February 1, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Affiliation

Chapter 3: Religious Affiliation and Demographic Groups

Change in religious affiliation is not the only factor shaping the contours of the American religious landscape. Important demographic factors such as immigration and generational replacement are also contributing in a major way to this dynamic process. The Landscape Survey finds, for example, that immigrants and young adults are significantly less Protestant than are native-born and older Americans. But while immigrants are much more likely to be Catholic, young adults are much more likely to be unaffiliated with any particular religion. If these patterns continue, the decline of Protestantism and the increase in the size of the unaffiliated population are likely to persist.

The Landscape Survey finds significant variation in the religious affiliation of these and other U.S. demographic groups. The religious affiliation of immigrants, for instance, differs markedly from the affiliation of those born in the U.S.; nearly half of all immigrants are Catholic, more than twice the rate seen among the native born. Similarly, there are major differences in the religious affiliation of various racial and ethnic groups. More than three-quarters (78%) of blacks are Protestant, for example, compared with just over half of whites (53%) and about a quarter of Asians (27%) and Latinos (23%).

Important generational differences in religious affiliation are also evident. For example, one-quarter of all adults under age 30 are not affiliated with any particular religion, which is more than three times the number of unaffiliated adults who are age 70 and older, and nine percentage points higher than in the overall adult population. The ethnic composition of religious groups also varies across generations. While about half of all Catholics under age 30 are Hispanic (45%), for instance, the vast majority of Catholics age 70 and older (85%) are white.

This chapter examines the complex relationship between religion and other demographic characteristics. Each section first looks at the religious composition of major demographic groups, from age and ethnicity to family composition and geographic location. Each section then looks at the relationship from the opposite direction, breaking down and examining the key demographic features of the major religious traditions.

Age Differences

The survey finds significant differences between the religious affiliation of younger and older Americans. Overall, younger Americans tend to be considerably less Protestant and far less religiously affiliated than older Americans; older groups are both more affiliated and more Protestant.

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While a majority of Americans age 70 and older (62%) are Protestant, only 43% of young adults ages 18-29 are Protestant, a 19-point difference; the overall population is somewhere in the middle, at 51% Protestant. Middle-aged Americans also fall toward the middle: Approximately half (52%) of Americans in their 40s are Protestant. This is about 9 points higher than adults under age 30, but 10 points lower than Americans age 70 and older. These differences are especially pronounced among members of mainline Protestant churches.

Major differences are also apparent in the proportion of each age group that has no formal religious affiliation. Adults under age 30 are more than three times as likely as those age 70 and older to be unaffiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%). The younger group is also more likely than the adult population as a whole to be atheist or agnostic (7% vs. 4%). It is important to note, however, that more than a third (35%) of young adults who have no particular religious affiliation are in the “religious unaffiliated” category, that is, they say that religion is somewhat important or very important in their lives.

Age Distribution of Religious Traditions

The relatively older makeup of the membership of mainline Protestant churches becomes even clearer when the survey looks at the age distribution within Protestantism compared with the overall adult population. Approximately half (51%) of the members of mainline Protestant churches are age 50 and older. Among the population as a whole, by contrast, only 41% fall in this age group. Jews, too, tend to be older than other religious groups, with 51% age 50 and older.

At the other end of the spectrum, the unaffiliated and Muslims tend to be younger than other groups. About three-in-ten (31% and 29%, respectively) are under age 30 and more than seven-in- ten (71% and 77%, respectively) are under age 50.

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Race and Ethnicity

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Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., blacks are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Even among black adults who are unaffiliated (12%), more than two-thirds (70%) say that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives and, thus, are classified in the “religious unaffiliated” group; only 1% of blacks identify as atheist or agnostic. About six-in-ten (59%) black adults are affiliated with historically black Protestant churches; however, only about two-in-ten are members of predominantly white evangelical (15%) and mainline (4%) Protestant churches.

Asians are the ethnic group most likely to be unaffiliated. Roughly a quarter (23%) of Asians have no religious affiliation, and more than three-in-four of these are either secular (11% overall), atheist (3% overall) or agnostic (4% overall). Catholics and members of evangelical churches are equally well represented among Asians, with 17% identifying with each group; 14% of Asians identify as Hindu.

