Stats on religion in the US – lots of decline for Catholics and mainline Protestants

The Association of Religion Data Archives released its 2010 U.S. Religion Census yesterday.

Its summary reports that mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. lost an average of 12.8 percent of adherents in the first decade of the 21st century. Catholics lost 5 percent of their active members in the ten-year period.

Here is how some of the largest religious bodies in the U.S. fared from 2000 to 2010:

Muslims:   +66.6%
Church of JC of Latter Day Saints:   +45.5%
7th Day Adventists:   +29.5%
SBC Baptist:   +0.1%
UMC Methodist:   -4%
Catholics:   -5%
LCMS Lutherans: -9.9%
Episcopalians:   -15.7%
ELCA Lutherans:   -18.2%
PCUSA Presbyterians:   -22%
United Church of Christ:   -24.4%

The entire U.S. population increased by 9.7% from 2000 to 2010 according to the U.S. census, so a religious body would need to have grown by 9.7% just to maintain its proportion of the population.

For Catholics and mainline Protestants, these are some hefty drops. And of course the question for Catholics is how much our figures are helped by immigration of Catholics. What would our figures be without immigration?

The percentage of Catholics in the US population as a whole has dropped significantly in the last decade. This compares with small growth in earlier decades:

2010:  19%
2000:  22%
1990:  21.5%
1980:  21%

The report shows growing religious diversity in the U.S.:

This is fun: the online database lets you look up the info for any county or state. Stearns County in central Minnesota, for example, the home of Saint John’s Abbey, was long a bastion of German Catholicism. But that’s changing rapidly. Here are the percentages of Catholics in Stearns County in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010:

 58.9 > 58.5 > 50 > 41.5

A partial explanation for the decline, I suspect, is that the U.S. population as a whole is moving around and mixing itself together, which means the odds are that the Catholic percentage will decline in its former regions of domination, but increase where it was previously a tiny minority, such as in some of the southern states.

I grew up in southern Minnesota, down in Lutheran (mostly Scandinavian) territory. Here are the percentages of Catholics in Renville County in 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010:

27.2 > 29.8 > 27 > 24.5

The Lutheran proportion of the total population is also are declining. Here are the figures for ELCA and WELS Lutherans respectively:

 35.5 and 12 > 34.9 and 12 > 33.4 and 10.2 > 31.7 and 8.8

In 2010, Catholics are 21.7% of the Minnesota population, and all the Lutherans put together (ELCA, LCMS, WELS, lots of miscellaneous little Lutheran bodies) are 22.2% of the state. In 2000, Catholics were 25.6%, all the Lutherans put together were 25%. So our share of the population is declining somewhat more than is the Lutherans’.

I bet you Amis out there will be looking up various states and counties. Enjoy.






38 responses to “Stats on religion in the US – lots of decline for Catholics and mainline Protestants”

  1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    I’m not that familiar with the 7th Day Adventist but I think that they as well as the Muslims and Mormons are all rather literal in their faith and morals and what some would derogatorily call “fundamentalists.” Those three are the ones booming. I suspect too that for the most part they don’t see children and pro-creating as a disease to be prevented and therefore may not practice artificial contraception although I’m not sure that would be a rule of them or not.
    Obviously the churches that have lost the greatest number are the most liberal of Protestants. Certainly Catholicism has fallen into a liberalization since Vatican II and thus some may equate liberalism within a particular communion as creating dissent and disinterest leading others who would want something more secure and stable to go elsewhere or to stop practicing altogether. And if one isn’t procreating to a level of replacement, then that’s going to create problems too. I think Italy’s population rate is plummeting to the point that Muslims who are pro-creating may well eclipse native Italians in their own homeland. But it is obvious that liberalizing the faith is death dealing, but secularization certainly plays a part also.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      I think I hear you saying that we Catholics should be more like the radical fundamentalists.

      Let me think about that a bit.


