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Making Religion(s) Count: Comments from a Religious Sociologist on the 2010 US Religious Census

May 9, 2012

Last week, something fairly momentous happened, at least if you’re a student of American religion: The 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study was released. Every 10 years the ASARB, a group of church statisticians across the country, works together to collect information on how many people are associated with every congregations (temple, mosque, etc) across the country. This year’s was by far the most complete ever; congregations were reported for 263 religious groups, most of whom also provided data on adherents down to the county level. Maybe even more importantly, extensive effort was made to account for groups which historically have remained uncounted or poorly counted, including African-American Christian churches, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim groups.

If what I wrote above already has you hooked and you want to dive into numbers right now, feel free. There are plenty to occupy you for some time over at the ARDA (full disclosure: I am a research associate with the ARDA as part of my graduate studies and also a trained church leader; the opinions and conclusions in this post are mine however and do not represent any organization). If you prefer maps, try the RCMS 2010 homepage. If you’re not yet convinced why you should care, keep reading…What I’ll try to do from here is twofold:

  1. Summarize what people across the country have found interesting so far, at least according the phone calls we get at the ARDA and the coverage by journalists and websites. Along the way, I’ll address some of the good, bad, and ugly of the data.
  2. At the suggestion of friend and pastor Joe Smith, I’ll attempt to show why this all matters by looking in more depth at how to interpret some of the local data from my home Washington state.

First, the news so far.

The largest single takeaway from the first week of news coverage of RCMS 2010 is this: absolute numbers mean very little, even to journalists and statisticians.

The fact is, few of us have any real concept of a million people. Instead, they have chosen two much more easily interpretable routes, looking at either change in the last decade or relative numbers of adherents in different groups, or both. The difference is big. To demonstrate, here are numbers:

Here is something more meaningful to most people:

Both give you some information on U.S. religions. One just makes it understandable. From the first, you can see… not much without staring at even more numbers. From the second, you can see that there are a LOT of southern Baptists in the South and very few anywhere else.

But more specifically in terms of news coverage, the top stories have been about change:

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. Mormon) appears to have grown by an astonishing 45.5% nationally in a decade. The Salt Lake Tribune pointed out that even for one of the fastest growing religious groups in the world, that might seem incredulous. In fact, the LDS church changed their reporting method to match more closely what other churches were doing and in the process, added a sizable number of non-attending members onto the counts compared to 2000. Still, estimated 18% growth over ten years (based on comparable church statistics) is pretty dramatic.
  • The same story happened for Muslims, although newspapers have been less cautious about reporting this change. While the number of Mosques and associated adherents is undoubtedly growing, the 66.7% growth rate (over 1 million additional Muslims) is partly a product of much better estimates of the total numbers. To put it differently, both stories are true and important: Islam is a growing religion in the U.S. and it is becoming more visible and better documented.
  • Catholics encountered the opposite situation. RCMS data show a 5% decline in adherents in the past decade, which amounts to over 3.1 million people. In the past, Catholic data was less tied to individual parishes than it is now, meaning that many unaffiliated Catholics (often non-participating Catholics who never became involved in a new parish after moving) have fallen off the list. Read more from the Catholic News Agency or Glenmary Research Center (who collected the Catholic data).  This come back to one big deal about the numbers you see here, and a question worth asking for anyone interested in knowing about religion:

What defines belonging to a religion?

Is it going to church with a certain frequency?
Having your name on the rolls?
Being baptized or dedicated there?
Feeling that you belong to it?

What about the spiritual but not religious, who may attend a congregation but don’t identify with that religious group (or any other)?

What if you move to an area without your preferred kind of worship and go somewhere else, but don’t shift your feelings of belonging? (Like the map)

Data like the U.S. Religious Census are good at a number of things, but one of the most important is getting people who care about religion to ask this kind of questions. Before I move on to a case study though, a few more big picture conclusions about the U.S.:

  • The overall number of religious adherents (any religion) in the U.S. increased from 2000-2010 by about 2 million, but did not keep pace with the overall rate of U.S. population increase. In other worlds, out of every 100 people in the U.S., there are about 2 less who are “claimed” by a particular religion than 10 years ago.
  • Among larger groups, Muslims, Evangelical and independent Christian churches, and sect-like groups (Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, etc) saw the greatest percentage increases in adherence rates nationally, although major regional differences exist. Liberal or Mainline Christian denominations tended to see decreases of 10% or more in adherence over the decade.
  • Catholics and United Methodists had congregations in the largest number of counties, but Southern Baptists and non-denominational churches both reported more overall adherents than the United Methodist Church.
  • Final note on this: studies of church bodies are not the same as following individual believers to find out who’s leaving or joining a church. For example, the Catholic church is largely treading water in terms of number of adherents, but this masks that Hispanic immigration has acted to counterbalance lower fertility rates and decreasing participation among European-descended Catholics.

