The Passion for Religion Ebbs In
New York and in the United States

by Andrew Beveridge
March 16, 2004

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As the Passion of the Christ continues to break box office records, Christians observe lent, Jews prepare for Passover, more and more politicians from Bush to Lieberman voice their religious conviction from the stump, while the attorney general holds morning prayer meetings in his office, one might get the impression that people in New York and the U.S. are becoming more and more religious. Yet, data from the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey shows that U.S. adults with no religious identification almost doubled from 1990 to 2001. In the United States the percentage went from 8.2 to 14.1 percent and now includes about 30 million adults; in New York State the percentage went from 7.0 to 13.4 percent and now includes about 1.9 million, while in New York City we can infer that the percentage increased from about 7.4 percent to about 14 percent.

The survey results for New York State, present few other surprises.

Together all Christian groups have declined from 80 percent to 71 percent.

Most Catholic and Protestant groups, along with the Mormons and the Jews, report substantial drops in religious identification, while Muslims and Eastern religions more than doubled their adherents. Those few subscribing to the more evangelical and fundamentalist versions of Christianity also show substantial increases in New York. Apparently, the non-Christian religions of the immigrant communities and those of the Christian right are on the upsurge, but the more conventional religions are losing popularity, while having no religion at all is gaining.

Unlike those in the United Kingdom and some other countries, the United States Census does not ask for religious identification. To fill that gap, academic researchers in 1990 and again in 2001 were able to raise funds to carry out a large scale nationwide survey of religious identification. In 1990, for the first time ever, they surveyed over 110,000 US adults about their religious identification. Results from the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) were reported in the seminal book One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary America by Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman. In 2001, Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, and the late Egon Mayer of the CUNY Graduate Center conducted a survey of about 51,000 adults from the lower 48 states. That study produced two reports, and now the researchers are working on a book interpreting their findings. Since the United States does not track religion as part of the Census, the results from these surveys give us the best information available on the changing patterns of religious identification. Both surveys used individual responses to questions to measure religious identification. Responses were asked to describe themselves in terms of religion with an open ended question.

Interviewers did not prompt or offer a suggested response. The self-description was not based upon whether established religious bodies considered them to be members. Rather the respondents’ own religious identification was sought.

The increase in religious identification in New York among Muslims, and those from Eastern religions reflects the increase in the number of immigrants from Asian and Middle Eastern countries. What is much more difficult to account for is the large increase in those stating that they have no religion. While some of the growth is among those who say they are atheist or agnostic, the vast bulk of those giving a “no religion” response do not identify with such labels. Those having no religion tend to be more white, unmarried, young and male.

Some researchers cite growing evidence, that America and New York City is truly becoming a belief bazaar, where people essentially pick and choose among competing viewpoints, including no religion at all. In a more detailed survey among 17,000 respondents, ARIS results found that about one-sixth of the adult population had switched religions. The ARIS report notes, "switching has involved not only the shift of people's spiritual loyalties from one religion to another -- which could reflect some kind of spiritual seeking -- but also and perhaps more importantly, a dropping out of religion altogether." Overall about one-fifth of those with no religion switched to that view from an established religion, while only five percent of those with no religion found religion.

The data for New York and for the nation make it plain that for a large segment of the population conventional, religion is losing its appeal.

Perhaps, the recent scandals in the Catholic Church have made that denomination less attractive. At the same time, mainline Protestant denominations face decline as well. Finally, the identification of religion with the more fundamental and evangelical brand now favored by some in public office may also tarnish the image of religion.

At the same time, a very small segment of the population including President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft, conservative Catholics such as Mel Gibson and others, is increasingly uneasy about secular trends that go against their fundamentalist religious beliefs. These include the easy availability of abortion, equality for gays, stem cell research, banning public school prayer, banning the display of the Ten Commandments in court houses, the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl, and the content of Howard Stern’s radio and television show among other changes.

In the face of this wave of secularism, such individuals cling ever more strongly to their religious beliefs, and even try to enact aspects of those beliefs through public policy. In short, New Yorkers (and people throughout the U.S.) are experiencing a trend of rising non-Christian beliefs among the immigrant populations from Asia, a more fundamentalist and fearsome religion among the few, and less religion among the many.

Andrew Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone. He can be reached at beveridg@optonline.com. This article first appeared in the Gotham Gazette www.gothamgazette.com




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