiliated as children to religious affiliates as adults. The trend doesn’t only go one way. Alleluia…