New Survey: Those With No Religion Fastest-Growing Tradition

Evangelicals also gain as the wider Christian population dips.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

A major new survey of religion in America reports three huge trends: that "nones"—people claiming no religion—constitute the only "religious" tradition that's growing in all 50 states, that nearly 40 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again, and that the nation's massive Roman Catholic population has shifted from the Northeast to the Southwest. According to one survey's investigators, "California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England."

Enormous political implications here. Released today, the American Religious Identification Survey—conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College—pays special attention to the growing ranks of American "nones." From the press release:

The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million "Nones." Northern New England has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country, with Vermont, at 34 percent "Nones," leading all other states by a full 9 points.

"Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly," [Ariela] Keysar said. We now know it wasn't. The 'Nones' are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union."

When this secularizing trend collides with the growing strength of nondenominational evangelical Christianity—and with the fading of more liberal mainline Christianity—we get a demographic explanation for the growing ferocity of the nation's culture wars. Again, from the release:

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent. Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again," or "non-denominational Christian." The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.

"It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism—mainline versus evangelical—is collapsing," said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States."

The Catholic shift to the Southwest, meanwhile, helps explain why Latino priorities will continue to be a top issue for the Catholic Church.