Sooooooooooooo: On to Washington, home of rain, mountains, islands, Huskies, and rain. Oh, and coincidentally, one of the least religiously affiliated places in the country, coming in at a 34.6% adherence rate overall. Here’s the big picture:

The first thing of note is that the overall adherence rate is fairly steady. It actually rose 1.6% in a decade, but that’s probably an artifact of more groups being represented well. Nonetheless, the northwest appears neither to be an atheist and new age wasteland filled with heathen (as some Christians might have you believe) or a once-religious place that is all of a sudden emptying out all of its values.

Catholics represent the largest single denomination in Washington, like most of the country, but Evangelical protestants taken together are actually more numerous and faster-growing. To put it in perspective, Catholics and Evangelicals each represent about a third or the religiously affiliated in Washington, while the historic mainline (liberal protestant) churches combined with African-American, Orthodox, and non-Christian and sect-like Christian churches (i.e. Mormon, Jehovah’s witness, etc) make up the other third of Washington’s religious. Compared to national statistics, Washington has a substantially higher percentage of unclaimed and non-Christian adherents.

So to summarize so far: Washington (and I suspect western Washington in particular) is a place where a diversity of religion and irreligion coexist by each others’ sides. In practice, what that means is that everyday people (with the possible exception of the irreligious) are more than typically likely to encounter people they disagree with about religion in the course of an average day.

Now on to some more specific observations:

  • Groups that are growing in Washington fall into three major groups: those that benefit from immigration and diversity (Buddhist, Catholic, Orthodox), high-commitment theologically conservative groups (especially reformed churches like Mars Hill Church and non-traditional Christian groups like Adventists and Mormons) and liberal religious groups like the Unitarian Universalist Association and Baha’i. These trends mirror the country as a whole, but the hollowing out of the religious center and increasing of diversity is taking place more quickly than average in Washington.
  • The biggest shrinkers in Washington’s religious landscape are mainline groups (Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, etc), but many smaller evangelical groups are shrinking too. This reflects that Washington can be a challenging place to be a religious leader, because more than most places, there is strong cultural acceptance of both irreligion (not going to church) and religious switching (moving to another denomination or group rather than staying with a group you have an identity with). Moreover, in the midst of such diversity, moderate religious groups may have more work to convince people of what their denomination or congregation has to offer to adherents.
  • Islam has grown little if at all over the last decade in Washington. Since much of the growth of Islam in the US reflect immigration, this may be due to the stronger flow of immigrant from Latin America and East Asia.

If we zero in even more on one county (I’ll choose Pierce county, home of Tacoma, the second largest city in the state), we find:

  • The rates of change can be dramatic for individual groups. Foursquare churches quadrupled their number of adherents over the last decade (which was actually slow growth compared to the previous 20 years), while the Mormon church gained over 12,000 members within the county (substantial even when accounting for the difference in reporting).
  • Evangelical protestants make up a more than usually large chunk of Pierce county religious adherents, driven almost entirely by Assemblies of God and non-denominational churches. Part of this is a number of mega-churches in the area, but even smaller churches in this group tend to be flexible, growing, and committed to investing in new church plants.
  • Muslims make up a small and shrinking (84.4% loss over the decade) faith in Pierce county; Buddhists (Mahayana and Theravada from central Asia) are the largest group of non-Christians in the area (but still only about 2% of the population).
  • Looking over the longer haul (1980-2010), Pierce county mainliners may want to consider how their churches can continue to serve their members and the community going forward. Here’s a shot of the some of the most quickly shrinking denominations in the area over 30 years. Major mainline protestant churches shrunk between 20 and nearly 60%.

Which brings me to the most important question of all: Why should you care?

  1. First of all, these are the people you share a place with. By coming to understand the variety of deeply held beliefs in your neighborhood (at least 110 varieties, in fact), we can begin to build the kinds of awareness and understanding that pave the way for interfaith dialogue and allow people to work together on issues of mutual concern ranging from freedom of religion to water quality while honoring what is important morally and ethically to each other.
  2. I wasn’t kidding about the soul searching. Much of the loss that is seen is not people leaving churches but rather the excess of people dying compared to being born into these denominations. Regardless, if liberal protestants truly believe that their church has something of value to offer to their local area and the world, then some kind of action is necessary to let the world know and to find ways to remain connected. High building and staff costs combined with decreasing attendance and a recession have already delayed or prevented untold mission opportunities, be they evangelistic or more service-oriented.
  3. Expect that part of the response to these trends may be a drive to look more like the numerically successful megachurches in the non-denominational and assemblies of God categories. Depending on your perspective, this may be good or bad, but it’s likely to happen regardless.
  4. The sheer number of small groups that rapidly grow or nearly disappear every decade can give cause to consider: what is most significant and important to me about my faith and the way in which I share it with others?

The story of American religion today is not monolithic or simple. There are themes, but the variations are as endless as the ways people think about a higher power and the places they do so.

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