In the Landscape Survey, a solid majority of Hispanics (58%) identify as Catholic, but nearly one-in- four are members of evangelical (16%) or other (8%) Protestant churches. Hispanics are about as likely as blacks to say they have no religious affiliation, and very few (2%) say they are atheist or agnostic. (See the section below on Measuring Religious Affiliation Among Latinos for more analysis.)

Nearly a third (30%) of all whites are members of evangelical churches, almost twice the number who identify as unaffiliated (16%). About one-in-five (22%) whites are Catholic and a similar number (23%) are members of mainline Protestant churches.

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Racial and Ethnic Distribution of Religious Traditions

When the survey breaks down the major religious traditions by race and ethnicity, rather than vice versa, it finds that Jews and members of mainline Protestant churches are the groups most heavily comprised of whites (95% and 91%, respectively), followed closely by Orthodox Christians (87%) and Mormons (86%).

Muslims are the most racially diverse group in the U.S. Approximately one-in-three (37%) are white, roughly one-in-four (24%) are black, one-in-five (20%) are Asian and 19% are of other races.

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Hindus are predominantly Asian (88%). But, surprisingly, only about a third (32%) of Buddhists in the U.S. are Asian; a majority (53%) are white, and, as noted in Chapter 2, most are converts to Buddhism.

The survey also shows that nearly a third (29%) of Catholics are Hispanic, the largest Latino proportion of any tradition. Hispanics also make up a significant proportion of Jehovah’s Witnesses (24%); blacks comprise nearly a quarter (22%) of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The unaffiliated population more closely resembles the racial composition of the general public than do most other religious groups. More than seven-in-ten unaffiliated adults are white (73%), and nearly a fifth of the group is Hispanic (11%) or black (8%). However, there are significant racial and ethnic differences among the unaffiliated subgroups. For instance, a vast majority of atheists and agnostics are white (86% and 84% respectively), but whites represent a smaller share (60%) of the “religious unaffiliated” population. Roughly a third of this religious unaffiliated group is comprised of Hispanics (17%) and blacks (16%).

Looking at the intersection of age, ethnicity and religion among the country’s two largest religious groups, the survey finds that close to half of all adult Catholics under age 40 are Hispanic. Among older cohorts, the overwhelming majority of Catholics are white (85% of those age 70 and older). As noted previously, the stability in the proportion of Catholics among the general public obscures the significant ethnic shift that is occurring among younger Catholics.

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Although not nearly as pronounced, a similar racial and ethnic shift is happening among Protestants as well. For instance, among Protestants age 50 and older, more than three-in-four are white (including 83% of Protestants age 70 and older). Among Protestants under age 30, by contrast, only six-in-ten (61%) are white, while nearly four-in-ten (39%) are non-white.

Religion and Immigration

As discussed briefly in Chapter 1, the starkly different religious composition of immigrants and the native born is contributing in a major way to the changes in the American religious landscape.

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Like the U.S. population as a whole, the large majority (74%) of immigrants are Christian. But the internal composition of this group is markedly different. Nearly half (46%) of immigrants are Catholic, more than twice the proportion of adult Catholics who were born in the U.S. (21%). By contrast, foreign-born adults are only about half as likely to be Protestant (25%) as U.S.-born adults (55%).

Not surprisingly, members of several non-Western religions, including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, are much more highly represented among the foreign-born population than among the native-born population. Interestingly, the proportion of unaffiliated Americans is the same (16%) for both groups.

In the Landscape Survey, more than six-in-ten (61%) adult immigrants to the United States say they are from Latin America (including the Caribbean), with more than half of this group (34% of all immigrants) coming from just one country – Mexico. In fact, Mexico accounts for a plurality (34%) of all immigrants coming to the United States. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Mexican immigrants are Catholic; among immigrants from the other Latin American countries, only half (51%) are Catholic. Immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are also the least likely to be atheist or agnostic; only 1% of all Latin American immigrants describe themselves in these terms.

