Poll: 47.6% of Americans Are Going to Hell


Protestants now constitute just 52.4% of the American population, down from 63.1% a decade ago. "As early as this year," pollster Tom W. Smith tells the Houston Chronicle, "and certainly, if the projections hold, within the next two years, the majority of American adults will not be Protestants for the first time since the founding of colonial Jamestown." (Yes, yes: not counting the Indians.)

While that represents a remarkable shift, it isn't simply a matter of worshippers abandoning their faiths (though the percentage of Americans claiming no religion has crept up from 9% to 13.8% since 1993). Most megachurches are nondenominational, the Chronicle notes; furthermore, "the boundaries separating Protestant denominations have become blurred, and many people see no reason to affiliate with one particular 'brand.'" That is, of course, a radical change in itself.

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  1. I just took my daughter to visit a liberal arts college that’s VERY liberal and makes a HUGE deal about how “diverse” they are. Dead silence when I asked if they had any athiest Republicans as students or staff.

  2. I’m trying to figure out where I fit in. I was an atheist for 42 years when I had a “Road to Damasus” experience. I now (on my own, with no church to attend) worship from Friday night to Saturday night, and study the Bible and ancient Hebrew culture to understand the context of the Bible.

    There must be another category besides Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Gnostics. I’m not Jewish, so I can’t be a Jew for Jesus.

  3. Ken,

    Try to be an atheist at a university in the South; or gay for that matter. Why exactly anyone want to be a Republican, BTW?

  4. “This poll is pretty misleading since respondents are labelled “Protestants” only if they affiliate with a Protestant denomination.”

    It would be interesting to see the results of a survey in which subjects are asked questions indicative of traditionally Protestant points of doctrine such as righteousness by faith, the priesthood of believers and the ultimate authority of scripture. If we gauged people’s responses to this test, over time, I suspect we would find that, even among Catholics, the basic Protestant fundamentals are actually gaining momentum in this country.

  5. jews for jesus confuse the everliving shit out of me.

  6. “His Holiness'” numbers may be a little low. There is the phenomenon of the Cafeteria Catholic, who picks and chooses which parts of R.C. dogma he chooses to believe in. That sort is effectively a protestant, but doesn’t officially break with Holy Mother Church for cultural reasons, or because it might hurt his re-election chances in a state like Massachusetts. 🙂

    The higher numbers for the unchurched may be an artifact of modern family patterns. Until the late 20th century, unmarried young men and women living somewhere other than their parents’ home was not as common as it is today, outside of pioneer areas. An influx of single young people, as during periods of heavy immigration, was usually seen as a social problem. We marry later, or not at all, too. When people finally get hitched and start raising children together, they are much more likely to return to church-going, if only to qualify for cheap day care for the rugrats. In addition, people who didn’t believe were much more likely to pretend to in the bad old days, when not joining a church could get you in trouble, if not with the law, than with your employer or your landlord. Heck, joining the wrong church could keep you unemployed or unpromoted.

    Religious identification always leaves me with ambivalent feelings. I have a strong Catholic background, but have thoroughly apostasized. Nevertheless, one can’t deny that the local parish is one of the greatest of the “little platoons” Burke wrote of. If given a choice between a state monopoly on education, or a privatized system where parents sent the majority of children to religious schools, I’d take the latter. Enduring a religious education doesn’t preclude the emergence of non-theists. In some cases, it may even promote it! The alternative of schools, youth centers, senior centers, nursing homes, hospitals etc, being government-run is much more dangerous. All this presupposes that we keep the state and church truly separate. In higher education we have a mix of state, secular private, and religious private institutions, and while the preponderance of government involvement hurts the overall product, the existence of the private minority makes the system healthier than it otherwise would be.

    I’d hope that we Libertarians can remember that those of us with a rationalist view of the universe are just a slim piece of the demographic pie, and not scare off believers from political alliance.


  7. Just a comment on RT post about Orthodox Christianity. True there has been a conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy by many evangelicals. About 10 years ago there was a mass conversion into the Antiochian (Syrian) Orthodox Church…about 2-3
    thousand folks. There have been a lesser number of Roman Catholics also who have gone Orthodox primarily because of the crappy liturgies in Catholic churches. But this is a trickle….maybe about 10,000 folks over the last 10-15 years. I think alot of people are just opting out of the formalized denomination thing but maintaining a belief in God. Wonder if the Jehovah Witnesses have suffered any losses due to people getting tired on knocking on doors and being rejected?

