The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

Pastors across the country know that large numbers of individuals who were baptized Catholic have left the Catholic Church.

From May 8 to August 13, 2007, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed over 35,000 adults in an effort to learn more about current religious beliefs and practices within the United States. The first report on survey findings, entitled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, was released on February 25, 2008. This one hundred and forty page report (including appendices) contains numerous tables and comments on the current state of religious beliefs and practices in the United States. It also contains interesting figures on how the religious landscape in the United States has been changing in recent years and how various denominations are either growing or shrinking.

The sample group surveyed was large enough that religious denominations amounting to as little as .3 percent of the adult population in the United States were still represented by one hundred or more members. It should be noted that most of the survey’s findings are reported as a percentage of the adult population in the United States and not as absolute numbers. Adult population is defined as those individuals eighteen years of age or older. Finally, at the time of the survey, the adult population in the United States was estimated at approximately 225 million.

A word of caution. As with any survey, the final results are extrapolations. It’s important to remember that if the survey methods are flawed or certain portions of the population are either under reported or over reported, the errors will be magnified in the final results in terms of absolute numbers. To that end, an explanation of the survey’s methodology and techniques can be found here and there in the report and more detailed explanations can be found in the appendices.

The full report can be found at religions.pewforum.org. Those interested in viewing the report can also use the interactive maps and dynamic charts that allow you to examine the religious landscape of the United States not simply from a national basis but also state-by-state or denomination by denomination. It is well worth a visit to the site, especially for those who are interested in statistics.

When the report was released, news organizations focused primarily upon the decline in Protestantism as a percentage of the overall population and the large increase in the percentage of those who are unaffiliated with any organized religion. Later, many in the blogosphere began to examine what the report said about their own particular denominations.

In my analysis below, I will first point out some of the survey’s main findings. I will then turn to what the report has to say about Catholicism in the United States. In that section, I have done some additional calculations and converted some of the percentages to actual numbers. However, becausethese calculations are rounded, they don’t always add up to 100 percent. Finally, I will offer some conclusions and opinions for what they are worth.

Main findings

1) At the time of the survey, the adult population in the United States was estimated at approximately 225 million. Of this number, about 34 million, or 15.1 percent, were foreign born.

2) The adult population in the United States is now just barely half Protestant, 51.3 percent (or about 115,425,000). This is a historic low in terms of percentages. In fact, this number is all the more remarkable in that throughout the 1980s, the percentage of Protestants in the United States was relatively stable and varied at between 60 and 65 percent of the population. However, in the early 1990s, the percentage of adults who identified themselves as Protestant began a steady decline, and it’s a decline that appears to be continuing. Within Protestantism, evangelicals, Pentecostals and nondenominationals have grown in numbers over this period, whereas Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians have decreased.

3) The number of people who are unaffiliated with any church has grown dramatically in recent years to 16.1 percent of the adult population (or about 36,225,000). This is more than double the number of adults who say that they were unaffiliated as children (7.3 percent). Furthermore, of those in the eighteen to twenty-nine age group, 25 percent identify themselves as unaffiliated. Note that within this category, the report includes atheists (1.6 percent), agnostics (2.4 percent), secular people (6.3 percent) and religious people who belong to no organized church (5.8 percent).

4) The percentage of adults who have left the religion of their parents (excluding Protestants who have switched from one Protestant denomination to another) and moved to another category—e.g., Catholic to unaffiliated, Jewish to Catholic, unaffiliated to Protestant, etc.—stands at 28 percent. If those who moved from one Protestant denomination to another are included in this category, the percentage of those who have left the religion of their parents rises to 44 percent of the overall adult population.

What the report says about Catholicism

1) 23.9 percent of the adult population in the United States (or 53,775,000) identifies itself as Catholic. The survey notes that this percentage is roughly the same as it was in 1972, thirty-five years ago. On face value, this does not look too bad compared with Protestant losses as noted above. However, while there has been growth in the absolute number of Catholics in the United States as the overall population has grown, there has been no growth in the percentage of Catholics in the United States over the same period of time. At best, one might argue that we are maintaining the status quo. However, that is not at all why the percentage of Catholics has remained stable.

2) In point of fact, massive Catholic losses have been hidden by the large number of Catholic immigrants coming to the United States in recent years. Of the present 23.9 percent of adults who call themselves Catholic, about 77 percent of that number (or 41,406,750) were born in the United States whereas about 23 percent of that number (or 12,368,250) are immigrants, mostly Hispanic. Here it should be noted that if Catholic immigrants were not replacing native-born Catholics who are leaving the faith, the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Catholic would be lower than it is now, only about 18.4 percent of the population—or less than one in five—rather than the almost one in four Americans who identify themselves as Catholics today. Of further interest here is that among those Catholics seventy and older, 85 percent are white, 12 percent are Latino, 2 percent are “Other/Mixed” and 1 percent are black. However, among those eighteen to twenty-nine, 47 percent are white, 45 percent are Latino, 5 percent are “Other/Mixed” and 3 percent are black, which makes white Catholics a minority (less than 50 percent) among the youngest age group in the survey.

