Religious Demographics

December 26, 2009

The recently-released American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) contains interesting data about religious trends in the United States. If you’re curious about how many Americans believe in magic, which particular magicians they patronize, and whether business is up or down for various magicians, read on.

Religion Population 2008 (millions) % of 1990 Population % of 2008 Population Change
11.8 2.30% 5.20% 126.09%
Eastern 2 0.40% 0.90% 125.00%
Muslim 1.4 0.30% 0.60% 100.00%
None 34.2 8.20% 15.00% 82.93%
New Age 2.8 0.80% 1.20% 50.00%
Protestant 7.1 2.60% 3.10% 19.23%
Pentecostal 8 3.20% 3.50% 9.38%
Mormon 3.2 1.40% 1.40% 0.00%
Christian Generic 32.4 14.80% 14.20% -4.05%
Catholic 57.2 26.20% 25.10% -4.20%
Baptist 36.1 19.30% 15.80% -18.13%
29.4 18.70% 12.90% -31.02%
Jewish 2.7 1.80% 1.20% -33.33%

Note: Christian generic includes non-denominational, unspecified Christian and Protestant, evangelical/born-again. Protestant denominations includes Churches of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist. Mainline Protestant includes Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Note that all data refer to adults (18+)

I admit to being a demographics geek. Changes over time in the number of people who exist, where they live, what they believe, how much money and education they have, etc., are fascinating. And many of the trends you see in these numbers are as inexorable as the tides. They will rise or fall no matter what you do, so you’d best prepare for it.

Today’s demographics have to do with religion. I’m not a believer. Please, no appeals regarding the perils to my mortal soul. Even if you are right, I’d rather be in hell with Hunter Thompson than heaven with Jerry Falwell. But I do pay attention to market trends in religion, since it appears to me that religion is behind more than its fair share of the ills in this world.

Keep in mind that the US adult population grew from 175 million in 1990 to 228 million in 2008. I’ve done some math where necessary but, if you don’t believe me, you can go get the original report and do your own numbers. Some observations about the data above:

The numbers above count only adults. The increase in adult population amounts to about 30% over the past 18 years. So, if you look at the last column in the above table (Change), any group that shows a change of less than +30% is losing ground. Their share of the total adult population is less than it was 18 years ago. And if the change for a group is -30% or more, not only are they losing market share but they also are losing numbers of members despite the growth in population.

Notice that the biggest increase was “No response,” up 126%. When asked about their religious affiliation, the number of people who said they “didn’t know” or refused to answer more than doubled.

Another cohort that nearly doubled in size were those who said “None,” up 83%.

Personally, I think the group that answered “No response” is comprised of atheists,¬† agnostics, and skeptics who still stand in some fear of the propaganda they were fed as children. I count them with those who answered “None.” Thus it might appear that there are 46 million Americans, or 20% of all adults who do not believe in god. This conclusion would be wrong. While somewhere around 20% of American adults have no formal religious affiliation, only 12% of Americans describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. Good data are hard to come by, but it appears that the percentage of atheists/agnostics in the US population hasn’t changed much over the past 50 years. That is, even though more Americans than ever deny any church affiliation, somewhere around 86-88% claim to believe in god.

What has changed are the percentage and numbers in the population who do not connect themselves with any organized religious group. In the past 18 years this group has jumped in size from 18 million to 46 million, increasing from 10% of the population to 20%.

The losers: Every major religious group in the country from the Catholics to mainstream Protestants have lost market share. Only a few New Age and Eastern religions have shown real growth and all together they account for less than 4% of the population. The real losers are the Jews and mainstream Protestants. Despite population growth, the number of Jews has declined by half a million and the number of mainstream Protestants  by three and a half million.

Biggest surprise: The Mormons. Mormon market share (1.4%) has not changed a bit in 18 years. This is particularly surprising given that Mormons have larger than average-sized families and that every year they send tens of thousands of young men into American communities to recruit new members. One has to conclude that the Mormons must have a high rate of drop outs.

So what does all this mean to you? Make your own choices about religion but, in these hard economic times, you would be wise to join a religion with a low or negative growth rate. Sure, they may hit you up to help out with their budget problems but that will cost you a lot less than contributing to the building fund of some growing Pentecostal church.