The Largest Religions in the US Might Surprise You
Religion can be a touchy topic, but it shouldn't be. What we believe in is very personal, and for many Americans, faith contributes to their sense of identity. In fact, embracing differing beliefs is part of what it means to be an American (or it's supposed to, anyway).
Not surprisingly, Christian faiths make up over 70 percent of religious beliefs in the U.S. So, which religions are the most popular in the U.S.? Well, the answer is evolving, with Protestantism no longer holding the majority and the sector of those unaffiliated with religion (atheism, agnosticism and those who believe in "nothing imparticular") on the rise. Here's a rundown of America's current religious landscape.
12. Native American Religions
Number of adherents: ~10,000
Percentage polled: 0.3%
Note: Stats come from the Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study, which collected data from 35,000 Americans in 2014. The number of adherents refers to the overall number in the U.S., while the percentage polled refers only to those who participated in the study.
Bottom Line: Native American Religions
It's not exactly accurate to describe the beliefs held by most Native American cultures as religions. Native American beliefs are very diverse, but a central concept unites them — the idea that all beings (humans, animals, plants and elements included) are interconnected, working together to create harmony and balance in the natural world. Each tribe has different traditions, but most are highly ritualistic.
Rituals are often formed around life-cycle events, like agricultural seasons, births, children coming of age and other meaningful moments in life. Many Native American tribes also believe in a Creator or several Creators who are responsible for designing the natural world. The specifics vary by tribe, and it's rare for anyone outside of them to adopt their belief systems. Because of this, the number of adherents is relatively small.
11. New Age
Number of adherents: ~2 million
Percentage polled: 0.4%
Bottom Line: New Age
The New Age movement isn't exactly a religion but a collection of spiritual practices that came to prominence in the 1970s. The New Age movement draws from ancient Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism. Its focus, however, is on a specific life philosophy without a need for any formal organization or doctrinal belief system.
New Agers usually believe that the world is more spiritual than physical. One's thoughts are as concrete as one's actions, so positive thinking has the potential to bring about real change in the physical world. Some believe in reincarnation, astrology, reiki and other similar concepts.
At its core, the New Age movement is about individual spiritual healing that theoretically leads to a world with more light and love to go around. Since it's not a formal religion, it's tough to measure exactly how many people are New Agers. The movement has died down somewhat, but many of its defining concepts are alive and well.
Number of adherents: 2.5 million
Percentage polled: 0.7%
Bottom Line: Hinduism
Hinduism is more like a family of religions than one strict, organized religion. Most Hindus worship one primary god known as "Brahman," but other gods and goddesses are recognized as well. Hindus also believe that there's a continuous cycle of life, death and reincarnation. They also believe in a soul and the idea of dharma — a way of living that's all about morality.
Hindus are also the ones who came up with the concept of karma. We throw that word around all the time, but in Hinduism, it goes deeper than having a stroke of bad luck because you didn't bother returning your shopping cart. (Which you'd totally deserve, by the way.) Karma is defined by Hindus and Buddhists as the sum of your actions in this and previous lives, impacting what you become in the next life. Litterbugs, you might want to change your ways, just in case.
Number of adherents: ~3.5 million
Percentage polled: 0.7%
Bottom Line: Buddhism
Buddhism has some similarities with Hinduism. Both embrace the ideas of souls, karma and dharma as well as the process of reincarnation — and both religions originated in India. Buddhists, however, focus on achieving enlightenment, or nirvana, through meditation, labor and acts of good. Buddhists believe the first person to achieve nirvana, an escape from the suffering of human existence, was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha.
He taught the existence of the Four Noble Truths. Firstly, that everyone in life is suffering. Secondly, that all suffering comes from wanting life to be different than it is. Thirdly, that it's possible to stop suffering. Lastly, there are certain steps one can take to achieve enlightenment. There are three primary Buddhist schools of thought, and the Dalai Lama leads the Tibetan school of Buddhists.
Number of adherents: ~3.5 million
Percentage polled: 0.9%
Bottom Line: Muslim
Islam is both a system of beliefs and practices, and six major beliefs are held by almost all Muslims.
1. God is the creator of all things and has no gender, race or physical body. God also has no children.
2. God has angels who carry out orders across the universe.
3. God revealed scriptures to a number of human messengers, including the Quran, the Torah, the Gospel, the Psalms and the Scrolls. Each were given to a different messenger, but Muslims believe the Quran is the only text that is still the same as it was when it was first given to the prophet Muhammad.
4. Messengers are chosen to spread the word of God to humankind; 25 messengers are mentioned in the Quran, including Moses and Jesus. Muslims believe Muhammad is the last prophet.
5. There will be a Day of Judgment in which humans are judged for how well they followed God's guidance in this lifetime. Depending on how well they did, they'll spend the rest of eternity in paradise or hell.
6. A divine decree exists that governs the good and bad events that befall each person. How they respond is still up to them, supporting the existence of free will.