3) Massive losses among native-born Catholics have not only been significant but staggering, so much so that those who conducted the survey wrote in their analysis, “Catholicism has lost more people to other religions or to no religion at all than any other single religious group.” It should be noted that this statement is true both in terms of absolute numbers as well as in terms of percentage of the U.S. population. However, it is not true when figured as a percentage of the Catholic population alone. Figured that way, Catholic losses as a percentage of the Catholic population were 24 percent, behind only Methodists, whose losses stood at 25 percent. By way of comparison, Presbyterian losses were at 21 percent, Baptists were 18 percent, and Lutherans and Episcopalians were each 16 percent. On the other hand, nondenominational Protestants grew a whopping 200 percent, the percentage of unaffiliated grew 120 percent and Pentecostals grew 12 percent.

4) 10.1 percent of the adult population in the United States now consists of people who have left the Catholic Church for another religion or for no religion. To put it another way, one out of every ten people in the United States (or 22,725,000) is an ex-Catholic. It should be noted here that these are not non-practicing Catholics who, when asked about their religion, would identify themselves as Catholic. Rather, these are individuals who were baptized and raised Catholic but who no longer identify themselves as Catholic.

5) To restate the point in paragraph three above, if one excludes immigrants and converts from the calculations, the Catholic Church has lost to other religions or to no religion at all 35.4 percent—or more than one-third—of the 64,131,750 of its native-born members to other religions or to no religion. This amounts to almost seven out of every twenty adults who were baptized as Catholics. Had the Catholic Church retained all of these individuals (which of course has never been the case—there have always been people leaving the Church), Catholics would now account for 34 percent (or 76,500,000) of the adult population of the United States. Adding children to this number would place the total Catholic population in the United States at over 100 million.

6) So where has the 10.1 percent of the population that has left the Catholic Church gone? What has happened to those 22,750,000 people who have left? They have joined the following groups (note here that because of rounding, these figures are approximate and don’t add up to the 22,750,000 figure):

Hinduism: 36,000

Islam: 54,000

Orthodox Christianity: 67,500

Judaism: 114,750

Mormonism: 267,750

Buddhism: 364,500

Jehovah’s Witnesses: 409,500

Other liberal faiths: 621,000

Historic black churches: 621,000

Mainline Protestant: 3,665,250

Evangelical Protestant: 6,509,250

Unaffiliated: 9,780,750

Of particular note are the last two numbers. Over six and a half million former Catholics have joined evangelical Protestant churches. While large in terms of absolute numbers, these former Catholics comprise only 11 percent of all evangelical church members (evangelical here includes Baptists, nondenominational congregations such as Assemblies of God, Pentecostal congregations and so on).

“Unaffiliated” accounts for almost ten million former Catholics. Recall that unaffiliated includes atheists, agnostics, secular people and religious people who belong to no organized religion. Unfortunately, the current report doesn’t have a further breakdown to tell us in which of these four groups these former Catholics ended up.

7) Buried in the appendices on page 130, there is another table that breaks down the following question, “How important is religion in your life…very important, somewhat important, not too important, or not at all important?” Fifty-six percent (or 28,500,750) of Catholics said very important, 34 percent (18,283,500) said somewhat important, 7 percent (or 3,764,250) said not too important and 2 percent (or 1,075,500) said not important at all. These numbers mirrored those who identified themselves as mainline Protestants, whose numbers were 52 percent, 35 percent, 9 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Catholic numbers were in contrast to members of evangelical churches, whose numbers were 79 percent, 17 percent, 2 percent and 1 percent; historically black Protestant churches at 85 percent, 13 percent, 1 percent, and 1 percent; Jehovah’s Witnesses at 86 percent, 10 percent, 2 percent, and 0 percent; and Mormons at 83 percent, 13 percent, 3 percent, and 1 percent. Members of these denominations are clearly more committed.

8) The survey does contain some good news. Of the 23.9 percent of the adult population that identifies itself as Catholic, 2.6 percent (5,850,000) are converts from other faiths or from no faith at all. This growth in the Church partially offsets the 10.1 percent of the population that has left the Catholic faith and leaves the Church with a net loss of 7.5 percent of the population (or 16,875,000).

