American Religions

Americans practice a large number of religions, but the religion with the most adherents by far is Christianity. According to several polls, upward of 85 percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian. Scholars at the City University of New York (CUNY) conducted the largest survey of American religious views in 1990. In the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI), researchers conducted a telephone survey of 113,723 adults, randomly chosen, with results statistically weighted to reflect American demographic characteristics (Kosmin and Lachman 1993). The percentage of error in a survey of this size is less than 0.5 percent.

Respondents were asked a simple question—"What is your religion?"—and answers, as well as information on geographic location, age, sex, income, and so on, were tabulated. The results of the survey are presented in Table 3.1.

The religious profile of Americans in the 1990 NSRI study is echoed in other surveys conducted during that decade. In a 1996 poll conducted by the humanist publication Free Inquiry, 90.7 percent of Americans stated that they have a religion, with 83.8 percent identifying as either Catholic or Protestant (Free Inquiry, 1996). A Gallup poll conducted in December 1999 similarly found that 94 percent of Americans identified themselves as believing in God on a higher power, and only 5 percent stated that they did not (New Port 1999).

However, a 2001 follow-up survey by the NSRI investigators showed some changes in this religious profile. Using a smaller but still very large sample of 50,281 individuals, investigators found that the percentage of Americans professing belief in God had declined from 89.5 percent to 80.2 percent, as had the percentage of Christians (from 86.2 percent to 76.5 percent) (Kosmin, Mayer, and Keysar 2002). The largest increase was in the percentage of nonbelievers, which increased from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.1 percent in 2001. The American population might be becoming more secular, although another possible explanation for the different results might be a change in how the question about religious adherence was asked. In 1990, the question asked was "What is your religion?" In 2001, the question was, "What is your religion, if any?" Perhaps being reminded of the option of not being religious might have increased the number of people who thus classified themselves (see Table 3.1 for these more recent data).

Similar results were found in a survey conducted in 2007 by the Pew Research Foundation (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2008); they are presented in Table 3.1. The Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was another large telephone survey involving about thirty-six thousand adults. Interviewers asked respondents, "What is your present religion, if any?" and then prompted the respondent with a list of denominations. All three surveys found high percentages of Americans professing religion, and high percentages identifying themselves specifically as Christian. The two most recent surveys suggest that secularism may be increasing; the percentage claiming no religion, although relatively small, is greater than it was in 1990. With samples as large as these, the margin of error is less than 1 percent, which makes the results quite reliable.

But whether the percentage of Christians is near 80 percent or 70 percent, it is nonetheless true that Christians are the largest religious group in the United States. It

Table 3.1

American Religious Profiles

Table 3.1

American Religious Profiles





















Other non-Christian




No religion




Refused to state




Source: 1990: Kosmin and Lachman, 1993; 2001: Kosmin et al., 2001; 2007: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008.

Source: 1990: Kosmin and Lachman, 1993; 2001: Kosmin et al., 2001; 2007: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008.

is also true that in international comparisons, Americans rank highly in the percentage of adults who believe in God.

Christians can be further broken down into conservative or born-again Christians on the one hand and mainstream Christians on the other. Conservative Christians are those who believe that they have a personal relationship with Jesus and who tie salvation to this belief. A greater percentage of conservative Christians than mainstream Christians regard the Bible as being literally true, according to a poll conducted by the Barna organization (Barna 2007). Most conservative Christians are Protestants, but some Catholics hold the same beliefs, especially those who embrace charismatic Catholicism.

Antievolutionism in North America is rooted in religiously conservative Christianity; there are few if any activist Jews or Muslims who oppose evolution in North America, and only small antievolution movements in Islamic countries such as Turkey and in the Jewish state of Israel. Although minority religions are growing in the United States, it is clear that Christianity is now, and for the near and intermediate future will be, the predominant American religious tradition. Because of their numbers and their prominence in the antievolution movement, the rest of this chapter will concentrate on Christians.

Many people are under the impression that there is a dichotomy between evolution and Christianity, a line in the sand between two incompatible belief systems. These people believe that a person must choose one side of the line or the other. In reality, Christians hold many views about evolution, and Christian views actually range along a continuum rather than being separated into a dichotomy.

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