Islam is the third largest religion in the U.S., if you consider all the branches of Christianity as a single religion. If projections by the Pew Research Center are on point, Islam will be the second largest by 2040.
Number of adherents: ~6.6 million
Percentage polled: 1.6%
Bottom Line: Mormonism
Mormonism is a Christian denomination that's often the subject of stereotyping and unfair pop-culture references, but most people outside of Mormonism don't know what Mormons actually believe. Mormons rely on both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which is a collection of ancient Christian writings dating back to biblical times. The book of Mormon was transcribed by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Mormons believe he was a prophet, which is where their perspective differs from that of all other Christian sects.
There are several denominations of Mormonism itself, but most Mons don't believe that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are a single entity. Since that's a main tenet of most Christian beliefs, some Christians don't consider Mormonism to be a branch of Christianity. Another difference is that the Book of Mormon preaches that many biblical events took place in the Americas. Missionary work is part of Mormonism, but contrary to popular belief, polygamy is not. The practice is currently outlawed in the Church of Mormonism.
Number of adherents: ~7.5 million
Percentage polled: 1.9%
Bottom Line: Judaism
The definition of Judaism is a complicated one. Many people who consider themselves Jewish also identify as atheistic because being Jewish is more than a religion. Many American Jews view it as a culture or ethnicity, including eating certain foods, using the Yiddish language and adhering to specific cultural values. There are several sects of Judaism, however, and their beliefs have little to do with bagels and lox or latkes.
For those who do practice Judaism as a religion, there are 13 commonly held principles of faith. These include the existence of a divine, eternal god; belief in the Torah; and a divine reckoning after death. Generally speaking, there's much room left for interpretation. Jewish people can define their own beliefs on the principles of faith and instead place most of their focus on how they act.
Number of adherents: ~10 million
Percentage polled: 3.1%
Bottom Line: Atheism
The definition of an atheist is the easiest one so far: Someone who does not believe in God. It's tough to measure exactly how many atheists there are in the U.S. because some people who consider themselves Catholic or Jewish by heritage also say they don't believe in God. The number of self-reported atheists, however, doubled between 2009 to 2019, from 2 percent to closer to 4 percent.
Interestingly, about one in five atheists say they believe in some kind of higher force, just not the one described in Christianity. Atheists also tend to be philosophical: Over half of them state they have a deep sense of wonder about the universe.
Number of adherents: ~13 million
Percentage polled: 4%
Bottom Line: Agnosticism
There are people who follow a specific set of religious beliefs. There are atheists who ascribe to none of them, believing God doesn't exist at all. Then, there are agnostics, who essentially shrug their shoulders at both possibilities. Agnostics are unsure whether a god exists, and they don't believe it's possible to know for sure. It's an ongoing, "Maybe?"
Around 4 to 5 percent of Americans now identify as agnostic, and even more people from European countries agree. According to one 2019 survey, around 17 percent of the population of European adults identify as agnostic.
Number of adherents: 51 million
Percentage polled: 20.8%
Bottom Line: Catholicism
Catholicism is the second largest Christian denomination in the U.S. While many Catholics have been dubbed "cradle Catholics," meaning they were born into a Catholic household but no longer attend church, those who do practice Catholicism have a set list of core beliefs. They believe in one god and that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are all part of a single being, split into three entities.
Catholics consider themselves to be the original branch of Christianity. There are different types of Catholicism, but Catholicism does require acceptance of a long list of Catholic teachings and practices. Those who don't are considered dissidents who are leaning toward Protestantism. Essentially, they believe some of the core Catholic teachings but may not believe in others, like the Pope, praying to Mary or the existence of Purgatory. Catholics also practice communion, which is symbolic of being offered the gift of Christ through bread and wine.
2. Nothing in Particular
Number of adherents: ~100 million
Percentage polled: 15.8%
Bottom Line: Nothing in Particular
Like atheism, this is another vague religious descriptor that's tough to measure. It's increasingly common for people to simply identify as, "not much of anything." Some of these self-described, non-religious individuals do have some type of spiritual beliefs, but they're personal and loosely defined. Many consider religion to be an insignificant part of their lives, while others believe in bits and pieces of other religions or philosophies.
Together with atheists and agnostics, those who are unaffiliated with a specific religion made up 22.8 percent of those polled.
Number of adherents: ~140 million
Percentage polled: 46.6%
Bottom Line: Protestantism
Overwhelmingly, the most common Christian denomination is Protestantism. About 25.4 percent of those polled identify as Evangelical Protestants; 14.7 percent identify as Mainline Protestants, and 6.5 percent identify as Historically Black Protestants. Protestantism is really a collection of Christian denominations, not just one. In general, the Protestant faith teaches that salvation comes from only faith in the word of God as described in the bible, whereas Catholic teachings consider good deeds and atoning for sins important as well.
When surveyed, however, the majority of modern-day Protestants also believe that both faith in God and acts of goodness are requirements to stroll through the pearly gate. At the end of the day, as long as people are generous, caring, empathetic and kind, whatever faith they choose to follow is fine by us.