Oct. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Protestants have lost the majority status they’ve had in the U.S. for more than two centuries, as the number of Americans who don’t claim any religion has surged, according to a Pew Research Center survey released today.
The number of Protestants has fallen to 48 percent, from 53 percent in 2007, reduced by the growing number of unaffiliated Americans, now 33 million, as well as 13 million agnostics and atheists. Almost one of every five Americans doesn’t belong to a church, the center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found.
“This is part of a long-term trend,” Cary Funk, a senior Pew researcher, said in a telephone interview. “The startling thing, though, is that in the past five years, the pace of change has accelerated.”
The number of Americans unaffiliated with a religion increased to almost 20 percent from about 15 percent five years ago, the survey found. They’re reliably Democratic, overwhelmingly voting for the party’s presidential candidate in the last three elections.
Americans who don’t belong to a particular religion are about a third more likely than the observant to believe that religious institutions are hypocritical or too concerned with money, power, rules or politics. They were only slightly less likely to believe in the ability of those institutions to help communities, poor people and the needy.
Almost 70 percent of all those polled described themselves as “absolutely certain” that God exists, while another 23 percent said they were less certain.
Among unaffiliated Americans, 30 percent were certain God exists, while 38 percent said they were less certain. Thirty-seven percent of them describe themselves as “spiritual,” with one in five saying they pray every day.
The U.S. remains one of the most religious industrial democracies on the planet, Funk said. About 58 percent of Americans consider religion to be an important part of their lives, compared with about 17 percent in the U.K., she said.
The increase in the number of Americans who don’t belong to a denomination is being driven by demographics, Funk said. One of every three adults younger than 30 claim no religious affiliation. Less than 10 percent of people older than 65 say they didn’t have a religious affiliation.
Participation dropped among people who claim to be members of a church. Sixty percent of those who never attended services in 2007 still describe themselves as being part of a particular religion. The latest figure fell to half in the Pew poll of 2,973 Americans, which was taken between June 28 and July 9. It has an error margin of 2.1 percentage points.
Men are more almost one-third more likely than women to be unaffiliated with a church, with 23 percent of males saying they don’t belong to a particular church. Whites, college graduates and single people are more likely to be unaffiliated. About 25 percent of people who live in the western U.S. said they didn’t belong to a church; only 15 percent of Americans in the South described themselves as unaffiliated.
The percentage of Americans who said they never doubt the existence of God has fallen to 80 percent, down from 88 percent in 1987, researchers said. At the same time, less than one-third of Americans now believe the Bible should be taken literally.
University of Chicago researchers said 62 percent of Americans described themselves as Protestants in 1972, with another 26 percent saying they were Catholic.
Catholics now make up 22 percent of the population, even with an influx of Hispanics, the Pew survey found. Evangelical churches account for 19 percent. White, mainline denominations make up 15 percent of Protestants, and black churches comprised 8 percent of the total.
Members of the Mormon faith, which reported 2 million new adherents during the last decade according to the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, made up 2 percent of the population. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the first Mormon to be the presidential nominee of a major political party.
The Pew center said the increasing lack of affiliation didn’t appear to be connected with a backlash against the connection between religion and politics. Pew researchers also said there didn’t appear to be a connection with economic development. The center also ruled out the possibility that unaffiliated Americans just haven’t been able to find the appropriate church.
To contact the reporter on this story: Frank Bass in New York at fbass1@bloomberg.