  8. The problem with evangelical intellectualism — and I’m well aware it exists — is logic. It’s what comes of having the Bible as your center of theology. Scientific knowledge has allowed the questioning of a lot of previously held beliefs.

    To wit:

    • How can someone with scientific knowledge resolve empirical biology evidence with dogma and original sin
    • How can someone claim light was created before a source of light
    • How can someone claim the sun stood still for a day, when the only source of telling time in the era was the sun. If ever there was a case for circular logic, this is it. (Never mind the more scientific problems this presents.)

    These are just a few of many problems that evangelical intellectualism has no answer for. With vast scientific knowledge becoming more common with the entire population, you’re forced to either accept the evidence, or become anti-intellectual.

  9. Wait a minute, the title of this post should be 74.5% of Americans are going to hell.

    No chance in hell. All Americans are going to heaven! Are we not One Nation Under God?

  10. Now that my monument was removed we’re all going to hell.

    Damn you ACLU!

  11. Hey, if you’re Catholic, then you’d say the best 75% of the population can hope for is Limbo. 🙂

  12. All this poll shows is what’s been known for a while within the Christian academic arena: traditional denominationalism, which was the consequence of religious wars of Europe, is categorically fading.

    This is due not only to immigration patterns, but the fact that the majority of Christianity of any denomination is centered within developing countries, and the influence of Pentecostalism worldwide is second only to the Catholic church.

    For example, the Anglican church itself has more members in Africa than under Canturbury’s influence, and the largest single church in the world is in South Korea with approx. 800,000 members.

    Pentecostalism itself is not typically considered Protestant although it could be called “confluent” with Protestant beliefs regarding historic faith. But it is decentralized, and regularly combats competing spiritism with its own brand of spirituality.

    The non-religious, individualist “spirituality” which appeals to many people is not only the result of a shift toward secularism, but also a shift toward personal experience of spiritism: being centered within oneself via influence of spirit guides or spirit possession.

    It could be argued that the superstitions decried by secularists and many religious leaders is actually a result of TOO LITTLE cohesive religious belief.

    The paranoia of many people exhibit toward organized religion has led to the self-censorship (read: privatization) of belief. It is, of course, fine to personally believe anything as long as it is merely personal and therefore relatively subdued.

    Syncretism itself may not be the result of a free-market exchange, but of government interference in the ability of people to create clear religious boundaries which freely express their beliefs within public dialogue.

    This leads to several results.

    The first is that the fringe tends to dictate religious practice simply because no one else feels it is proper to speak up, and there is therefore no way to socially-assess religious commonality is one would with price metrics in the business marketplace.

    The second is that by setting the “religious price” artificially low for the purpose of social stability, secular coercion increases the risk of inflaming larger and more widespread unrest by means of individual irrational grudges (evident within political correctness, victimology, frivolous lawsuits and criminal behavior as the few socially-acceptable outlets for redeeming one’s honor– depending upon the circles you are in).

    Liberal calls over the past 30 years for “multicultural affirmation” within Western Christianity have taken an interesting twist: most multiculturalism within any international denomination is outside of the West, and furthermore these churches are more spiritually-laisse faire (read: “open to the Holy Spirit”) and simultaneously spiritually-disciplined than any Western social-activist liberal could have feared.

    For instance, the arguments the churches have been having for the past 30 years over doctrinal response to homosexuality have been largely-tempered by the counterinfluence of developing countries and their place within these denominations. What some people may call “fundamentalism” (a misused term blanketing all evangelical and orthodox belief) is actually the result of increasing pluralism within the Western churches themselves.

    It may therefore be argued within the realm of liberal-speak, that homosexuality espoused by a number of church bureaucrats in the United States, is actually “racist” because it belittles the beliefs of many other ethnic churches around the world.

    Not only that, any church which is socially-centrist will have a hard time against unaffiliated house churches in economically developing countries such as China and India. Meanwhile, secularized Western-churches spend in less than 0.05% on missions.