      1. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        No not quite, but I could be interpreted as saying that Catholics should hold onto the fundamentals of the Catholic faith in a radical way. There’s a difference in that interpretation. 🙂

      2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        I think that’s what the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been doing, big time, in the last ten years more than ever. So why isn’t it working for us? How come we’re not gaining or retaining members like the fundamentalist groups?

      3. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        Because there are forces working against them both within and outside of the Church? Powers and Principalities and other such gremlins? We’re not called to be successful just faithful, look what happened to our poor Lord.

      4. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        Now you’re switching sides and contradicting your earlier argument.

        First it was that we should hold on to the fundamentals in order to grow.

        Now it’s that it isn’t about growth, it’s about faithfulness.

        I like your second one better – but realize that this could be an argument for all sorts of nasty liberal and progressive positions, if one thinks this is what faithfulness to Jesus means, however unpopular that is.

        I’m enjoying this friendly discussion, btw.


      5. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

        I realized that when I typed it that a liberal could take the ball and run too, but it was too late to take it back. But as much as I like bigger and better I do think we’re going to have to settle with smaller and more faithful! 🙂

      6. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

        I think that’s what the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has been doing, big time, in the last ten years more than ever. So why isn’t it working for us? How come we’re not gaining or retaining members like the fundamentalist groups?

        Who’s to say it’s not working for us? There’s easily more than one factor at work! Perhaps ceteris paribus the Bishop’s strategy (assuming that is there strategy) would have led to an increase, but there were other factors at work.

      7. Dale Rodriguez Avatar
        Dale Rodriguez

        Fr Allan states: “I do think we’re going to have to settle with smaller and more faithful!”

        “Settle”, Smaller?
        Whose fault is that?
        Yup, the antithesis of Christs’ Great Commission.
        Go and teach the whole world has become “hunker down, circle the wagons and sign the loyalty oaths, we want only the righteous…

        I’ll take a big Church filled with sinners who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb and you can “settle” with your small remnant Church with the righteous who are faithful and have no need to wash their robes.

    2. Stanislaus Kosala Avatar
      Stanislaus Kosala

      I think it’s important to keep in mind that despite the larger amount of growth, there were in 2010, 2.6 million Muslims and about 17 million 7th Day Adventists in the United States, compared to about 68 million Catholics.

  2. Jim McKay Avatar
    Jim McKay

    If Renville city grew at the stated rate for the country (9.7%), then 2010’s figure of 24.5 % of 109.7 is awfully close to the 2000 figure of 27% of 100. it is the same number of people, but a smaller % of a larger population.

    There is little decline, just an absence of growth. The same applies to the Lutherans; ELCA may actually have grown a bit. But I don’t think it is relevant in other cases you cite.

    So maybe Catholics should be giving away their faith instead of holding onto it.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Jim – thanks for writing. But I think this mixes up a couple things.

      Renville County (not city) probably declined in total population since it’s a very rural county. But even in your hypothetical: in 2010 there was no 109.7% of the population. Rather, in 2010 Catholics are 24.5% of the 100%, but in 2000 they were 27% of the 100%. The Catholic percentage of the population went from 27% to 24.5%. The total population is a different issue. According to the statistics, all we know is that Catholics were 2.5 percentage points less of the total population ten years later, whether that total population went up or down.

      This conclusion of yours, as a hypothetical, would be right, though: it is possible for a group (such as ELCA Lutheran) to grow a bit but still become a smaller percentage of the total population, because the total population grew by more.

      In fact this didn’t happen. My first chart shows that ELCA lost 18.2 percent of its own members, apart from what the rest of the population did. If I’m reading the study correctly (I’m happy to be shown otherwise), the figures I pulled out for the first chart are about total change in membership in the religious body, not change in their percentage of the entire population.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, and I’ll re-phrase the opening of the post.


    2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Jim, I just re-read it, and you’re right, I was mistaken. In my response to you, I confused Renville County with the chart about percentag of decline for each group in the whole US, (My home is not the whole world – silly me).

      You’re right, and your use of 109.7 is right. If the county had grown 9.7% it would indeed be possible for a church to stay the same size, or even to grow slightly, and shrink as a proportion of the population.