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Catholics also represent a significant percentage of immigrants who come from outside Latin America. For instance, about one-in-five immigrants from Canada (19%) are Catholic, as are roughly a quarter of immigrants from Western Europe (28%), Eastern Europe (27%) and East Asia (27%). Immigrants from Canada are the group with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics(13%). Nearly one-in-ten immigrants from Western Europe (8%) and Eastern Europe (7%) also describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Meanwhile, about four-in-ten immigrants from Canada and Western Europe are Protestant, as are nearly one-in-five immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Of the immigrants coming from North Africa and the Middle East, about one-in-ten (12%) are Protestant and one-in-three are either Orthodox (21%) or Catholic (9%). Muslims represent 24% of this group, Jews are 18% and the unaffiliated population accounts for 14%.

The majority (57%) of immigrants from East Asia are Christian, with 27% identifying as Catholic, 18% as members of evangelical Protestant churches and 11% as members of mainline Protestant churches. Buddhists account for 14%; roughly a quarter of immigrants from this region are not affiliated with any particular religion. By comparison, more than half (55%) of all immigrants from South-Central Asia identify as Hindu, while an additional 12% are Muslim.

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The religious composition of the immigrant population has changed over time. Catholics constitute a plurality of the immigrant population both among those who have arrived recently and among those who have been in the U.S. for decades. But Catholics constitute a larger share of recent immigrants (48%) compared with those who arrived in the 1970s (39%). The difference with regard to Protestant immigrants is much more pronounced. Among immigrants who came to the U.S. before 1960, 19% are members of mainline Protestant denominations; among those who immigrated after 1999, however, only 5% say they are affiliated with a mainline Protestant church.

Like Catholics, Hindus are much better represented among the recently immigrated than among those who arrived earlier. More than four times as many Hindus are found among those immigrating after 1989 than among those who arrived before 1960. Conversely, Jews are relatively less well represented among the more recent arrivals. There are three times as many Jews among immigrants coming before 1960 than among those coming after 1989.

Nativity by Religious Tradition

When the survey breaks down the various religious traditions by nationality, it finds that Hindus, Muslims and members of Orthodox churches are the groups most heavily comprised of immigrants; 86%, 65% and 38% of these groups, respectively, were born in another country. For instance, more than one-third (38%) of Orthodox immigrants are from Eastern Europe, and an additional 33% are from either Africa or the Middle East.

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Members of all Christian traditions are predominantly native born, while people belonging to world religions such as Islam and Hinduism are more likely to be foreign born. Among Mormons and members of all three Protestant traditions, for example, more than nine-in-ten were born in the U.S. Conversely, Hindus are comprised overwhelmingly of immigrants; fully 86% were born outside the U.S., almost exclusively in South-Central Asia. A majority of Muslims (65%) are also foreign born. Buddhists, by contrast, are predominantly native born, with only 26% born in another country.

Catholics also stand out for their comparatively large share of immigrants; more than one-in-five Catholics (23%) were born outside the U.S. Of these, more than four-in-five (82%) are from Latin America and the Caribbean, a fact reflected in the relatively high concentration of Hispanics in the U.S. Catholic Church.

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Nearly one-in-three (31%) adults with less than a high school education are members of evangelical Protestant churches, while almost one-in-ten (9%) are members of historically black Protestant churches. These religious groups are more highly represented among adults with a high school education or less than among those with higher levels of education. For instance, among people who have obtained a college degree, fewer than one-in-four (22%) belong to the evangelical tradition, and only 5% belong to historically black churches. Among those who have obtained post-graduate education, the comparable figures are 16% and 3%, respectively.

The opposite pattern is seen among members of mainline Protestant churches. Nearly one-in-four adults (23%) with a post-graduate education are members of mainline churches, compared with only 11% of those with less than a high school education. People with less than a high school education are also somewhat more likely to be Catholic as compared with those with higher levels of education.

