As H. Richard Niehbur reported nearly a century ago, American denominations were created along social divisions. While the greatest division is race, there are also divisions based on class. These class divisions are not as strong as they once were, but they persist nonetheless.
There are also other demographic differences uncovered by sociologists. One of these is age. Some denominations have graying memberships; others have proven to be better able to keep and attract younger members.
This graph charts the age and education of 44 different religious groups (including three “no religion” groups) . The data comes from Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape survey.
Observations from the graph
- Among Protestants, mainline denominations have members who are among the oldest and highest educated. The three with the highest education are the original establishment churches: Episcopal Church (Anglican), Presbyterian Church USA, and United Church of Christ (Congregationalist).
- None of the evangelical groups have a majority with college degrees. Pentecostal and Holiness churches have some of the lowest levels of education among religious groups.
- Black Protestants are similarly divided along age and education. The African Methodist Episcopal church is the original African-American denomination. Today, its members are the oldest and highest educated of the historically black denominations. National Baptists and Progressive Baptists are younger and slightly less educated than the AME. Other churches, particularly Pentecostals and independent Baptists are much younger than other churches.
- The “nones” are younger than most churches. There is an educational difference between those who identify as “atheist” or “agnostic” and those who are simply “nothing in particular.”
- Each of the non-Christian religious groups have majorities that are college-educated and are among the youngest
- Catholics have around the same level of college graduates as Protestants, but they are younger than most other churches.
How to read the graph
- Each circle represents a denomination, church, or religion. There are several circles for types of Americans with no religion: self-identified “atheist”, self-identified “agnostic”, and those who say that have “no religion in particular”.
- The size of the circle represents the relative size of the religion in the United States. For very small groups, I put them in groups with other similar churches. In these cases, the circle represents collections of similar churches, e.g., nondenominational evangelicals, all Baptists who aren’t in one of the larger denominations, or all Hindus. The decision for how specific to make the circle was based on the size of the group in the survey.
- The color of the circle indicates the religious tradition of the group: evangelical Protestant (historically white), Mainline Protestant (historically white), historically black Protestant, Catholic, a catch-all category for other Christian groups, all other religions, and those with no religion. (yes, there are some disagreements about whether some groups should be coded as evangelical (e.g., Seventh Day Adventist) or even Christian or not (e.g., Jehovah’s Witness). We can debate these decisions in a future post.
- The location of the circle represents the age and educational attainment for the group. The x-axis is the media; note: because the survey included only those 18 years and older, the median age includes only adults. In the survey, the median age is 52 years old. The median is more useful than the mean age because it is not affected by outliers. The y-axis is the percent of each group that has graduated from college. Overall, 36 percent of those in the survey said they graduated from college (baccalaureate or other four year degree).
Update: This graphic is updated from the one published Feb. 17, 2015. The original chart placed Conservative and Orthodox Jews together. I did this original grouping because of the relatively small Orthodox sample, but in retrospect, I decided the number of Orthodox is not too small for this type of descriptive chart (they are not the least among the groups charted). The current graph separates these two groups. This makes it clear the demographic differences between Reform and Conservative vis-a-vis Orthodox. Updated on Feb. 20, 2015.