      In fact the county population declined, but that wasn’t your point.

      Sorry, and thanks for the correction. I’ll adjust a bit of the wording in the original post.



  3. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    Perhaps religious affiliation, but not necessarily religious observance, is declining the USA. Maybe more people are self-identifying as “spiritual” or agnostic instead of an adherent of a particular religious tradition. In the past, persons who occasionally attended the life-cycle events and major religious holidays of a particular tradition might have identified with that tradition for cultural or social reasons. Non-affiliation with any religious tradition might be more socially acceptable today.

    The decline of religious affiliation in Europe is even more marked. Countries which charge a church tax, such as Austria and Germany, have noted a significant increase in citizens who have declared themselves non-religious. In secular France and Italy, many individuals simply cease parish affiliation. A good number of Europeans follow an unique blend of beliefs and rituals from diverse traditions. I suspect that a similar syncretism will appeal to more and more Americans over time.

    A decline in persons affiliated with a religious tradition does not necessarily imply that religious rituals are unimportant for many. Increasingly people move fluidly between different religious traditions. The seder I attended this year contained a healthy mix of Jewish and Christian believers as well as agnostics and an atheist. Each person present respected Jewish belief and ritual while enjoying the company of friends. The willingness of many people, and especially young people, to share in each other’s religious traditions is an extremely positive development due perhaps to a decline in formal religious affiliation.

    1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky


      This is an important comment that I meant to expand upon earlier.

      In both religion, ethnicity and elsewhere, what is happening is that rather than persons being imprisoned within institutions (shared patterns of behavior such as rituals) and culture (shared beliefs and values) persons are being freed and personhood is emerging as our central value. This is good; the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

      However institutions (shared patterns of behavior) and culture (shared beliefs and values) must be maintained by people; they do not live apart from people. At the present time we still live partly in a former world that was dominated by ethnicity, nation states, and religions. There is still much that maintains the institutions and culture of that era, even though there is much that threatens the old ways of maintaining institutions and culture.

      In the first chapter of SERVANT LEADERSHIP, Robert Greenleaf focuses upon the ideal human person as Servant-Leader. The best and most desirable leaders, the people to point the way forward, are servant leaders, i.e. those people who want to serve, whose ultimate goal is the full human development of others, their health, happiness and their capacity to be servant-leaders.

      Greenleaf thought that both educational institutions and the churches were failing humanity because they had not made servant leadership central to their endeavors.

      In the second chapter, Geenleaf focuses on Institutions as Servants. Greenleaf maintained that all large institutions of modern society underperform their roles as being servants of humanity. His solution was not to kick out their leaders or dismantle the institutions. Rather he challenged people who wanted to serve to become servant-leaders and to make those institutions better servants. Institutions, like people, needed more care not less care. Our institutions (e.g. our rituals) and our cultures need more care not to dominate but to serve.

  4. Brigid Rauch Avatar
    Brigid Rauch

    First off, I would like to suggest that if the Catholic Church has lost numbers because of children who weren’t born, it has also lost numbers by people fed up with the teaching on birth control. Considering the politics involved in promulgating that teaching after Vatican II, there is a good case to be made that the teaching itself is immoral since the case can be made it is about enforcing obedience rather than discerning God’s will.

    Second, It would be good to see numbers breaking down religious affiliation by socio-economic level. The mail line Protestant Churches and increasingly the Catholic Church are perceived as belonging to the middle class. In a country with a rising poverty rate, it makes sense that more people go to Churches where they feel more welcome.

    Finally, Jesus told us to go out and preach to all nations. He never told us to go out and out-breed all nations!

  5. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky


    Since this data comes from religious denominations, it does not tell us much about the NONES.

    It is not possible to get a reliable estimate of the NONES from the data. Many people, especially “former” Catholics, who tell an interviewer that their current religion is “None” are probably still carried on the rolls of parishes. Attempts to get Catholic parishes in this diocese, to maintain consistent and accurate data have been a failure.

