ARIS 2008: Mapping America’s shifting religious landscape

The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) was released on March 9, 2009. It reveals tectonic shifts in the religious terrain that can provide a bounty of stories for religion reporters in every region of the country. ARIS 2008 follows previous large-scale identification surveys in 1990 and 2001, and thus offers a rare comparative snapshot of religious trends in the United States.

The report

ARIS 2008 was conducted by researchers at the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. The survey materials are available on this website. ARIS 2008 is the third in a series of large-scale surveys of U.S. adults in the 48 contiguous states. ARIS 2008 uses the same methodology as the 1990 and 2001 surveys. It questioned 54,461 adults in either English or Spanish and has a margin of error of less than 0.5 percentage point. According to researchers, “it provides the only complete portrait of how contemporary Americans identify themselves religiously, and how that self-identification has changed over the past generation.”

Among the survey's findings

  • The percentage of Americans claiming no religion (called “nones”) continues to rise, going from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.2 percent in 2001 and now 15 percent. But the big news may be that New England, sanctuary to the Puritans who helped birth the United States and bequeathed its religious legacy, has now taken over from the Pacific Northwest as the least religiously affiliated section of the country.
  • Atheists may have lots of best sellers in the bookstores, but the number of true nonbelievers remains relatively small: About 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. On the other hand, the overall number of avowed atheists has grown sharply from 900,000 to 1.6 million since 2001.
  • The percentage of Americans who are Christian is edging downward, to 76 percent of the population. (The decline from 1990 to the 2001 survey was far steeper, 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent.) But a look behind the numbers shows that most of the decline is due to the ongoing erosion in mainline Protestantism and that evangelical or nondenominational Protestantism is filling the vacuum.
  • The East Coast Catholicism that was once the lodestar of the church in the United States is continuing to lose demographic heft to the Southwest, to the extent that California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than does New England.
  • The Jewish community remains relatively stable when identified by ethnicity alone, but the number identifying as religiously Jewish declined somewhat. Meanwhile, the Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .6 percent in 2008.

The authors

  • Mark Silk

    Mark Silk is director for the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Silk is also professor of religion in public life at Trinity. He is particularly knowledgeable about religious variances from one part of the country to another; his books include (as co-author) One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.

  • Barry Kosmin

    Barry Kosmin directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He has conducted polls on religion and society in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Ideas for reporters

  • Nones and such: The “nones” are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union, according to Keysar. Just who these nones are and what they may — or may not — believe is a source of widespread interest given the lively debate over secularism and religion in American society.
  • Evangelical pre-eminence: “A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States,” Silk says.
  • Catholic shift: “The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning,” says Kosmin. “Thanks to immigration and natural increase among Latinos, California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England.”
  • Mormons’ stability: The ARIS report shows that the number of Mormons increased enough to maintain their slice of the religious population, at 1.4 percent.
  • Judaism’s endurance: According to the ARIS researchers, “Those who identify religiously as Jews continue to decline numerically, from 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2008 — 1.2 percent of the population.” But they add that measured by those who identify as Jews “by ethnicity alone,” the Jewish population has remained stable.
  • Growth of Islam: The Muslim proportion of the population continues to grow, from .3 percent in 1990 to .6 percent in 2008.
  • Eastern peak?: ARIS 2008 shows that the number of adherents of Eastern religions, which more than doubled in the 1990s, has declined slightly. The study’s authors also note that “Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.”
  • New Religious Movements: The report finds that adherents of New Religious Movements, such as Wiccans and self-described pagans, are growing faster than in the ’90s.

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