    The influence that the secularist model may have had– secularism originally being a religious term with a social function– is becoming rapidly obsolete due to population numbers (Westernized secularists are not reproducing fast enough), the labor market, and radical religious groups such as militant Hindus, Muslims, and pure-race groups which can only be fought by the use of competing religions.

    I refer you to a primer by Philip Jenkins called: The Next Christendom, the Coming of Global Christianity. Although the title may sound triumphalist, this is a solid piece of research.

  13. Joseph, that was quite a thesis.

    I won’t debate your point of European religious wars, it’s quite feasible. But I think to a large extent, Christianity in any form is slowing dying in America. That’s because it can’t seem to compete adequately in the public marketplace of ideas.

    At a 5% deconversion rate every 10 years — and up to 14% already — there won’t be much left in the way of Christianity in 100 years in the U.S.

    The Religious Right may actually be hastening the demise, by turning off all but the most hard core holy rollers.

  14. Joseph,

    I just read several reviews of Philip Jenkins’ book, and I think referring to it here misses the point of the poll we’re discussing, which is Protestants in America.

    I’m sure the growth of spiritualism in any form is inevitable in South America. When you have poverty, fast population growth and lack of any education, the conditions are ripe.

    I also just read an interview with Jenkins, in which he surmised that Christianity in Latin America will promote greater literacy. It sounds like what happened in Europe from about the 8th Century onwards. Eventually, a literate people will grow out of their superstitions.

  15. This is great news. Hopefully it means that the church will see the end of the reformed denominations and doctrines once and for all. I nearly lost my religion dealing with some evangelicals on the issue of their interpretation of predestination. Over the course of about two weeks I had some serious arguments with a handful of them, including a friend from church, which I collected together into a dialog to refute their ideas.

    It’s not hard to see why evangelical protestant denominations have little appeal anymore. The doctrine of predestination basically makes belief in Christ pointless, and that ultimately makes “work for its own sake” as Calvin tried to teach, pointless. Why work when you’re going to hell when you die if God didn’t choose you for heaven? It always struck me as the doctrine that would bring about the decline of this type of protestant church’s presence in America.

  16. I find it hard to believe that, given our current immigration patterns, the percentage of Catholics isn’t increasing, which is what I assumed the point of this article was at first glace. Not living in a zone of Hispanic immigration, you’ll forgive my ignorance, but are they all becoming Mormons when they get their green-cards or what?

  17. According to the poll, the number of Catholics has gone up by less than 3%. I suspect that native-born Catholicism is being eroded by the same forces eroding native-born Protestantism, but that immigration is keeping the numbers up. Just a guess.

  18. “…’the majority of American adults will not be Protestants for the first time since the founding of colonial Jamestown.’ (Yes, yes: not counting the Indians.)”

    And not counting black slaves, who in large part did not adopt Christianity until the 18th century.

  19. Wait a minute, the title of this post should be 74.5% of Americans are going to hell.

  20. The Pope,

    If you belong to the Church of Christ its more like 99%.

  21. Evan:

    Those evangelics are not just sitting around, acorss the South they are going out and finding new members in the growing Hispanic communities.

  22. But that should boost the Protestant numbers, shouldn’t it? So there’s still some disappearances to account for…

  23. This poll is pretty misleading since respondents are labelled “Protestants” only if they affiliate with a Protestant denomination. As the article and Jesse’s summary both indicate, though, if you belong to no denomination you are listed as “Other” right along with Latter-Day Saints, Muslims, and Buddhists. The poll doesn’t take into account the fact that one can be a Protestant without belonging to a denomination… being a Protestant has a lot more to do with your interpretation of Biblical theology than it does with the label on your church sign.

    I noticed too that the poll doesn’t take Orthodox Christianity into account either — or else that’s another “Other”. In the past 15 years there has been a sizable number of evangelical Protestants who have converted to Orthodoxy, another drain on classical Protestantism.

  24. Just wanted to say something about my first post — I don’t mean to disrespect Orthodoxy by saying it was a “drain”. I think Orthodoxy is an overlooked and beautiful expression of Christianity that more Protestants ought to learn about. It’s just that in the process of doing so, a lot of Protestants have been won over by Orthodoxy.

