According to the researches, the percentages of people identifying themselves as Protestant have dropped from 63 percent in 1993, to 52 percent in 2002, the latest year available. The drop was dramatic, since previous surveys showed that the Protestant share remained stable from 1972 until 1993.
Respondents were listed as Protestants if they listed membership of a particular Protestant religion, including Baptist, United Methodist and Episcopalians.
At the same time, the number of people who identified themselves as having no religion jumped from 9 percent to nearly 14 percent. The survey also found that the Catholic faith has remained fairly steady at about 25 percent of the population. People who said they belonged to other religions, including Eastern faiths and Islam, Orthodox Christians, interdenominational Christians, and native-American faiths increased from 3 percent to 7 percent between 1993 and 2002, while the number of people who said they were Jewish remained stable at slightly under 2 percent.
"Many scholars have noted that the numbers of people who say they have ‘no religion’ is increasing, but they haven’t noted what faith group these people have been leaving. It is clear that many of these people are former Protestants," said Tom W. Smith, director of the center’s General Social Survey, a 32-year-old survey that is widely referenced by social scientists as one of the nation’s most scientifically reliable gauges of public trends.
Another possible explanation, Smith said, is that a small number of the people who formerly identified themselves as members of a Protestant denomination have now decided to identify themselves simply as "Christian," in which case they would be in the "other" category on the survey, Smith said.
The number of people who said they were raised Protestant remained stable at about 65 percent from 1973 to 1993 and then dropped to 56 percent in 2002.
"The decline in proportion raised Protestant indicates that the shift observed after 1993 was actually under way earlier," Smith said.
Because the average age of the respondents is about 45, the people surveyed after 1993 would have been reporting on their childhood experiences on average about 30 years earlier.
Among people born after 1980, 49 percent said they were raised Protestant, the survey found.
"The recent Protestant decline comes in large part from the loss of younger adherents and a related drop in the retention rate," he said.
Up until 1993, about 90 percent of people who were raised Protestants remained Protestants as adults, while by 2002 the number had fallen to 83 percent.
Researchers said they anticipate that immigration will probably further decrease Protestant numbers but will keep Catholic rates stable, Smith said.
The General Social Survey is an in-person survey of a representative sample of Americans 18 and older. It has been conducted every one to two years from 1972 through 2002 with support from the National Science Foundation. The 2002 survey included 2,765 people.
Published by Keener Communications Group, September 2004
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