Religion in America
updated January 2018

About Religion in America. 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.

About this page. The graphs on this page are selected slides from a more detailed PowerPoint® presentation that illustrates major trends in the American religious landscape. You can click on a graph to enlarge it. (It will open in a new tab.)

Notes: The primary data sources used in our research include Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and Barna Group. Data sources are shown on each chart. For some charts, the survey is conducted annually, with the latest year available at the time of this update shown. For others, the survey is conducted less frequently, so the latest data is shown.

Major observations with this update.

  • In the U.S. the number of Christian adherents continues a slow decline that became noticeable around 1970. While non-Christian adherents are growing, the most dramatic change is the "rise of the nones," those who claim no identification with a religious denomination or tradition.

  • While Christian adherents are declining in the U.S., those who describe themselves as "born again" or "evangelical" has remained more constant, in the low 40s for the past ten years. However, especially over the election cycles since 2000, the term "evangelical" has lost much of its meaning, with a conflating of what used to be called Fundamentalism and the political Religious Right with evangelicalism as it had been understood in the last half of the 20th century. Barna, by contrast, uses a definition of beliefs and behaviors that narrows the number from the self-identified 40% to something closer to 8%, though it has tracked self-professed "born-agains" in the 30s.

  • Breaking the numbers down, it appears that most of the loss in Christian adherents is occurring among those who might be identified as "cultural" or "nominal" Christians, whose adherence has been driven by tradition more than belief and practice.

  • The significant rise of those who claim no affiliation—especially in the United States—has been accelerating since 2000 and is most noticeable among the youngest generations. A new study (January 2018) by Barna, which includes 13-18 year-olds in Generation Z, shows a doubling of those identifying themselves as atheist (13%, compared to 6-7% for all older cohorts, including Millenials and Gen X).

  • Americans have shown a steady erosion of confidence in major institutions tracked by Gallup since 1973. Organized religion was number 1 from 1973 through 1985. Even though it has lost more ground than any of the other 15 institutions reported in 2017, it still is among the top institutions, coming in at number 4.

  • Globally, Christian adherents represent the largest group, followed by Muslim, Unaffiliated, Hindu, Buddhist, and Folk Religions. By 2050, a Pew study projects that Christian and Muslim adherents will virtually reverse their positions, with Muslims as the largest global group and Christian in second place.

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%).

While Christian adherents are expected to dominate in the United States into the foreseeable future, by 2050 it may decrease from three-quarters to two-thirds of adults. Non-Christian adherents in the U.S. will increase some, but the most noticeable shift will be the continued increase of those with no stated affiliation. However, when looking at global projections, notice that Muslim adherents could become the largest segment by 2050, most others staying the same or declining, including unaffiliated.

The changing mix

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. The most striking change is :the "rise of the nones," described in more detail below.

"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, then approaching or exceeding 20% in the second decade, depending on the survey. Initially, this reflected a rejection of organized religion, with some "nones" remaining spiritually open. More recently, however, especially among younger generations, we are seeing growth in those who identify as agnostic or atheist.

"Born again" and "evangelical"

Since 1992, Gallup has asked people if they describe 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 significant 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. While the number noticeably peaked in 2014, it reversed course in 2015, then rose more modestly in 2016 and 17 to settle in very close to the trend line (a 4th-order polynomial, which best represents the long-term movement).

* 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 Atheist, but does mean young

Prior to 2018, a breakdown of those who claimed no religious affiliation showed some growth of those who identify themselves as atheist and agnostic, but the greatest growth was among those who simply have no preference.

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.

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).

In a study released in January 2018, Barna Group revealed a startling indicator of the depth of age-related disconnect with organized religion. The youngest age cohort, known as Generation Z, or Gen Z, shows a 5-point increase over Millennials in not claiming a religious affiliation. Most significant, all of the increase and more came from those claiming to be atheists. The Barna report reveals much more detail, which will be dealt with in an InfoMatters blog (and the full Religion in America presentation).

The importance of religion in America

How important is religion in your life?

Both "very important" and "somewhat important" show declines of about 7% each over 25 years (10% off the peak of 61% in 1998 and 2003). "Not very important" moved up about 13% in that time. This is, however, far less dramatic than the "rise of the nones" (some of whom still consider religion important).

Ability of religion to address today's problems.

The change here is similar to the personal importance—a decline of about 7% over 23 years in "yes," though a 12% difference between the peak of 67% in 1999 and low of 52% in 2014. Those who felt that religion "is largely old-fashioned and out of date" rose fairly steadily by 13 points, from 21% in 1994 to 34% in the latest survey in 2017. (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 to 2009, when it leveled off in the low 20% area. 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.

Membership and Attendance

While membership has fallen faster than attendance, the importance of membership (which requires a formal process in most religious bodies) has itself been in decline. Some are content to attend without being official members. Furthermore, while most churches distinguish between members and attenders, it is unclear whether respondents make that distinction. At any rate, it is clear that immediacy of attendance is lower than having a sense of belonging.

Confidence in religion and other American 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 general decline in religiosity continued the downward trend.

In 2017, religion ranked fourth among 16 institutions, even though it has fallen further than any of the institutions included—its 41% score is 15 points below its average of 56 since 1973. Institutions of all types have suffered a loss of confidence in the last twenty-plus years. In Gallup's 2017 survey, shown here, the Presidency and Congress also showed deficits in excess of 10-points over their historical averages, with the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, newspapers, and TV news all down by at least 5-points.

For additional insights, see these InfoMatters blog posts:

Coming Soon - a summary of the latest Barna research about Generation Z

"Religion in America 2017" - (January 18, 2018) - Stu Johnson summarizes the top ten research articles reported by the Barna Group.

"Religious Trends and Predictions 2016-17" - (January 5, 2017) - Stu Johnson reports on observations about 2016 from Gallup and Aaron Earls, and predictions for 2017 by Aaron Earls.

"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"

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