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Institute for Jewish & Community Research

New Survey Shows Sharp Increase in the Number of Americans with No Religious Identity

Study also finds that many raised with multiple religions have no religion as adults.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, September 21, 2004

When asked to name their religion, sixteen percent (16%) of American adults, or 34 million people, now decline to choose a church or denomination, up from less than ten percent (10%) in the early 1990s. That is, nearly one in every six Americans now answers “none” or “no religion,” or describe themselves as secular, humanist, ethical-culturalist, agnostic, or atheist. Furthermore, at 16%, non-identifiers make up the third largest religion-defined group in the country, trailing only Catholics (24%) and all varieties of Baptists (17%), according to a new report, “The Decline of Religious Identity in the United States,” released by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research.

Dr. Gary A. Tobin, the president of the Institute and author of the study, along with Sid Groeneman, explained the significance of the survey: “Although it is too soon to know if this evidence will mark the start of a long-term trend—or exactly what the decline implies—if it persists, these numbers clearly contradict the notion that all Americans are becoming more religious. While some Americans are becoming more religious, a significant number are moving in the other direction.”

Tobin speculated that there may be long-term political implications of the move away from religion, since “other research shows that less religious individuals tend to be more liberal and moderate politically.”

The trend seems especially strong among the young. Fully one-quarter of 18-24 year-olds fail to identify with some religion, compared to only 5% of those 65 and older. This pattern persists steadily across the age spectrum. Commented Tobin: “Some of these young people may identify with a religion when they are older and some may not, especially those raised in households where more than one religion is present.”

Consistent with the popular belief that children of mixed-marriage parents raised in multiple religious traditions are less likely to maintain any religious orientation as adults, the survey indicates that fully 26% of those with multiple religious origins are current non-identifiers. Among those raised in a single religious tradition as children, in contrast, only 11% have become non-identifiers as adults.

Gender and geography are also associated with the tendency to identify with a religion. Women are less likely to be non-identifiers (13%) than men (20%). Regionally, persons living in the West are more likely than those in other areas to be non-identifiers: 24% of Westerners vs. 14% of those in other parts of the country identify with no church or denomination. Only residents of the six New England states come close to Westerners in their rate of non-identification (21%).

Those who do not affiliate psychologically with a religion are far from being purely “secular.” More than one-third of them (36%) reported attending a religious service in the past year. About one-quarter (26%) said they probably or definitely expect to take up a religion sometime in the future. Fewer than half of this group (45%) are current service non-attenders and also do not plan to adopt a religion in the future. Commented Tobin: “Many in the group we’ve labeled ‘non-identifiers’ could also be characterized as ‘unsettled’ in their religious identity − some of them searching or experimenting with religious practices and belief systems. How many of them will find a suitable fit and how many will continue to seek and sample is impossible to guess.”

The findings cited in this release come from a national survey conducted for the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, a San Francisco-based independent research organization devoted to ethnicity and religion and to the study of contemporary Jewish life. The Institute provides social science and policy research to Jewish groups, philanthropic organizations, and to the general community.

The survey consists of 10,204 telephone interviews using randomly generated phone numbers in the Continental U.S. The survey was conducted in the second half of 2001 and the first half of 2002. Percentage estimates based on the full sample are accurate within 1%. Estimates based on a subset of the full sample (e.g., males, persons living in the West, etc.) carry a wider margin of error and depends mainly on the segment size. As in all surveys, other factors besides the sample size and design can affect the accuracy of the results.

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