    Some evangelical scholars say that this is because of a pervasive anti-intellectualism in American evangelicalism that didn’t used to be there (Jonathan Edwards, anyone? not the VP candidate of course…) but developed in the early 20th century with fundamentalism. Check out
    Mark Noll’s books
    for more on this. That anti-intellectualism also stands by itself as a possible reason for the results of the poll.

  25. The effect of the influx of Hispanic Cathoilics via immigration is also no doubt countered in part by the number of mainstream-Protestant and nondenominational-evangelical east Asian immigrants. To what degree, I have no idea.

    The migration of Reform Jews to Buddhism (e.g. the Beastie Boys and Winona Ryder’s family) probably doesn’t have much of a countervaling effect on the latter.

    What category do Trustafarians fall into?

  26. kmw,

    Are Latin Americans illiterate? That’s not been my experience in Brazil.

  27. “Evangelical Scholars”… that cracks me up.

  28. Patrick,

    Keep an open mind, and read this book.

  29. “The migration of Reform Jews to Buddhism (e.g. the Beastie Boys . . .”

    I’m travellin’ all around the nation
    Drinkin beer and doin’ meditation
    The Eightfold Path is where I went
    When I was goin’ on the search for enlightenment

  30. Gary,

    I know a few Latin Americans who are quite literate myself.

    Maybe I should have quoted this Philip Jenkins guy, so I could separate his ideas from mine. It was he that talked about South America as illiterate.

    I suppose in some parts of the continent that’s true.

    At any rate, I think Jenkins is full of shit. He has these dilusions of grandeur about the growth of religious belief, without any evidence to back it up. According to the Pew Research data I have, Latin America is only slightly more religious than the U.S.

  31. It would be interesting to see the results of a survey in which subjects are asked questions indicative of traditionally Protestant points of doctrine such as righteousness by faith, the priesthood of believers and the ultimate authority of scripture.

    I recently saw a poll where 40 % of Roman Catholic priests in America believed in the priesthood of all believers. That’s priests, mind you, the ones whom you’d think would be most orthodox. Of course, most parishioners aren’t theologically educated enough to know anything about such doctrines, so maybe it’s not so surprising at that.

  32. Joseph,

    Ok, I think I see what you’re getting at. You’re saying that international denominational creeds/bylaws will be determined to a greater extent by non-US congregations.

    I can buy that.

    The problem comes when too many US churches become too conservative theologically. George Barna notes in a December 22, 2003 survey that 4% of U.S. adults have a ?biblical worldview,? which is his way of describing theological conservatives.

    The data can be found at: http://www.barna.org

    If all the U.S. denominations start moving to extreme conservative beliefs, they will alienate a lot of moderates, which make up the bulk of parishioners.

    Both Barna and ARIS have noted that the agnostic category has been increasing by 5% every decade.

    I think this all adds up to a US church in serious trouble. We don?t have state sponsored denominations like they have in Europe, so all churches would be on their own. What happens when the money dries up? How much support can the rest of the world provide for their US counterparts in that situation?

  33. Interesting thoughts.

    The shift in numbers is simply that– a shift in numbers.

    At best, it indicates that people do not consider themselves specifically Protestant. It is neither positive or negative. As I indicated, fading Protestantism in the US is supplanted by stronger numbers outside of the country.

    The fact that allegiances are shifting is a social marker of changing definitions of what it means to think of oneself as both Protestant and Christian. It means that Christianity is in flux within the Reformation-era churches, which are struggling between theological liberalism and conservatism.

    At most, this indicates one or more of the following: people see contemporary Protestantism as unrepresentive their beliefs, they see it as unproductive or irrelevant, they have found something else.

    In any case, this means that denominations with international membership will see increased policy influence from outside the United States from the greater numbers of foreign adherents, greater emphasis upon orthodox knowledge, and by simple default.

    The literacy to which Jenkins referred (Atlantic Unbound , September 12, 2002) is therefore cross-cultural rather than imperialistic: “I think that may be why Christianity is ahead, because by translating, by always putting the scriptures into new languages, it encourages literacy, it encourages the vernacular.” From this quote, it seems that Jenkins means “literacy” as a form of literary familiarity, rather any particular inability to read. The clue here is the parallel use of the word “vernacular.”

    Some Christian communication theorists are now grappling with orality as the world’s generally preferred medium, and have concluded that literacy must emphasize sound recordings rather than printed pages.

