America is a Christian Nation. Of course it’s not in any official or legal sense, but statistically, the US remains a majority Christian nation. Americans are also more likely than most other industrialized nations to say that religion is “very important” (source). The latest surveys put Christians at 76% of the total population of the US, with 51% of Americans being Protestant and 25% being Catholic (source).
While the US has a high percentage of Christians, the percentage of adult Christians has dropped 10% from 1990 to 2008 (same source as before). At the same time, the population claiming No Religious Affiliation has grown rapidly, from 8.2% of the US in 1990 to 15% in 2008. From 1990 to 2001 the population of “Nones” (as the ARIS terms it) more than doubled. Now there are ten times as many Nones as there are Latter Day Saints in the US. The makers of the ARIS survey claim that within 20 years Americans with no religious affiliation could make up 20% of the US (source). Other polling agencies have corroborated these findings with similar results; according to Gallup, 16% of Americans now claim no religious identity (source). Finally, the biggest losers in religious growth have been Mainline Protestant groups, and to an extent the Catholic Church, according to the ARIS survey. There is an important note to make on Catholics in the US: Catholics are leaving the church and being replaced by latinos, at least nationally. As such the ARIS notes:
“Religious switching along with Hispanic immigration has significantly changed the religious profile of some states and regions. Between 1990 and 2008, the Catholic population proportion of the New England states fell from 50% to 36% and in New York it fell from 44% to 37%, while it rose in California from 29% to 37% and in Texas from 23% to 32%.” (source)
What I found more interesting in these surveys was how the national data broke down geographically. An earlier source (the Ipsos MORI survey) that Americans are rank religion’s importance higher than most industrialized countries (source), but this varies widely depending on what part of the US is surveyed. Gallup has a great summary of their findings on this matter: When asked “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” 65% of Americans said Yes while 34% said No. This cannot be directly compared to the Ipsos MORI survey because the question is worded differently. Instead we can simply state that Ipsos MORI found that 86% of US Christians find religion important while 66% of worldwide Christians found religion important (source).
Getting back to the importance of religion in the US, here is a map of the US showing religiosity and an accompanying chart comparing states:
One finds the least religious states in the West and the Northeastern parts of the US. here’s a look at the percentages:
A complete list of US States by importance of religion can be found here.
Another great breakdown of religious adherence in the US comes from a USA Today infographic on the matter. The page allows you to mouse over results and makes navigating the data easier, unfortunately it is not possible to imbed it on this website. Instead, I can upload some of the most interesting graphs as pictures here:
The rise of the Nones was most pronounced in the Northeast, where this article oddly places DC and Delaware in the South, I think they belong in the Northeast. The South saw No Religion grow the least. How about Catholicism?
Here we see the biggest growth in Catholics has been in states with high immigration from Latin America, like Arizona, Texas, and California. Every state in the Northeast and all but one state in Midwest has seen a decline in Catholic-identifying people. Things look worse from the remaining denominations of Christianity in the US:
Only Rhode Island and Louisiana saw growth here. Louisiana is interesting because it saw a 16% decline in Catholic-identified people during the same time, perhaps they converted to Protestantism or more likely, Hurricane Katrina reshaped the demographics of the state.
So where to most of the Nones in the US live?
Unfortunately one has to mouse over the bubbles to see the percentages, I can say that 34% of Vermont’s population identifies with no religion, while only 5% of Mississippi’s population does. Feel free to look at the infographic for complete results.
Something that surprised me was how many Northeastern states rank high on this list. The Western US has been labeled the “Unchurched Belt” yet many Northeastern states are less religious than California, or Arizona, for example. This may be due to a historic irreligiosity that the Western US states showed before the Northeast caught up. Here is a ranking of No Religion by state in 1990:
Here we see why the US West was considered the “Unchurched” part of America. Even Utah had a higher percentage of Nones than most non-Western states.
So what does all of this mean for the US, is America turning into an atheistic country? apparently not, according to polls of America’s Nones; a full 51% of US Nones believe in a God or a higher power. I think a better question is what effects will the surge in US irreligion have on the Culture War in the US today. One of the biggest issues relating to the Culture War in the US is gay rights. Gallup has a great article that summarizes Americans views on this. They found that for the first time in the US, the majority of respondents believe that gay/lesbian relations are morally acceptable. About 60% of men and women aged 18 to 49 find gay/lesbian relations acceptable, while only 44% of respondents over 50 find it acceptable. But this distinction pales in comparison to the importance of religion. Gallup found that 85% of No Religion respondents (Nones) find gay/lesbian relations acceptable. 62% of Catholics find it acceptable while only 42% of Protestants do. This makes the delta between US Protestants (51% of the US population) and the Nones (15% of the US population) more than 2 to 1, or 43%.
One of the most recent electoral outcomes relating to this was California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in 2008. The poll divided people on religious lines. One poll from the PRRI found that on Proposition 8:
“Solid majorities of Latino Catholics and white mainline Protestants, along with a majority of white Catholics, would now vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, while solid majorities of African American Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, and Latino Protestants report that they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.”
With this I want to conclude with an idea: maybe the lines of the US Culture War aren’t drawn between Red States and Blue States, maybe they’re drawn between the most religious Protestants and the Nones. It was hard to find statistics on Evangelical denominations of Protestant Christianity, but I’d bet its somewhere around half of the Protestant population in the US. That means that in 20 years, if the ARIS projections hold, the US will find itself culturally divided, with the Nones and conservative Protestants making up 40% of the population, the rest could be dominated by more moderate Catholics and mainline Protestants. If the “importance of religion” poll indicates anything, perhaps instead of Red and Blue states. the US is most culturally divided between the irreligious West and Northeast against the South and parts of the Midwest, where religion is more important to people.