Between 15% and 19% of members of all educational groups say they are unaffiliated with any particular religion. But among the most well-educated groups, the unaffiliated tend to be more secular than among the less well-educated. For example, among those with less than a high school degree, more than half of the unaffiliated (9% of all those with this level of education) are in the “religious unaffiliated,” category, while a much smaller number (2% of those with this level of education) describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic. By contrast, among those with a post-graduate education, less than one-sixth of the unaffiliated population (3% of all those with this level of education) are “religious unaffiliated,” while many more describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (8%).

Educational Levels of Religious Traditions

Looking at the educational makeup of religious groups reveals significant differences by tradition. The findings show, for example, that Jews, Hindus and Buddhists tend to have higher levels of education than members of other religious traditions, and they are also the most likely to have a post-graduate degree. Nearly half (48%) of Hindus, more than one-third (35%) of Jews and a quarter (26%) of Buddhists have a post-graduate education.

Among Protestants, members of evangelical and historically black churches tend to have lower levels of education compared with those belonging to mainline churches. For instance, nearly six-in-ten members of evangelical (56%) and historically black (59%) churches have a high school education or less, compared with 42% among members of mainline churches. Catholics and the unaffiliated closely resemble the general population in terms of education.

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Although the educational makeup of the unaffiliated group overall resembles that of the general public, this again obscures major differences within this group. For instance, while six-in-ten of the “religious unaffiliated” (61%) have a high school education or less, only about a third (36%) of atheists have a high school education or less. At the other end of the educational spectrum, more than four-in-ten atheists (42%) and a similar number of agnostics (43%) have a college degree or post-graduate education, a rate more than twice as high as among the “religious unaffiliated” (17%).


The religious affiliation patterns of different income groups largely mirror the differences among educational groups. For example, approximately four-in-ten Americans making less than $30,000 per year belong to evangelical Protestant churches (29%) or historically black Protestant churches (10%). Close to a quarter (24%) are Catholic and 15% are unaffiliated. However, half of the unaffiliated in this income group (8%) are in the “religious unaffiliated” category.

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Catholics make up about an equal proportion of adults making over $100,000 per year and of those making under $30,000 per year. But there are proportionally many fewer members of historically black churches (3%) and evangelical churches (20%) in the top income bracket. More than twice the proportion of people making at least $100,000 per year are atheist or agnostic (7% total) compared with those making $30,000 or less (3%).

Income Levels of Religious Traditions

When the survey breaks down individual religious traditions into income categories, the results show that Hindus and Jews report higher incomes than others, not surprising given their high levels of education. More than four-in-ten (43% and 46%, respectively) of these groups make more than $100,000 per year. Mainline Protestants, Mormons, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians also tend to have higher income levels, with pluralities of each of these groups making more than$50,000 per year.

By contrast, majorities of members of evangelical churches, historically black churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims earn less than $50,000 per year. Catholics and the unaffiliated population fairly closely resemble the general population in terms of income.

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The income breakdown within the unaffiliated population is similar to the educational breakdown within this group. Four-in-ten of the “religious unaffiliated” make less than $30,000 per year; this is roughly twice the number of atheists and agnostics who earn this amount (21% and 18%, respectively). By contrast, about a quarter of atheists and agnostics make more than $100,000 per year, more than double the rate among the “religious unaffiliated.”


The Landscape Survey finds that men are significantly more likely to claim no religious affiliation than are women. Nearly one-in-five (19.6%) men have no formal religious affiliation, almost seven points more than women, 12.8% of whom say they are unaffiliated. Moreover, men are twice as likely to say they are atheist or agnostic as compared with women (5.5% vs. 2.6%).

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Women are more likely than men to be affiliated with nearly every major Christian group; nearly 54% of women are Protestant, for instance, compared with 49% of men. But men are slightly more likely than women to associate with other religious traditions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Gender and Religious Traditions

A closer look at the gender makeup of specific religious groups shows that while women make up a greater proportion of nearly every Christian group, there is significant variation among them. For example, members of Protestant churches are eight percentage points more likely to be women than men (54% to 46%); a similar gap is seen among Catholics. Among historically black Protestant churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, women constitute a somewhat higher percentage (60%).