9) Some other points of interest include education levels that show that 17 percent of Catholics have less than a high school education, 36 percent are high school graduates, 21 percent have some college, 16 percent are college graduates and 10 percent have done post-graduate work. These numbers mirror the national averages. The most educated religious groups are Hindus, with 48 percent of adherents having done post-graduate work, and Jews, with 35 percent in the same category. Least educated are Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. A significant gender gap was reported among nearly all Christians favoring women over men. Both Catholic and combined Protestant traditions have the same numbers: 46 percent are men and 54 percent are women. On the other hand, the gap is reversed among the unaffiliated. For the atheists, 70 percent are men and 30 percent are women; it’s 64/36 for the agnostics and 60/40 for the secularists. With regard to marital status, Catholics again mirror the national average. However, Catholics have a somewhat higher rate of cohabitating members at 7 percent, whereas among Protestants that number is 5 percent and among Mormons it is 3 percent. Only the unaffiliated, at 10 percent, have a higher percentage of members cohabiting than do Catholics. With regard to family size, again Catholics mirror the national average. Thirty-nine percent of families have children at home. However, only 11 percent have three or more children, compared to 21 percent for Mormons and 15 percent for Muslims. This represents a sharp decline in Catholic birthrates when compared to the 50s and 60s and early 70s.

Some conclusions and opinions

So, what are we to make of all this? Well, the numbers speak for themselves but they also confirm and quantify what many seasoned pastors have known or suspected for years now. We have lost a massive part of the Church. It explains why we have been able to cut back the number of Masses in many places, why there are so many gray heads in many places, and why there are so many empty pews in many places.

To put these numbers in a different context, allow me to speculate just a bit. Suppose that you were the pastor of Saint Wojciech’s back in 1968, and in that year you baptized sixty children. Those children would now be forty years old. However, only thirty-nine would still be Catholic. Of the other twenty-one, twelve are men and nine are women. Ten of these (mostly men) are now unaffiliated with any organized religion. Of those ten, four would be secularists who believe in some sort of God but who practice no faith and do not pray. Three would be atheists or agnostics, and three would still be believers in God but would be following their own path to him apart from any organized religion. It is also the case that in this group would have been some of your brighter students and best altar servers back at Saint Wojciech’s grade school. Of the remaining eleven, six or seven would have joined evangelical congregations where they now lead Bible studies, work as missionaries in Guatemala converting Catholics or homeschool their larger-than-average families consisting of children who were dedicated to God (but not baptized). Three or four would have joined some mainline Protestant religion (probably through marriage) where they participate to greater or lesser degrees. Finally, perhaps one or maybe two have become Mormons or Buddhists.

But what about the thirty-nine who still identify themselves as Catholics? Well, twenty-one of them are women and eighteen are men. With regard to marital status, twenty-three are married, three are cohabiting, five are divorced, and eight have never married. About eight are doing quite well for themselves, earning over $100,000 a year. On the other hand, about ten are making less than $30,000 a year. Finally, of these thirty-nine who have remained Catholic, four never go to Mass and twelve may go at Christmas and Easter, and most of these had their children baptized but are less likely to have them enrolled in religious education. Finally, for twenty-three, their religion is “very important to them” and they go to Mass on a pretty regular basis (but probably miss when they have company over or when on vacation or traveling). Most don’t make it on holy days. Nearly all send their children to religion classes, but very few make time for other things at church, like choir or Bible studies. Most lead very busy lives and there is not much room for church except on Sundays. While they were raised Catholic, most would not agree that the Catholic Church contains the fullness of revelation. In other words, they believe one religion is as good as another. Nearly all have brothers or sisters who have left the Church, and not a few are godparents to the children of their Protestant siblings. Most are pro-life, but there are some exceptions, especially among those who are Democrats or consider themselves politically liberal. Quite a few, especially among the women, don’t see what’s wrong with gay marriage. Finally, two or maybe three are using natural family planning, whereas the rest are either on the pill or sterilized or are unable to have children.

At this point, allow me to repeat that this survey merely quantifies what pastors across the country have been aware of for many years now, namely, that large numbers of individuals who were baptized Catholic have left the Catholic Church. It also reveals that if we exclude the Catholic immigrant population, we are doing far worse at retaining members than even the weakest of the mainline Protestant denominations.

Time and again, we pastors come across these people who have left the Catholic faith for some other spiritual home or for no spiritual home at all. This occurs at baptisms, confirmations, weddings and especially at funerals where families come together and mix. It is then that we meet the numerous children and grandchildren of our parishioners who were once Catholic but are so no longer. And, along with their faithful parents, we hurt over this.

