WASHINGTON // The United States is becoming less Christian and the number of Americans who say they have no religion is on the rise, according to a study of the country's theological landscape that was made public this week. The survey by Trinity College in Connecticut of more than 54,000 US residents showed that 15 per cent of the population said they have no religious identity or connection, including atheists and agnostics. Although that number represents a slight jump from the 14 per cent of Americans who said they had no religion in the 2001 survey, it shows a sustained movement away from faith since 1990 - the first year the study was conducted - when about eight per cent put themselves in the "no religion" category.
The American Religious Identification Survey, which is carried out about every 10 years, was conducted between February and November of last year and has a margin of error of less than 0.5 per cent. The bloc of survey respondents who identify themselves as Christians dropped to 76 per cent, down 10 per cent since 1990. The steepest declines were felt by such "mainline" denominations as Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. At the same time, however, the study found that about one-third of the adult population in the United States consider themselves "born again" or "evangelical" Christians. A similar question was not asked in the previous survey, but researchers said it probably represents an increase and suggests that those who stick with religion are clinging tighter to it.
"You have these two polarities, and so you can argue that the middle is shrinking," said Ariela Keysar, a demographer and one of the survey's principal investigators. "It remains to be seen whether these two polarities are going to get closer and closer and in what direction we are going: is it towards more conservative extremes, or towards the non-believers?" Many western countries - especially in Europe - have grown gradually more secular. In fact, despite the recent increase here in the number of non-believers, researchers say, the United States is still far more religious than countries including the United Kingdom, Denmark and Norway. Ms Keysar noted that the large numbers of self-proclaimed evangelical and born-again Christians is unique to the United States.
"If you think about what is happening in other western societies, the US is actually an exception to the rule because it has more religious people," she said. The US Catholic population - the largest in the country - has increased in each survey since 1990 and continues to account for one in four residents despite the country's overall population growth, according to the survey. The researchers said the Catholic Church has been buoyed by immigrants from Latin America. Still, about 40 per cent of those in the "no religion" category once belonged to the Catholic faith, researchers said.
The number of Muslims grew slightly - by 0.1 per cent of the total US population - though it remains unclear whether the growth was the result of natural factors, such as more people adopting Islam, or whether it was fuelled by immigration. The survey shows the US Muslim population totalling 1.3 million, though the number varies according to some US Muslim groups that estimate it to be many times larger.
In general, other minority faiths, including Buddhism, enjoyed similar growth, the report showed. The number of those who identify their religion as Jewish has declined slightly, however. The "no religion" group was the only one that grew in every US state since the 2001 survey. Twenty-seven per cent of those interviewed said they did not expect to have a religious funeral and 30 per cent of those who were married said their wedding ceremony had not been religious. Neither question was asked in the previous survey.
Mark Silk, director of Trinity College's Program on Public Values, said the trend could probably be explained by a variety of theories. He mentioned, for example, the politicising of religion that occurred during the so-called "culture wars" of the 1990s, which he said might have added "cultural baggage" to religion that turned some people away from faith. He also said he thought the "baby boomer" generation - those born just after the Second World War, who brought on the social change of the 1960s - generally raised less-religious children. Mr Silk also cited the damaging sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, and the fact that demographers have come to recognise a substantial category of the population that does not subscribe to any religion.
The last presidential election, he said, marked the first time that candidates made a concerted effort to reach out to those with no religion. Barack Obama, the president, mentioned "non-believers" in his inauguration speech. "With this kind of a phenomenon, there is no reason to prefer one explanation," he said. Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national organisation of atheists and agnostics based in Wisconsin, said it was clear that non-believers were gaining momentum.
"Whatever it was that happened in Europe after centuries of religious violence and divisiveness, it seems to be happening here in the US," said Mr Barker, a former longtime evangelical preacher who lost faith in God and left the church. Mr Barker said his group's membership of 14,000 is more than double what it was three years ago and that "no religion", or secular, student groups have sprung up at universities across the country.
"There's no doubt that there's been growth," he said. "We feel like things are really on the up for the seculars." firstname.lastname@example.org