    The NONES cannot be reliably estimated by subtracting all the individual denomination estimates from the total population.

    Back in the 50, 60, and 70s when the percentages of NONES was stable around 4% of the population, these included many atheists and agnostics. However since then, choosing “none” has become a protest against organized religion, especially Christianity. Most sociologists agree the NONES are mostly people who believe in God, often describe themselves as spiritual, and even go to church. They just don’t like organized religion!

    With regard to values, as reported by CARA the NONES are very similar to Non-Christians when it comes to abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. In many cases it is likely that people declare themselves NONES because they dislike the heavy emphasis that organized religion has placed upon these issues, and the alliance of organized religion with the Republican party on these issues.

    If the NONES were to be regarded as a denomination, they would be one of our fastest growing denominations, despite their very liberal values. So it is not that liberal values are not attractive, rather people who are particularly liberal are fleeing organized religion which is perceived as hostile to their values.

    Some sociologists think the next religious movement in the US will be one that attracts the NONES. Perhaps that will be a liberal Christian religious movement, but it could also be a Non-Christian movement that is more hospitable to abortion, gay marriage, etc.

    1. Brigid Rauch Avatar
      Brigid Rauch

      If I may piggy back your interpretation caution – I think it is a mistake to lump abortion with gay marriage. The person who advocates a woman’s right to abortion for any reason up to the time the infant draws breathe is actually rare. Most people would allow abortion in the first trimester, limit it in the second and view it very critically in the third. In addition, there are many people who don’t like the idea of abortion at any time, but who feel it is a greater evil to try to prevent abortion with the heavy hand of government. The image of woman casually having an abortion is pretty much a myth.
      Most people who support the right to abortion view it as a very serious step.
      Support for gay marriage is much clearer. Straight people have taken a serious look at the members of the GLBT community and discovered that guess what? they aren’t monsters, just other human beings who deserve the right to be left alone!

  6. Chuck Middendorf Avatar
    Chuck Middendorf

    Father Anthony,
    I grew up in Stearns County (as you may guess from my last name), but now in Seattle. To your point “A partial explanation for the decline, I suspect, is that the U.S. population as a whole is moving around and mixing itself together, which means the odds are that the Catholic percentage will decline in its former regions of domination…” just look at the number of ELCA Lutherans in Stearns County: now 16 congregations with 14K members compared to 7K back in 9 congregations in 1980.

    I’m in Seattle now, and it’s interesting to see in King County we went from 122K > 211K > 281K > 278K.

    Seems that there was a peak in 2000 for lots of the mainline and Catholic populations.

    I’m eager to hear what people from the South discover in the data.

  7. Brigid Rauch Avatar
    Brigid Rauch

    I have to say that the biggest surprise is that the Catholic Church is losing membership despite immigration from Mexico. Is this a result of falling immigration numbers, native born Catholics leaving at increasingly higher rates, immigrant Catholics moving to other faiths or some combination of all these factors? In any case, clearly the assumption that the Catholic hierarchy can relax because uppity native born Americans will be replaced with docile Latinos is wrong.

  8. Dale Rodriguez Avatar
    Dale Rodriguez

    Interesting but scary.
    The census bureau states that the Hispanic population grew 43% or 15.2 million individuals between 2000-2010. (

    Assuming that 85% are Roman Catholic that approximates to 13 million adherents, so 13/55 x100 is about a 26% growth.
    In 2012 we are down by 5% to about 52 million.
    If it wasn’t for the Latino influx we would be down 26% + 5%= 31%.

    IMHO that is a disaster.

    1. Jeff Rice Avatar
      Jeff Rice

      This is where I question these numbers… just looking at the numbers for our county, they seem very low based on Mass attendance. In fact, the number shown seems close to what you would get if you left out the Spanish-speaking members of our community altogether. So I wonder how the data were collected. If they were collected by simply asking churches to provide numbers of registered members, I would note that the majority of those who attend our Spanish Masses are not officially registered.