    I’d like to see that Pew research. Jenkins cautiously qualifies his sources, but it would be more helpful if one read his book first.

  34. @kmw,

    Yes, now you’ve got it.

    Your reference to Barna suggests several things. I do not know if Barna is specifically referring to what might be called “politically conservative” theology or theology that appears conservative by the fact that it is “orthodox.”

    It should be noted that orthodoxy and conservativism are not the same thing. Typically, orthodoxy refers to what are regarded as the defining characteristics of the faith. This may or may not involve activity that appears liberal or conservative. For instance, the Catholic church opposes both the death penalty and abortion, even though these issues have been associated with opposite ends of the political spectrum.

    Upon more detailed examination, it would be difficult to say that Catholicism fails to reflect orthodox belief. The intersection of evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism in the public reception of “The Passion” reflects some of this cultural and religious familiarity.

    You might also be interested in a report Barna did which showed:
    “Adults attending mid-sized and large churches are more often people who are conservative in their theology as well as their social and political views. ?Conservative people more often play by the rules,? commented Barna. ?That helps to explain why mid-sized and large churches are often more solid on the theological foundations: those congregations are populated by people who want to know the biblical boundaries and expectations, and then are eager to work within them. Their energy and tangible resources are more focused and the result is more productive ministry.? The researcher also said that sociopolitical conservatives outnumber liberals by a three-to-one margin among church-going adults. http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=148

    Church members of smaller churches also tend to be more liberal. Since most churches usually fail below 100 members, it is safe to say that growing churches (those that are midsize 200, to megasize 1000) are typically more “conservative’ (however Barna defines this term).

    You’re right that the US church is in trouble. These numbers could either reflect a coelescence of conservative people leaving other churches, or churches attracting non-Christians and Christians alike by being conservative. But Barna’s research is counterintuitive to the image of the small country church as more pious or more quaintly biblical than its larger cousins.

    I can offer repeated examples of what I’ve seen happen to churches whose membership base dries up. If they are lucky, many churches are taken over by immigrant populations. Churches will rent out space to other congregations for the money. What usually happens is that the these groups grow larger than the host church, and either take control or move out, leaving the church on the verge of collapse.

    It is not as if foreign churches have no money, either. But the church moneypot in the US is still very large. However, most of it is tied up in pension funds and base-wage redistribution among pastors in order to promote a concept of denominational “fairness.”

    Larger churches tend to grow based upon market incentives. Certainly, just because you are market-oriented does not mean you are morally corrupt. But from the data I’ve seen, a loss of orthodox belief (a church’s “mission statement” if you will) tends toward disorganization.

    I believe many moderates oppose unthinking theology or rancor which polarizes nuances between various theolgical doctrines. Of course, if moderates are driven away from the church this does not imply that they went into the church with the same attitudes. It is also possible that churches are producing moderates or agnostics who tend to leave once they’ve outgrown programmatic approaches to faith which fail to address their concerns.

    Why churches push people away is another question. My own theory is that because of a failure to pay pastors what they’re worth, repeated demoralization between congregation and pastor affects the quality of a church. Much of the problem is that pastors are simply too busy and cash-strapped to have the incentive to do a good job or to think creatively.

    The fact that conservative and liberal churches fail to address this problem effectively, means that church involvement is more and more polarized. Liberal churches would simply appear to be less capable of agreeing on decisive steps which keep its theology (and therefore its reason for existence) intact.

  35. “I recently saw a poll where 40 % of Roman Catholic priests in America believed in the priesthood of all believers.”

    That 40% figure may refer to a nuanced interpretation of what “priesthood” means. Since Vatican II, the church body of believers themselves are regarded as a sacramental, and a mutually-participatory function of the priest together *with* (rather than *above*) the congregation, has resulted.

  36. Blahblahblah…

  37. how can anyone say that the Roman cAtholic church is christian.
    they dont even believe the bible is the soul authority alone,
    dictionary says that is heathen,
    Heathen= one who does not believe in the God of the bible.
    They add catechsims and go by that more than the written word.
    they are not chrisitans, just becaseu they have a form of christianity.
    they are false and should not be indentified as christians. They are the mother of all cults.
    All false relgions( as they are stemmed for the roman Catholic church.

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