While all religious denominations grew over this twenty-eight year period, most shrank in a relative sense. The number of Americans who call themselves Christian is down more than 10 percent since 1990, from 86.2 to 76 percent. Catholics make up the largest single denomination of this bloc, though their share has fallen slightly. The heavy influx of immigrants from Latin American countries in the intervening years has rescued the Catholic Church from a more accelerated decline.
Those who fail to identify with a religious faith entirely nearly doubled from 8.2 to 15 percent, though the rate of growth slowed significantly since 2001. Controlling for our growing national population, atheists and agnostics represent the largest share of this demographic, a full 37 percent, clearly outdistancing the next closest competitor, Catholicism, at 21 percent.
Among the Protestant faiths, the Baptists own a plurality of adherents, with 15.8 percent of Americans claiming affiliation. Generic Christian ranks just behind at 14.2 percent, and both have declined marginally since 1990. Eastern Religions and Islamic adherents have more than doubled, yet they claim only 0.9 and 0.6 percent of the population, respectively.
There is significant gender balance across most faiths, with the most prominent exceptions being Pentecostals, who claim the highest percentage of females, 58 percent, and non-believers, who are most likely to be male (60 percent). Muslims are the youngest of any of the major religious traditions in America, as 42 percent are 29 or younger, while Baptists are the oldest denomination, with a full 37 percent older than 50. Most faiths are populated by middle-age adherents in the 30-49 demographic.
Turning to race, Catholicism is most prominent among both whites and Hispanics, with 21 and 59 percent of each racial group affiliating with the faith. Blacks are more likely to be Baptist, a full 45 percent of the group, and a plurality of Asians (27 percent) are non-believers.
More than two-thirds (69.5 percent) of Americas claim a definitive belief in God, while 12.1 reject a personal God, but do believe in a higher power. Among non-believers, 5.7 percent plead uncertainty, 4.3 percent claim that their is no way to know, and 2.3 percent reject the notion outright.
A vast majority continue to engage in the rituals of faith such as initiations at birth and later in life, weddings, and funeral services, although 26, 30, and 27 percent of Americans do not tie religion to any of these respective events.
In sum, "when it comes to religion, the USA is now a nation of freelancers." When Kosmin published the first study in this series in 1990 he concluded that Americans saw God as a "personal hobby" and the nation is a "greenhouse of spiritual sprouts." In the intervening years, he has resorted to describing religion as a "fashion statement" and "not a deep personal commitment for many."
The authors steer clear of the impact of these trends, but I will dive into this cauldron for a moment, raising two pressing matters of concern. One, religion serves as one of many indicators of civic health, and a widespread abandonment of institutionalized worship threatens to further undermine our commitment to the local fabric of our community. I am not suggesting that religious entities are the only actor in this arena, but they are the most widespread and perform a number of charitable and community-building functions from a faith-based model. Their erosion requires alternatives to operate in the remaining vacuum.
Two, greater religious diversity demands educational attention by our schools and faith-based institutions to overcome discrimination that is bread by fear and ignorance. The religious quilt that continues to characterize America is as old as pre-European settlement, but the respective patches have been altered and rearranged. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is the most prominent protection for this variegated form of worship or non-affiliation, and we have an ongoing obligation as a society to pay heed to its central tenets.