Losing their religion: Ranks of nonbelievers on the increase

The percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has fallen over the last two decades — although a sizable majority still consider themselves to be Christian. At the same time, those professing “no” religion has nearly doubled since 1990, according to a Trinity College survey released Monday, The Washington Post reports.

In Colorado, more than one in five respondents said they ascribed to no religion, the same percentage that identified themselves as Catholic in the state. Just less than half of Colorado’s residents said they were “other Christian,” and one in 25 said they held other religious beliefs. The group of nonbelievers was the only one to grow in every state since 1990.

One of the starkest differences between the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey and earlier ones is a sharp rise in the number of nondenominational Christians, corresponding to a drop in those who claim membership in traditional protestant faiths.

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “non-denominational Christian.” The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.

“It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism–mainline versus evangelical–is collapsing,” said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. “A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States.”

In addition, Catholics are on the move — from the Northeast to the West and Southwest, the study’s authors said. “The decline of Catholicism in the Northeast is nothing short of stunning,” said Barry Kosmin, one of the survey’s lead academics. “Thanks to immigration and natural increase among Latinos, California now has a higher proportion of Catholics than New England.”

At 21 percent, Colorado’s percentage of nonbelievers is greater than the national average of 15 percent, but the state appears to be at the heart of a region growing in its nonbelief.

Nones have historically been concentrated in the West region and particularly in the Pacific Northwest (i.e. Oregon and Washington), where now they account for about one-quarter of the population. However, this pattern has now changed and the Northeast emerged in 2008 as the new stronghold of the religiously unidentified. In 2008 Vermont reached 34% Nones, New Hampshire 29%, and Maine and Massachusetts both 22%. A surge in the proportion of Nones also occurred in the Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming (28 percent) in 2008.

Between the 1990 survey and the current one, Colorado saw Catholics fall from 25 percent to 21 percent of the population; other Christians fell from 56 percent to 49 percent; other religiions stayed the same at 4 percent; and nonbelievers grew from 13 percent to 21 percent.

The survey conducted by Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn., questioned 54,461 adults in English or Spanish from February 2008 through November 2008. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5 percentage points. The Lilly Endowment and Posen Foundation paid for the study.

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