  9. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    I don’t have statistics but it is said that in the Atlanta area up until about the mid 1990’s that the largest “denominations” were #1, Southern Baptists, #2, United Methodists, #3, Presbyterians and Catholics would have been further down. Today though I believe the Catholic Church is #2, bumping the United Methodists, which down here is quite a big bump. Of course much of Catholicism’s and Atlanta’s growth is from Yankees moving in! Scarlet is turning in her grave. But indeed, Atlanta is very international and those who have moved in bring their Catholic heritage with them.

    1. Dale Rodriguez Avatar
      Dale Rodriguez

      Indeed, there have been some bright spots but overall it is depressing.
      Wasn’t there a rumor that Atlanta would “get the nod” and Archbishop Gregory would get the “red cap” because of the growth in the southeast?
      We have different perspectives but because of the sex abuse crisis, contraception (artificial) ban, the “war on women” and various other “self inflicted” wounds we are decreasing. When we decrease we lose our moral position then we’re attacked and secularists jump on board and take a stab. Reminds me of a lost elk being taking down by a pack of wild African prairie dogs. How sad.

    2. Jim McKay Avatar
      Jim McKay

      Fr Allan, the ARDA report that provoked this discussion confirms your memory. The Catholic population of Atlanta grew 44% from 2000 to 2010, passing the United Methodists, but still trailing the Southern Baptists.

      If you accept the Archdiocesan figures, Catholics have probably passed the Southern Baptists as well. Somehow they think Catholic more than doubled from 2000 to 2005, and more than doubled again since then. I suspect this phenomenal growth comes from a change in method rather than from actual growth, which is why CAUTION is appropriate when reading statistics like these.

      Maybe we could get Fr Anthony to retitle this post to “…lots of growth for Catholics…” instead of “lots of decline.”

      1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB


        I think the title is accurate. The entire US Catholic Church lost 5% of its membership – this is decline. The smaller number of Catholics who remain moved around a lot (like everyone is doing) so that in those areas of the US where they were tiny minorities before, there are now more of them. But overall it’s decline. I treated in the post why predominant religious groups are declining, and minority groups are increasing – both can happen within overall decline.


  10. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky


    These are membership and registration statistics.

    Hispanics are known for being distrustful of registering for a parish. There, of course, is the immigration issue. But also a general distrust of authority in Latin America, of the church as being on the side of the authorities.

    And there is just a difference of traditions. Parishes and congregations are an Anglo and Protestant tradition.

    1. Brigid Rauch Avatar
      Brigid Rauch

      By the same token, how many Catholics who go out the door bother to de-register?

      1. Jeff Rice Avatar
        Jeff Rice

        Brigid, see my comment above… it seems to me the Spanish-speaking members of our community are missing completely, which means in this county the census may have failed to count half of the practicing Catholics. On the other hand we routinely purge our roles of Anglo families who we know are not active members of the parish, so I doubt the numbers come anywhere close to balancing out.

    2. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      And also how many pastors play politics with the statistics.

      Pastor A: “Let’s see church attendance is way down, but the collections have remained stable. A lot of the people on the rolls are probably never coming back, but you never know. My job here is real comfortable. I don’t want to do anything to encourage the guys downtown to consolidate my parish.”

      Pastor B “Let’s see church attendance is way down. It is time for me to be out of here. If I just cross all these people off the rolls who have not shown up for a long time, or put much in the collection box, maybe they will close or consolidate this parish. Any where would be better than this.”

  11. Dale Rodriguez Avatar
    Dale Rodriguez

    I think we could do our own statistical analysis since bloggers here are probably a cross section.

    Let’s compare notes and determine if we can see a trend.

    In my family only 2 out of 20 attend Mass on a somewhat regular basis, that is only 10%. Myself, I’m just hanging on by my fingernails.
    None of them have envelopes but have not unregistered either so they are probably counted as members. They still identify themselves as Catholics but as one said “the church left me”. When I ask others it seems that this is the trend, a vast drop.

    What do your numbers reveal?