So what’s to be done? Is there any hope? Yes! With God all things are possible. In recent years, faithful Catholic groups and organizations have networked and now form a solid foundation that is beginning to rebuild and renew the faith. They are being supported by a growing contingent of bishops who recognize how deep the rot has gone and are determined to do something about it. There are more and more young people who are on fire with the love of God and who are willing to live the faith to its fullness. They are certainly not a majority but they are now present and visible in many places. Not a few have entered the seminary or novitiate. It will be these young people of today who will be rebuilding the Church in America.

However, if this rebuilding is to have maximum success, we need a plan. The first step in solving any problem is to admit that a problem exists, something many Church leaders have thus far been unwilling to do. However, the survey results make it painfully clear that we do have a problem. That said, the next step in solving any problem is to identify its causes.

Saint Paul said, “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1Cor. 14:8) Clearly, for those Catholics of the baby-boom generation, uncertain notes were the only ones being played, with the result that one-third of our fellow Catholics have now left the field. Furthermore, of those 53,775,000 American Catholics who remain in the fight, except for the elderly, most are so poorly catechized that they continue to be highly vulnerable to invitations from evangelical congregations or to the secularizing influences in our society. In a word, our problem has been dissent tolerated by weak leaders, which in turn has led to confusion as to what we as Catholics believe and how we should live.

The final step in solving any problem is action. To that end, we must work to stem further losses and then begin to go out and seek those who have left and invite them to return. I might add that this survey is a godsend because it has already identified for us where our work is most urgent.

Like generals marshaling their forces, our bishops need to do several things. First, make sure that everyone is presenting a clear message. All remaining dissenters must be expunged from their positions within diocesan offices, major parishes and influential positions in the Church. This is especially crucial in Catholic colleges and universities, which form the weakest link in the nascent renewal we are experiencing. For the most part, they are still seriously undermining the faith of our young people, young people who will be our nation’s leaders. This must stop if we ever hope to have well-formed Catholic leaders in business, education, politics, science, the arts and medicine. Bishops and donors must apply pressure to our Catholic colleges and universities to reform their theology and philosophy departments. Bishops must also apply pressure to the religious orders that run many of our schools to support the needed reforms.

Second, the survey results reveal that the faith is weakest among the young. We must act immediately to reverse this trend before we loose the better part of yet another generation. Consequently, our parish religious education programs must be reformed. In our present culture, an hour a week in religion classes is not enough to make our young people Catholic. Parents must be re-engaged in the process as well. I think all pastors would agree that when parents are not practicing the faith, our efforts to educate their children are almost fruitless.

Along these lines, we need to take a good hard look at our Catholic schools. Often, lots of money is spent with little to show for it. We end up offering an alternative to public schools to parents who do not practice their faith. It should be noted that some religions, such as the Mormons and Jews, offer strong religious education programs that cost far less than running a school while retaining more of their members than do Catholics. We should reconsider what role Catholic schools should play in the twenty-first century and where we can get the greatest bang for our buck. Perhaps parish funds could be better spent on well-designed religious education programs or by supporting online schools that don’t require expensive infrastructure.

Third, aggressive steps must be taken to retain the many Hispanic immigrants coming into our country (who now number nearly half of all Catholics ages eighteen to twenty-nine). We cannot let these people slip away into evangelical congregations or into the growing unaffiliated group.

Fourth, while men and women have an equal dignity before God, they are not the same. We must recognize and acknowledge the significant psychological and emotional differences in men and women and how they view the world. The overt and covert feminization of the Church must end. Men and boys need strong male role models to look up to and to emulate. Masculine approaches to the faith must be developed and affirmed if we are to erase the significant gender gap that now exists and retain more of our male members.

Finally, we must reach out to those who have fallen away. They are the lost sheep of today. As this group is diverse, we must address at the very least the larger segments within it. For example, it has been this pastor’s experience that many former Catholics who have joined evangelical congregations tend to be very zealous members of their new congregations. For the most part, they are good, faithful people who love God but who were not fed in their Catholic parishes. They were attracted to these congregations because of clear and strong homilies, Bible studies, youth programs for their children and good music. They need to be shown that Scripture alone is not enough and that we need the Eucharist and the rest of the sacraments as well. On the other hand, former Catholics who are now part of the educated, unchurched secular group need to see that science alone cannot explain all we experience in the world and in our hearts. To that end, because few pastors have the ability or the knowledge to answer or address all of the questions and concerns specific to each group, diocesan programs need to be developed to reach out to these groups and others.

It’s now far beyond the time for half measures. We must act now to clean up the messes that remain and to develop reasonable, workable plans to move forward. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). Tolerating dissent has led us to where we are today. It’s time for some intolerance.

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avatar About Rev. Joseph A. Sirba

Rev. Joseph A. Sirba was ordained for the Diocese of Duluth in 1987 and has served as pastor in four different assignments since that time. He has an M.A. and an M.Div. from Saint John’s Seminary in Boston.

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