Religion in America
updated February 2016

In addition to using the print option at the left, this page is also available as PDF files of a PowerPoint® presentation of this Summary in color or black-and-white. For additional insights, see a list of related InfoMatters blog posts at the bottom of this page.

In 2012 Stu Johnson was the lead author of a report on the Religious Publishing Marketplace in America, produced by Simba Information for Zondervan/HarperCollins Christian Publishing. The chapter on Religion in America, a summary of survey research, some of it going back many decades, was compiled solely by Stu and subsequently extracted as a separate report that he will update annually. (The full updated report, expanding on data covered in this summary, will be available by the end of April).

Highlights. The graphs on this page are selected slides from a PowerPoint® presentation that illustrates major trends in the American religious landscape. (You can click on a graph to enlarge it.)

The U.S. compared to the World

While Christian adherents have been declining, especially in the last two decades, the United States remains a predominantly Christian country—with 70% of adults identifying themselves as Christian in recent surveys conducted by Pew, Gallup and others. Around the world, according to the World Christian Database, Christians represent one-third of religious adherents (32.8%).

Half of the world’s adherents are Muslim, Hindu, Bhuddist, Chinese Universalists, and Jews, but those five groups combined represent less than 5% of U.S. adherents according to the latest Pew Religious Landscape Survey (2014). While still a very small minority in the United States, adherents of the major non-Christian religions have nearly doubled since 1990.

A fifty-year trend

For much of the 20th century, Protestantism dominated the American religious landscape, with its adherents representing 70% or more of the adult population. Catholic adherents accounted for another one-quarter of adults, putting the combined total of Christian adherents well over 90% for many years.

Following World War II, Protestants and Other (non-Catholic) Christians declined from a steady 70% majority to falling just below 50% for the first time in 2012 according to Gallup.

"Nones" (no affiliation preference) have been steadily growing from practically non-existent status in the 1960s to breaking 10% in the first decade of the 21st century and already approaching or exceeding 20% in the second decade, depending on the survey. (This reflects a rejection of organized religion, since some “nones” remain spiritually open).

"Born again" and "evanglical"

Since 1992, Gallup has asked people if they call themselves “born again” or “evangelical.” As a self-description there is plenty of latitude.*

The proportion affirming this identification peaked at 47% in 1998, with the trend curve starting to move gently downward after the turn of the millennium. Compared to other indicators with far more significant change, the trend here is remarkably level.

At the beginning and end of the chart there are a number of seemingly signficant swings where the number bumps up one year followed by a dip the next. While such swings can be attributable to specific factors, they can also be amplified by the margin of error and rounding of results to whole percentages. Interestingly—but not conclusively—the peaks in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010-11 and 2014 all correspond to mid-term elections. In my opinion the term “evangelical” has been corrupted by its common use among news media to refer to a religiously conservative voting block, confusing its theological meaning.

* Barna uses a strict definition of evangelical, based on beliefs and behaviors, that narrows the group down to about 8% of the adult population. Beyond those who fit this narrow definition, a third or more in Barna surveys have described themselves as “born again.”

The changing mix: Other religions

According to ARIS, Jews were declining from 1.8% in 1990 to 1.2% in 2008, but ARDA reported 1.7% in 2010 and Pew put it at 1.9% in 2014. Call it steady overall, given margins of error and different survey methodologies. (ARIS is the American Religious Identification Survey, ARDA is The Association of Religion Data Archives).

Muslims show a slight increase, though the 0.9% level reported by Pew in 2014 is below the 1.3% level reported by ARDA for 2010. The trend is upward, but Muslim adherents remain a smaller segment than many people may assume, given exposure in news and politics (and confusion between religion, ethnic background, and national origin).

Adherents of Other non-Christian religions (which represent many groups) are growing, up three-fold since 1990, and equal to or greater than the combined total of Jews and Muslims.

None does not equal Athiest, but does mean young

A breakdown of those who claim no religious affiliation shows some growth of those who identify themselves as atheist and agnostic, but the greatest growth is among those who simply have no preference.

In 2008, Pew found that when Unaffiliateds were asked a number of questions about spiritual issues, they could be divided between Religious (those who claim that spiritual factors are important to them) and Secular (those who claim little or no importance for spiritual things).

The presence of the seemingly paradoxical “religious unaffiliated” is an indicator of the discomfort that a growing number, especially the young, have with organized religion. (The chart on the right).

The importance of religion in America

How important is religion in your life? (left) Both “very important” and “somewhat important” show declines of about 5% each over 24 years, with “not very important” moving up about 10% in that time. This is far less dramatic than the “rise of the nones” (some of whom still consider religion important).

Ability of religion to address today’s problems. (right) The change here is close to the personal importance—a decline of about 10% over 22 years in “yes” and an increase of about the same amount for “no.” (This question was introduced in 1994).

The influence of religion

Here, the change is much more dramatic, with strong belief of increasing influence through 2001 followed by an equally dramatic decline. This is likely due to much more complex cultural and organizational associations than the more personal “problems” question. The trend for “losing” influence is a mirror image given the binary choice.

Confidence in religion and other institutions

In 1973, the first year Gallup conducted its annual measure of confidence in major institutions, “the church or organized religion” was rated the highest.

Religion continued to rank first through 1985, then fell below 60%. Among reasons: Televangelist scandals, child molestation by priests; then a decline in religiosity continued the downward trend.

In 2015, religion ranked fourth among 15 institutions, yet the 42% score is the lowest since the survey began in 1973—13 points below the average of 55. Institutions of all types have suffered a loss of confidence in the last twenty years. In Gallup’s 2015 survey, banks, the Supreme Court, the presidency and Congress also showed deficits in excess of 10-points over their historical averages.

The full Religion in America report with the newest data will be available by the end of April 2016. Watch this page for details or use the Contact form if you are interested in obtaining the report, scheduling Stu Johnson for a presentation, or have questions. In the meantime, pdf files of the PowerPoint® version of this summary are available in color or black-and-white.

For additonal insights, see these InfoMatters blog posts (some of the information will be integrated into updates of the Religion in America report):

"Changing Views of Christianity" - (March 1, 2016) - Stu Johnson summaries a new report from the Barna Group, "Five Ways Christianity is Increasingly Viewed as Extremist," and takes a look at several historical trends that may help explain how we got to this point.

"Trends in Religion 2015" - (December 17, 2015) - Stu Johnson summarizes the top-10 trends in 2015 reported by the Barna Group as well as Thom Rainer's "16 Trends in American Churches in 2016"

Related posts seen elsewhere

  • Christianty Today has an excellent article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, "8 Charts on Which Evangelicals Will (and Won't) Vote Trump on Super Tuesday," using info and charts from Pew, Barna and other sources. It supports much of what has been said here about the misuse of "evangelicals" as a solid voting bloc. (posted on Christianity Today's Gleanings page, February 29, 2016)

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