Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

New Survey: All Religions Losing Ground in USA

The American Religious Identification Survey, since its 1990 founding, the most thorough study every year of the strength and variety of religions in this nation, has been released.  USA Today has numerous charts and articles on the entire results here.  In brief, America is becoming more religiously diverse, but also less religious.  A  full 15% of Americans now list “NONE” for religion–the highest since the survey began.  “None” is now the 3rd largest category–behind Catholics and Baptists.  Almost every faith group lost ground and so did every region of the nation. 

One of the few groups to grow is Islam. Though still tiny, American Muslims have grown from 0.3% in 1990 to 0.6% today.

Now, this should be put in context:  The U.S.A. is still far more religious than any other industrial nation.  We are not in any danger of Europe’s empty churches turned into museums in the near future. (By the way, I am convinced that church-state separation helps our greater religious strength. Without government endorsement or aid, religions have to compete for adherents and support.) Further, large majorities still claim to believe in God–it is the institutions of church, synagogue, mosque, etc. that they are more skeptical  of than previously.  Many Americans are now “free lancers” essentially creating their own  religions–a trend that dates back to Colonial days, but which has waxed and waned in various periods of history.  Also, judging by similar periods of history, if the recession becomes a depression and/or drags on for some time, it could well lead to a religious revival. (The loss of the idol of wealth and greed often turns people to spiritual matters.)

I would guess (and that’s all this is) that one factor in the decline of Southern Baptists and evangelicals has been their defense of the Iraq war and of torture.  I would guess that the rightward shift of the Vatican, along with the scandals over priestly sexual abuse of children (which has been much higher in profile than similar scandals among Protestants) has led to the decline in Catholicism.  But these are only guesses.

What is clear is that the rust belt is less Catholic than before and the Bible Belt less Southern Baptist than previously.

March 9, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. One area of growth worth noting amongst evangelicals is immigrant churches from the two-thirds world. Were it not for them, evangelical churches would actually be declining just as quickly as mainline denominational churches. Thus the real “emergent” church is amongst immigrants.

    Comment by haitianministries | March 9, 2009

  2. I am always wary of statistics. They usually serve to suit someone’s purposes. They can be manipulated and should be taken with a grain of thought. You will notice that I said thought and not salt. My Grand Mother’s arthritic joints could forecast weather as good as the evening weather report. 🙂

    Comment by Paul | March 9, 2009

  3. The issue is not faithlessness, but pursuit of personal faith within the right communal context. It is incumbent upon religious institutions to better address the needs and perspective of modern, western believers. I address this directly in my new book, Good God: Faith for the Rest of Us (goodgodforus.com). We in the Pacific Northwest have been on the cutting edge of this emerging issue for some time.

    Comment by Daniel Weiner | March 9, 2009

  4. Paul, it is true that statistics can be misleading. Whenever one can find them being manipulated or misused, honesty demands that this be exposed. But one cannot simply be skeptical of all statistical data: it is proper to ask how the data were compiled, about the soundness of the study, questions, etc., but to refuse to gather data at all is NOT proper. Surely your church keeps membership statistics, no?

    Without statistical surveys one is left with only “gut feelings” or anecdotal information–both of which are LESS reliable than statistical data.

    The ARIS studies have been well designed and usually most religious goups have relied on them yearly–not just when they give welcome news. Go to the link I provided and read the articles and check out the charts. Then, if you think something is being manipulated, point out where that is so. Make an argument for such misuse of data as a form of deception. But sweeping negative claims about statistics are not helpful. I doubt seriously that you would have reacted the same way if the headline was “Christians multiplied greatly in U.S. this past year.” We tend to accept good news less skeptically than bad news. That’s human nature, but, in the name of information integrity, we can guard against that tendency and correct for it.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 10, 2009

  5. Hi Michael

    I’m an atheist. I think the average believer being much more sophisticated now, trying to make a bronze-iron age document relevant to the 21st century, is where they are going wrong. I hear a lot of people saying how the qu’ran advocates violence. Have any of these people read the torah? The whole lot of them are blood soaked because it was practically a “job requirement” for a god back then.

    Even the NT, Matt 10 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

    Carrot and Stick was Ok while the words were being interpreted and the desired message filtered accordingly by a cleric. It just doesn’t work as well in this day and age.

    I believe most people are “wired” to believe in god, it just doesn’t matter which god as that appears to be largely an accident of birth and geography. I’m the one with the “faulty wiring”.

    I wouldn’t worry about those figures, they will just fluctuate but most people will come back to one sort of god or another, eventually. Thats my opinion, anyway.

    Hope the post wasn’t too long. Thank you for the hearing.

    Comment by Peter McMahon | March 10, 2009

  6. Gut feelings helped me survive and endure my years as a fireman Michael. (Oops, I must be politically correct and say apologize for not saying firefighter.) Statistics and a quarter may get you a glass of water in a diner. That being said, on your recommendation, I shall peruse ARIS. I wonder how Jesus would have came across if they had had such things in His day? And Muhammad and Buddha ?

    Comment by Paul | March 11, 2009

  7. I’m happy for your survival instincts, Paul, but it’s not the same thing, is it? The “gut feeling” of a firefighter (or other trained person in a dangerous situation) is actually the brain adding up tons of sensory input (data) and SUBCONSCIOUSLY reaching the right conclusion long before the conscious mind could do the same thing. A person without that firefighting training would be much less likely to draw the right conclusions from a “gut feeling.”

    You can’t apply that to scientific investigation, can you? The same firefighter whose gut feeling saved his life cannot then substitute that for arson investigation. He may say, “This feels like arson to me” (because, again, his subconscious is adding up more than his conscious mind knows that he’s observing and is rapidly comparing it to his experience with other
    fires) but he knows he can’t substitute that for actual investigation. His “gut feeling” may be confirmed or not and he goes with the data in his testimony in court.

    Similarly, an astute longtime observer of American religious life may have gut feelings about whether or not some or all religions are growing or losing ground and/or why. And they may be good clues based on extrapolations from anecdotal evidence. But there is no substitute for statistical investigation. And, yes, statistics can be manipulated or abused–just as someone can manipulate or abuse the tools of an arson investigator. In that case, those who have the competence to see the flaws are duty-bound to point them out. “Hey, that conclusion doesn’t follow from the data.” Or “This survey question is phrased in a way that predetermines the answer.” Etc. But just to write off statistical investigation won’t do.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 11, 2009

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Peter. Responding to your comment would take a separate post, I’m afraid.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 11, 2009

  9. Points taken Michael – however, I still distrust statistics. 🙂

    Comment by Paul | March 12, 2009

  10. […] Michael Westmoreland-White added an interesting post on New Survey: All Religions Losing Ground in USA « LevellersHere’s a small excerptA full 15% of Americans now list “NONE” for religion–the highest since the survey began. ”None” is now the 3rd largest category–behind Catholics and Baptists. Almost every faith group lost ground and so did every region of the nation. … […]

    Pingback by Topics about Religion » New Survey: All Religions Losing Ground in USA « Levellers | March 19, 2009

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