Lots of atheists, more Muslims, fewer Christians and Jews: this is the new America

Damian Thompson

Damian Thompson is Editor of Telegraph Blogs and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He was once described by The Church Times as a “blood-crazed ferret”. He is on Twitter as HolySmoke. His book The Fix: How addiction is taking over your world has just been published in paperback.

Lots of atheists, more Muslims, fewer Christians and Jews: this is the new America

By  Religion Last updated: December 16th, 2013

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Drifting towards atheism: the Washington Post’s overview map

The Washington Post has produced six massively detailed maps showing the religious make-up of America. The main map is above – if you want to enlarge it you’ll have to click through to the Post’s report here. The author/analyst, Niraj Chokshi, has uncovered some fascinating material – most of it lurking in the 2010 US Religion Census (data submitted by congregations, not the official US Census) but so much more surprising set out in map form. And here’s an example.

Did you know there are – possibly – now more religious Muslims than religious Jews in Florida? I know, it seems incredible. Miami Beach has had 15 Jewish mayors, there are getting on for 200 synagogues in South Florida – and, of course, it was the hunting ground of the despicable Bernie Madoff. But here’s a section from the map of Eastern states, grouped by region:

We’re in difficult territory here because the US census isn’t allowed to ask people their religious affiliation. But these figures from the Sperling data aggregator show Florida Muslims outnumbering Jews:

There are still more Jews than Muslims in Florida, loosely defined; these figures measure Judaism as a religion. That said, even to compare the two 20 years ago would have seemed ridiculous. Florida has a small but vibrant, growing Muslim community, half of it from India, followed by Pakistanis – only 150,000 registered voters to date. As you’d expect, 80 per cent voted for Obama in the last two elections; but in other elections they’re swing voters, and in Florida you ignore those at your peril. As for the Jewish community, the retirement communities are reflecting the national picture. As Newsmax reported this October (my emphasis in bold):

The percentage of Americans who say they are Jewish has declined by about half as a percentage of the US population since the late 1950s, and currently stands at just under 2 percent, a new poll has found.

The Pew Research Survey on Religion and Public Life also found that the percentage of those who identify as Jewishsolely by culture or ancestry rather than religion has jumped from 7 percent to 22 percent since 2000.

My point is that the religious geography of America is changing – partly as a result of immigration (Hispanic, chiefly) but also because the Washington Post maps show how washed out and feeble Catholicism and mainline Protestantism have become. They may occupy the same territory that they did 50 years ago, but the Post’s map below tells a dismal story. This is religious participation by county:

Again, click through to the Washington Post for an interactive map. But the redder the colour, the more “participants” there are – meaning people who identify with a particular religion. I just checked the Boston area and it’s about 60 per cent, falling sharply in neighbouring counties. So 40 per cent of people in Boston have no religion at all, and it’s more than half in many counties. As for the 47 per cent of Bostonians who are Catholic “participants” – well, there isn’t much participation going on come Sunday morning. We’re talking about 17 per cent Mass attendance these days – and it was only 20 per cent before the clergy scandals broke. The story is the same in many other supposedly Catholic cities – fewer than one in five Catholics go to church regularly. Compare that to the 70 per cent in the 1950s (itself much higher than in the 19th century.)

You think Protestantism is holding its ground? Take another look at the map. Many counties in the Bible Belt and Midwest are uniformly Protestant – 70 or 80 per cent – if only in name. That makes them red. But this article from an evangelical Christian website reports widespread scepticism among researchers about the much-quoted figure that 40 per cent of Protestants are weekly churchgoers. That’s what they tell pollsters. Try other systems of measurement – an old but effective trick involves counting cars outside congregations – and you’re looking at 20 per cent. Much like the Catholics, in fact.

President Eisenhower once said that American government made no sense without religious faith “and I don’t care what it is”. (Understandable, perhaps, given that he was born a Mennonite, his mother was a Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he was eventually baptised as a Presbyterian – but not until 1953.) His vagueness about religious affiliation was in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, you could argue – but not even the Deist Jefferson would have been pleased to know that, in 2013, America’s fastest-growing religious allegiance is “None” – that is,agnosticism shading into atheism.

Here’s Bill Maher exulting over the trend:

“Atheists are among us, even in Oklahoma,” he says – which is true. Also: “Twenty per cent of America… up five per cent [from 15] in just the last five years, by far the biggest, most under-represented minority in America.” Pew reckons atheists have grown by 25 per cent in five years– which is why so much of the landscape in that map up there is very faint red or plain grey.

Let’s put this simply: America is secularising just like Europe – and all that talk of “American exceptionalism”, the free market in religion that kept it thriving, has turned out to be hogwash. We can discuss why on another occasion. But some of us saw this coming a long time ago. And, please, don’t kid yourself that Pope Francis, wonderful man that he is, can do more than add a percentage point here or there



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