    1. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

      Taking my family (parents and siblings) as a sample, 75% of Americans are church-going Episcopalians and 25% are church-going Catholics. Oddly, 25% of Americans are also Episcopal bishops and an equal numer are Catholic deacons.

      A pretty robust future for both Catholics and mainline Protestants, I’d say, though the priest shortage is worrying.

      Of course, a wider sample might be called for.

      1. Dale Rodriguez Avatar
        Dale Rodriguez

        A bright spot!
        Fritz, just think, you could be +Bishop Fritz in the Episcopal Church, has a ring to it n’est pas?

  12. Earle Luscombe Avatar
    Earle Luscombe

    I am the only Roman Catholic, in the family. Outside of me, we have United Methodists, very conservative Mehtodists, who attend regularly: Assembly of God, level of attendence unknown: and probably None. There are 13 of us all together spread out from New England, to the deep South, to the Midwest.

  13. Deb Pryce Avatar
    Deb Pryce

    I just figured out that of my closest family members only 30% of us go to church weekly, 10% C & E, and 60% don’t go at all anymore. 10 years ago all of these people attended the Catholic Church weekly. I am one of the 30%, but hanging on by a thread as is one other in the 30%. Very sad when I look at it this way.

  14. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky


    As a further indication of how cautious we should be in using this self reported membership data, Religious New Service now reports

    Its report pegged U.S. Mormon growth at 45.5 percent, jumping from 4.2 million in 2000 to 6.1 million in 2010. The 2000 figure, however, was much lower than the 5.2 million listed in the LDS church’s own almanac for that year. If researchers had been given that figure, the percentage of growth would have been considerably smaller, closer to 18 percent.

    The LDS church also supplied smaller Utah membership numbers to the state — figures government officials use for planning.

    What RNS does not tell you is that a 40% growth rate per decade for the Mormons has been the stuff of sociological legend. Rodney Stark, the prominent sociologist who wrote The Rise of Christianity used it to create a statistic model of the growth of early Christianity based on assuming there were 1000 Christians in 40 C.E. and then increasing 40% per decade. It fit a lot of the existing historical evidence.

    Stark used the model to argue that one did not need to make any special assumptions about Christianity, e.g. mass conversions, the conversion of Constantine, etc. but could model the growth of early Christianity using what we know about the growth of denominations today.

    Stark model of 40% growth for the Mormons was based on past data (I think he first wrote about it back in the sixties or seventies) and actually may have stimulated continued Mormon growth since they begin to think that like Christianity they were headed ever upward. They really liked Stark’s model.

    However I have been noticing here and there some indications that they are now slowing down, and would not make it this time.

    It seems that the change of reporting may well have been due to a desire by the Mormon leadership to keep the illusion that the 40% growth rate is continuing.

    1. Jack Rakosky Avatar
      Jack Rakosky

      Don’t Panic: A Statistician’s Guide to Religion Data

      CARA provides some help.

      As I sat at my desk Tuesday, I felt a great disturbance in my Twitter feed as if tens of thousands of Catholics had suddenly left the faith. The cries of both liberal and conservative Catholic bloggers rang out demanding their bishops act to stem the tide of the mass exodus (“Latin Masses only, ordain women, stop giving sanctuary to immigrants, the death penalty is not that bad, is celibacy really necessary?, be nice to Paul Ryan”… it’s like a match game you figure out who would likely be calling for what).

      It’s not that Church-connected counts are “wrong.” They simply measure something other than the total number of Catholics. Instead, these estimate only active (regular attending) and parish-connected (registered) Catholics. In fact, when these counts are used in conjunction with the self-identified Catholic estimates provided by surveys one has a very good understanding of the numbers that might be a target for New Evangelization and outreach.

      [Note: the difference between ASARB/OCD counts and survey estimates for self-identified are not “former Catholics.” This is an entirely different group… and phenomenon.]

  15. Brent Pruett Avatar
    Brent Pruett

    I have herd that Catholics make up the largest religious
    group and the seconed is x-Catholics. What are the numbers to supprt that claim.

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