More thoughts on that Pew survey of religious affiliation

At least two more good essays have appeared since the initial reactions in blogs and in the media to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s first set of findings from its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008.

From the Alban Institute comes an article by James P. Wind, president of the Alban Institute. Wind crunches the numbers. One of the things he notices:

At first glance, American Catholicism looks relatively stable, making up 23.9 percent of the adult population, a figure very similar to the 25 percent regularly reported over the past several decades—except, as the researchers remind us, for the stunning fact that actually American Catholicism has suffered the greatest losses of any faith community. Almost one-third of the survey respondents who claimed to have been raised as Catholics no longer label themselves that way.

The Alban Institute’s interest is in congregations. Wind draws this conclusion about the churning found by the Pew survey:

In every worship service, board meeting, Sunday school class, social event, and rite of passage, all the churn that the Landscape Survey points to “out there” in the national environment is going on “in here”—in the lives of individual members and the small faith communities they belong to. Once upon a time religious leaders represented very distinct religious communities that were clearly differentiated from the ones down the street or across town. Now our leaders work in a sea of religious vagueness and search for ways to help people surrounded by a growing tide of “nothing in particular” find something in particular to build a life upon.

Alan Wolf, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, observes that the survey informs the public of much of the scholarly community already knew. But then he goes on:

Yet other findings in the study shed new light on issues around which there has been no scholarly consensus. Three in particular are worthy of attention: the size and composition of minority faiths, the winners and losers in the religious marketplace, and the potential prospects of the religious right.


The lowest estimate usually cited of the Muslim population, it turns out, is too high….It is not just that Buddhists, who do not trace their roots to Abraham, may outnumber Muslims, who do. It is that the combined percentage of those who identify themselves as either Hindu (0.4 percent) or from “other world religions” (0.3 percent) does so as well.


For many years now, it has been received wisdom that mainline, politically liberal Protestant churches have been the losers and conservative evangelical churches have been winning. That assumption, too, will have to be rethought.

The biggest losers among American religions turns out to be Catholics….Nor is it quite the case that conservative Protestant churches are the winners.


whatever the case in the past, there is no strong evidence of strict churches attracting a disproportionate share of members now. Political scientists interested in American religion, such as John C. Green, Clyde Wilcox, and Kenneth D. Wald, believe that the influence of the religious right may have peaked. The Pew survey provides strong evidence that they are right.

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