ARIS 2008 Report: Part IA - Belonging

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The U.S. adult population over 18 years of age grew by nearly 53 million persons in the 18 years between 1990 and 2008. As a result, all the religious identification categories shown in Table 1 increased their overall numbers. The most dramatic changes in the balance of religious sentiments seem to have occurred during the 1990s. The changes between 2001 and 2008, when the adult population expanded by over 20 million persons, largely reflect the influence of the heavy immigration primarily from Latin America in recent years. 

The 2008 findings confirm the conclusions we came to in our earlier studies that Americans are slowly becoming less Christian and that in recent decades the challenge to Christianity in American society does not come from other world religions or new religious movements (NRMs) but rather from a rejection of all organized religions. To illustrate the point, Table 1 shows that the non-theist and No Religion groups collectively known as "Nones" have gained almost 20 million adults since 1990 and risen from 8.2 to 15.0 percent of the total population. If we include those Americans who either don't know their religious identification (0.9 percent) or refuse to answer our key question (4.1 percent), and who tend to somewhat resemble "Nones" in their social profile and beliefs, we can observe that in 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990. 

Other Non-Christian religious groups and faiths have steadily grown in numbers from a small base and have gained three million adherents since 1990 but they represent only 4 percent of the national population. The various Christian churches and groups gained 31 million adherents to total over 173 million but their combined numbers as a proportion of the population fell by 10 percent from 86.2 percent down to 76 percent over the past two decades. The nation's largest Christian group, the Catholics, gained 11 million, thanks largely to immigration and now numbers just over 57 million adult self-identifiers, but the Catholic percentage of the national population still fell from 26.2 percent to 25.1 percent between 1990 and 2008. The Other Christian category, largely composed of adherents of the Protestant Churches and traditions, also gained 11 million people but fell from 60 to 51 percent of the total population.


Table 2 illustrates the dynamics of religious population changes over the period 1990-2008 which saw the total population grow by 30 percent. As was stated previously every group has increased in absolute numbers but the rate of growth has varied. The largest net increase in numbers went to the Nones which have grown by 138% in the period. The right hand column reflects the distribution of the population gains since 1990. The Nones also secured nearly 38 percent of the total population increase. Catholics and the Other Christians groups each received around a 21 percent share of the population increase. The Other Religions group rose by 50 percent in absolute numbers and gained 6 percent of the share of the national growth. 

The population we know least about, those who do not know or refuse to reveal their religious identification, grew the most rapidly. This reflects social changes in attitudes and in American society over the past two decades. There is less willingness to participate in surveys of all types by the American public. Although this leaves a lacuna in the ARIS statistics the overall rate of refusal to participate is low by international standards. For example, the rate of refusal to the religion question in the national U.K. Government 2001 Census was higher at seven percent.


Categorizing and aggregating religious groups is a difficult and controversial task but it is necessary in order to effectively monitor and measure trends. Table 3 provides details on changes in the popularity of the 12 main religious traditions to be found among the American population for the three time points. Data is also provided for some sub-categories such as the largest Mainline and Protestant denominations and churches and other large religious identification response categories. The full listing of the religious groups comprising each tradition can be found in the appendix. It must be born in mind that respondents to ARIS could easily and quite legitimately offer a number of terms when answering our key question. The protocol in ARIS is to use the first response offered. In fact over 100 unique response categories were recorded. This is particularly true among the "Other Christian" group where a generic religious tradition response, a theological outlook or belief response or a denominational affiliation response were recorded. In order to try to get some specificity 
to the answers if an ARIS respondent offers the answer "Christian" or Protestant" there is then a filter question which asks "What denomination is that?" As Table 3 illustrates, over time this further probing has been successful in refining the "Protestant" response category. However, it has not succeeded in curbing the tide of preference for self-identification as a plain "Christian," the numbers of which have doubled since 1990. This trend suggests that among those we categorize as "Other Christian" both personal preferences and collective religious labeling is in flux.

As Table 3 warrants additional discussion. Since we discussed Catholics above, we now turn to the Baptist tradition. "Baptist" is the majority response category in this tradition but numerous varieties of Baptist denomination, right down to the level of the local chapel, were offered by respondents. This includes, of course Southern Baptist and American Baptist. The Baptist population was relatively stable over the 1990s. The sudden growth spurt in Baptist numbers since 2001 seems to reflect a measurable reassertion of a Baptist identity among the population and more detailed varieties of Baptist were offered by respondents in 2008 
than in 2001. 

The historic Mainline Christian churches have consistently lost market share since the 1950s, but since 2001 there has been a significant fall in numbers. The Methodists and Episcopalians have been particularly affected by losses. Much of this decline in Mainline identification is due to the growing public preference for the generic "Christian" response and the recent growth in the popularity of the "non-denominational Christian" response. Fewer than 200,000 people favored this term in 1990 but in 2008 it accounts for over eight million Americans. Another notable finding is the rise in the preference to self-identify as "Born Again" or "Evangelical" rather than with any Christian tradition, church or denomination. 

The Pentecostal tradition made particular headway during the 1990s but its growth appears to have leveled off recently. The incidence of specific Pentecostal denominational labels such as Assemblies of God or Church of God has varied over the years. The Protestant denominations, mainly composed of conservative and sectarian groups, have grown in size and proportion. The Mormon and Latter Day Saints tradition has slowly but steadily grown throughout this period. The above findings lead us to conclude that among the Christian 
groups the tendency is to move either to a more sectarian or to a more generalized form of Christian identity at the expense of a denominational identity. These trends also suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more "evangelical" outlook among Christians. This important historical trend in American religious development is discussed in greater detail later in this report.

As we pointed out earlier the so-called minority faiths or non-Christian religions are growing in size and as a proportion of the American population but at a much slower pace than is often claimed. The Jewish religious population is in slow decline due mainly to a movement towards the Nones among young ethnic Jews. This is part of a general trend among younger white Americans as is illustrated later in Table 12. The Eastern religions, aside from Buddhism, rely on immigration for growth but social integration often leads to numerical losses for these groups. The popularity of Buddhism and its attraction for white converts that was evident in the 1990s seems to have receded. The Muslim population doubled during the 1990s but its growth in numbers now seems to be slowing. The size and proportion of the Muslim population has often been debated but the ARIS numbers closely resemble the recent findings of the General Social Survey and the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. The category of the New Religious Movements and Other Religions is a mixed one and includes many groups often referred to as cults. The 2008 survey revealed marked increase in preferences for personalized and idiosyncratic responses as well as increases in the Neo-Pagan groups.

The rise of the Nones has been one of the most important trends on the American religious scene since 1990. The overall rate of growth of those expressing no religious preference slowed after 2001 but the numbers offering a specific self-identification as Agnostic or Atheist rose markedly from over a million in 1990 to about 2 million in 2001 to about 3.6 million today. The historic reluctance of Americans to self-identify in this manner or use these terms seems to have diminished. Nevertheless as Table 4 shows the level of under-reporting of these theological labels is still significant.

ARIS 2008