SIDEBAR: Protestants close to losing majority status

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) If you're Buddhist in the United States, you're most likely a white convert who lives in the American West.

If you're a Jehovah's Witness, you're likely to be a white Southerner, but almost half of your fellow believers are either African-American or Hispanic.

And if you're a Midwesterner, you're living in the region that best reflects the religious diversity of America.

A new study of more than 35,000 adult Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life captures the depth and breadth of religious America _ 78.4 percent Christian, 4.7 percent members of other faiths and 16.1 percent unaffiliated.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, released Monday (Feb. 25), estimates the religious makeup of the country's 225 million adults in groups as large as evangelical Protestants (26.3 percent) and as small as Unitarians (0.3 percent).

The study also paints a picture of people who often move from one faith to another, as well as the religious landscape of various parts of the country. Pew researcher John Green called the Midwest a ``microcosm of American religion'' and closely matches the overall religious profile of the U.S. population's largest religious groups:

_ Evangelical Protestant: 26 percent

_ Mainline Protestant: 22 percent

_ Catholic: 24 percent

``In religious terms, the Midwest really ... does reflect, of all the regions, the great diversity, at least in terms of affiliation,'' said Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum and an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.

Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religion department at Boston University, said that description fits, given the predominantly Catholic Northeast, mostly Baptist South and a Western region known for Buddhists, Hindus and people with no religious affiliation. The Midwest may be known for Lutherans, he said, ``but the Lutherans don't dominate in the Midwest the way that the Catholics do in New England or the Southern Baptists do in the Southeast.''

Other key findings of the study include:

_ Of the 16.1 percent of Americans who are not affiliated with any faith, just 4 percent describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. The remaining 12 percent are almost equally divided between the ``secular unaffiliated,'' who say religion is not important in their lives and the ``religious unaffiliated,'' who say religion is at least somewhat important.

``Some of those people are between religions,'' said Green. ``Some of them are just hostile to organized religion. They're fine with God.''

_ Catholics are the religious group with the greatest loss of adherents, with former Catholics making up about 10 percent of the U.S. population. Hindus, on the other hand, are best at retaining their faith; eight in 10 Hindus who were born into the faith remain connected to it.

_ More than a quarter of Americans _ 28 percent _ have left the faith of their childhoods for another _ or no faith at all. Including changes from one form of Protestantism to another, 44 percent of Americans have changed their affiliation or dropped their connection to a faith. Jehovah's Witnesses and Buddhists are among the faiths with the lowest retention rates of childhood members.

_ The nation's Protestants make up just 51 percent of the U.S. population, meaning that segment of Christianity is close to becoming a religious minority. Young people are helping fuel that trend: While 62 percent of Americans 70 and older are Protestant, only 43 percent of Americans ages 18-29 are.

Barry Kosmin, a sociologist of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut, said he first detected a drop in Protestant identification in the 1990s. ``Christian' has kind of replaced `Protestant' as a term for most Americans,'' he said. ``If you ask most students `What is a Protestant?', they don't even know the term.''

_ Muslims are the most racially diverse faith group, including 37 percent who are white, 24 percent who are black, and 20 percent Asian.

_ More than a third of married Americans _ 37 percent _ are married to someone with a different religious affiliation, including a different Protestant faith. Hindus and Mormons are most likely to be married to someone of the same religion, while majorities of Buddhists and the ``unaffiliated'' have married someone of a different religion.

_ Researchers found that Jews outnumber Muslims, with Jews comprising 1.7 percent of the adult population and Muslims comprising 0.6 percent.


The massive size of the survey enables a closer look at some of the smaller faiths in America, but some other studies, such as the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, have had larger samples.

The Pew survey results are based on more than 35,000 telephone interviews, some of which were done in Spanish, between May and August 2007.

The margin of error for distinct religious groups varies widely depending on sample size. For the 9,472 evangelical Protestants surveyed, it was plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, but for the 411 Buddhist respondents, it was plus or minus 6.5 percentage points.

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