'Nones' are largest religious group in 23 states, maybe

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
Members of Harmony Baptist Church in Tomey, Alabama, join together in harmony to pray. | Courtesy of Harmony Baptist Church, Tomey, Alabama

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) -- "There are now 23 states where the largest religious group is 'unaffiliated,'" according to an article in the Huffington Post reporting on data released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), and another 15 states where "unaffiliated" is the second-highest group.

"The U.S. religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is fundamentally reshaping American politics and culture," PRRI Director of Research Dan Cox told the online news provider.

But the "religious landscape" painted by Huffington Post is a true representation only if Christianity is sub-grouped into various faith traditions and not presented as a single religion.

Protestants are divided into five subsets and Catholics into three – which skews the findings with regard to the unaffiliated that are presented as a single group even though there are significant subsets within this category.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center presented its research about the unaffiliated and found more than two-thirds (68 percent) of this group said they believe in God and 21 percent claimed to pray every day. Atheists only compose 2.4 percent of the unaffiliated and 3.3 percent self-identify as agnostics.

The distortion caused by creating subcategories for faith traditions and not for the unaffiliated is evident in individual state examples.

For instance about 29 percent of Montanans claim no affiliation with any faith tradition.

By comparison, 26 percent are identified as white evangelical Protestants.

However, another 23 percent also are Protestants, but presented separately as white mainline Protestants (19 percent), black Protestants (1 percent), Hispanic Protestants (1 percent) and other non-white Protestants (2 percent).

The unaffiliated were not broken into subsets by race, or, separated by differences such as atheist, agnostic or God-believing.

Moreover, if white Catholics (12 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (0.05 percent) and non-white Catholics (1 percent) are combined with Protestants, Christians compose 63.5 percent of the population in Montana.

But PRRI's American Values Atlas, based on more than 50,000 interviews conducted in 2014, does confirm what Pew and other research groups have found – that the population of the unaffiliated in the United States is growing while Protestant and Catholic numbers are dropping.

The survey reports 28 percent of Americans have left the faith in which they were reared, some for another faith tradition, some for no religion.

Importantly, the report confirms the United States' decline into a minority Protestant country, with just 45 percent of the population identifying as adherents of this faith tradition.

Catholics also have experienced losses with 31 percent of Americans saying they were reared Catholic, but just 24 percent having stayed Catholic.

"The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents," according to the PRRI news release. "Those [groups] that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members.

"Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths."