WASHINGTON (AFP) — Protestants are on the verge of becoming a minority in the United States, a country they helped to found, as immigration reshapes the religious landscape and people change creed or drop religion altogether, a major study showed Monday.
"The number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51 percent," compared to nearly two-thirds of the population in the 1960s, the first US Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said.
"The proportion of the population that is Protestant has declined markedly in recent decades, while the proportion of the population that is not affiliated with any particular religion has increased significantly," the survey, which interviewed 35,000 adult Americans, showed.
The declining share of the US religious market that is held by Protestantism would likely impact on US culture and politics, John Greene, a senior fellow at Pew, told reporters.
"So many of the values and institutions in American public life came out of Protestantism," he said.
"I think you're likely to see a change in those institutions and the cultures that support them," as the religious landscape continues to shift, he said.
Immigration is playing a key role in shifting the religious balance in the United States, said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"It's not that the United States will become increasingly less Protestant; it's that the United States will become increasingly less white, and the big pattern there is among Latinos," Lugo said, referring to a separate study published two weeks ago by Pew.
That study predicted that immigration would drive US population growth and push whites into a minority by 2050, while the Latino population would triple in number and double in percentage terms during the same period, swelling from 14 percent in 2005 to 29 percent in 2050.
"The vast majority of immigrants to the US -- over 70 percent -- are Christian," Lugo said.
"But while native-born Protestants outnumber Catholics by two to one, among immigrants, Catholics outnumber Protestants by the same ratio," he said.
"So even though immigration is by and large confirming the Christian social nature of the American people, it is helping to tilt the balance towards Catholicism," he said.
Immigration has helped Roman Catholicism hold steady in its share of the US religious market, despite the faith having one of the highest attrition rates among adherents.
Around one-third of the survey respondents who said they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic.
But Catholics still make up around 25 percent of the US adult population of 225 million, thanks largely to the high number of Catholics among immigrants, mainly from Latin America, the study showed.
Along with immigrant flows, what the Landscape Survey called the "remarkable amount of movement by Americans from one religious group to another" kept the US religious map in perpetual motion.
"More than one-quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion -- or no religion at all," the report said.
The biggest winner in the constant ebb and flow of religion was the "unaffiliated" group, which includes atheists, agnostics, secularists and people who say they are not aligned with any particular creed but that religion is still important to them.
"Individuals who are not affiliated with any particular religion make up about one-sixth (16.1 percent) of the adult population. They thus comprise the fourth largest 'religious' tradition in the United States," the report said.
The biggest fall-out rate was among Jehovah's Witnesses; around two-thirds of those raised in the faith leave when they reach adulthood, the study showed.
"That might be an indication as to why they are so zealous in their recruitment effort," said Lugo.
"But everybody is losing and gaining numbers," he pointed out. "It's a very competitive marketplace and if you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history."
Eight in 10 Americans are Christian: half are Protestant, a quarter Catholic, 1.7 percent Mormon, and tiny percentages belong to other branches of Christianity.
Sixteen percent are unaffiliated, and nearly five percent follow other religions, including 1.7 percent who are Jewish, 0.7 percent Buddhist and 0.6 percent Muslim.
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