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The situation is reversed for many non-Christian religious groups. Jews, Muslims and Buddhists are composed of slightly more men than women. Among Hindus, the difference is much greater; more than six-in-ten (61%) Hindus are men.

Men also make up a significantly larger share of the unaffiliated population. Overall 59% of this group are men, compared with 41% who are women. Among agnostics and atheists, the gender gap is even larger; seven-in-ten atheists and nearly two-thirds (64%) of agnostics are men.

Family Composition

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The religious profile of married people looks very similar to that of the U.S. generally, with a few exceptions. For example, members of evangelical Protestant churches make up a slightly larger percentage of married people than of the population overall (29% to 26%), and members of historically black Protestant churches make up a smaller proportion of married people (4%) than of the overall population (7%).

People who have never been married or who are living with a partner are much more likely than their married counterparts to be unaffiliated with any particular religion. Among those who have never been married, roughly one-in-four (24%) are not affiliated with any particular religious group, and one-third of these (8% of the never married) describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. Among married people, by contrast, only 14% are not affiliated with any particular religion, and fewer than one-in-four of these (3% of married people overall) are atheist or agnostic.

Marital Status of Religious Traditions

When the survey breaks down the various religious groups by marital status, the findings show that Hindus (78%) and Mormons (71%) are the most likely to be married. These two traditions, along with members of evangelical churches, also have the lowest rates of never-married members. Hindus also have the lowest divorce rate of any group; only 5% have been divorced.

Members of historically black churches are the least likely to be married; only a third (33%) are married, compared with a similar percentage (34%) who have never been married. This group is also most likely to be divorced (16%). Muslims (28%), Buddhists (31%) and the unaffiliated (28%) also have high rates of members who have never married, with atheists (37% never married) and agnostics (38% never married) especially unlikely to have ever been married.

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Family Composition of Religious Groups

Mormons and Muslims are the groups most likely to have large families. More than one-in-five Mormons (21%) and 15% of Muslims have three or more children living at home, and 5% of each group have five or more children at home. Only about half of Mormons (51%) and Muslims (53%) have no children living at home, compared with about seven-in-ten members of mainline Protestant churches, Jews and Buddhists.

Hindus are also less likely than other traditions to have no children living at home (52%). But compared with Muslims and Mormons, they are more likely to have smaller families, with only a small number (3%) having three or more children at home.

Catholics and members of evangelical Protestant churches have about the same number of children living at home as the general population. And, in spite of their much lower rates of marriage, members of historically black churches also closely resemble the general public in this regard.

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Religion and Geography

Each region of the United States displays a distinctive pattern of religious affiliation. For example, the Northeast has more Catholics (37%), and the fewest number of people affiliated with evangelical Protestant churches (13%), than any other region in the U.S. Northeasterners are also much more likely to be Jewish (4% are Jewish) than people living in other regions.

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Among Southerners, by contrast, nearly one–in-four (37%) are members of evangelical churches, and more than one-in-ten (11%) are affiliated with a historically black church. Of all the regions, the South has the smallest concentration of Catholics (16%) and the unaffiliated population (13%).

The West has the largest proportion of people unaffiliated with any particular religion (21%), including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics (7% total). A quarter of Westerners are Catholic, and one-in-five is a member of an evangelical Protestant church. The West also has the smallest number of people affiliated with mainline Protestant churches (15%) and the greatest proportion of Mormons (6%).

Of the four regions, the Midwest most closely resembles the overall religious makeup of the general population. About a quarter (26%) of Midwesterners are members of an evangelical Protestant church, about one-in-five (22%) are members of a mainline Protestant church, nearly a quarter (24%) are Catholic and 16% are unaffiliated. These proportions are nearly identical to what the survey finds among the general public.

Geographic Distribution of Religious Traditions

A look at the regional distribution of religious groups reveals that more Catholics live in the Northeast (28%) than in any other region, and their lowest number lives in the West (23%). By contrast, fully half of members of evangelical Protestant churches live in the South, compared with only 10% in the Northeast and 17% in the West. Among the unaffiliated, the largest number live in the West and the South (29% each). The vast majority of Mormons (76%) live in the West.

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