What’s the religious faith of Americans today?

Although there will long remain debate about the faith of the nation’s Founding Fathers, it is inarguable that America has long been a nation composed of religious believers. Indeed, it’s unique among Western countries for its exceptional religiosity. Still today, nearly three out of four Americans report a religious affiliation, well above the rates noted in European nations.1 It’s no secret, however, that things are changing. For well over a decade now sociologists have mapped the rise in the segment of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. Most surveys, however, are not nearly as large as the Relationships in America (RIA) data collection effort, often limiting scholars’ ability to offer accurate assessments of smaller faiths and religious subgroups. So what does America look like when over 15,000 of its people are asked a set of questions about their religious affiliations and self-identities?

Table 1.1

To begin, two out of every three (66 percent) Americans still identify with some form of Christianity. Among these, Protestants account for just over half of American Christians, at 34 percent of the nation’s total, while about one in three American Christians are Catholics, which comprise just over 22 percent of American adults under age 60.

But the survey is able to go deeper than surface-level affiliations, which often tell us very little about what Americans believe and how they actually practice their faith.

When we do, we find that only about one-quarter of Catholics self-identify as “traditional” Catholics (5.7 percent of American adults), while more consider themselves “moderate” (7.5 percent), and a comparable number (5.8 percent) identify as “liberal” Catholic.

Among Protestants, self-identified evangelicals are the largest subgroup, at just under nine percent of the U.S. population. Mainline Protestants (like Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians) have long been perceived to be in a membership free fall, and while the survey is not a longitudinal one, it does indicate that mainliners comprise less than 10 percent of all Protestants today, and only 3.2 percent of the American public.

Mormons, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims all account for relatively small shares of the population, with each representing less than 2 percent.

So what about the religiously unaffiliated? The survey explicitly distinguished between two forms of disaffiliation—the “spiritual but not religious” and those that say they are either “nothing,” an atheist, or an agnostic. In keeping with recent surveys, this share of Americans represents a significant minority group in American religious life. Just over 13 percent of American adults identify as “nothing,” atheist, or agnostic, while 7.6 percent claim the “spiritual but not religious” moniker. Despite talk of religious diversity, irreligious Americans are far more numerous than all non-Christian religions combined.

Religious affiliations are, of course, not randomly distributed but rather commonly associated with a variety of demographic traits, including age. While in previous research early adulthood is commonly assessed as the trough or “lowest point” in the religious life cycle, what does the RIAdata say? It found that older Americans are moderately more likely than younger adults to affiliate with a Christian religious tradition. Among those ages 25-34, just under 60 percent identify as Christians while nearly 73 percent of those ages 55-60 say the same. Older Christians also attend church more often than younger ones.2

Figure 1.1Religiously unaffiliated persons as a percentage of the population, by age

Figure 1.1 reveals that religious disaffiliation is most characteristic—barely—of the 25-34-year-old age cohort, followed by the youngest group in the survey data. Just under 30 percent of each self-identified as “spiritual but not religious,” nothing/atheist/agnostic, or simply told us they “don’t know” if they have a religious affiliation (which is typically interpreted to mean that they do not). Interestingly, the oldest survey takers—anyone above age 45—were the most likely to identify as “spiritual but not religious,” but were the least likely to say they were “nothing,” atheist, or agnostic.

Although much is made popularly about the connection between greater education and the sloughing off of religious belief and behavior, academic researchers have not reached consensus here. The Relationships in America survey reveals why—those adults with more education are only slightly less likely to report a religious affiliation than their less-educated peers.

Adults with more education are only slightly less likely to report a religious affiliation than their less-educated peers.

Among Americans with less than a high school education, 77 percent claim a religious affiliation, while an equal proportion of high school graduates do the same. Among those who have some college education, that number drops slightly to 74 percent, and dips further—but only to 72 percent—among those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Hardly slam dunk stuff for equating education with religious skepticism.

On the other hand, religious affiliation is just one component of assessing the religiousness of Americans. It says nothing about the level of religiosity among those who affiliate with specific groups. In Question 2 we explore the association between education and religious activity.

1 “The American-Western European Values Gap.” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project. November 17, 2011. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

2 For details, see Section 2 of this report.

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