US religious shift: Muslims, Mormons lead way

USA - An unexpected rise in the numbers of Muslims and Mormons in the US has puzzled researchers. They are the two fastest-growing groups, while mainline churches lose adherents, the Census of American Religious Congregations unveiled.

It reveals the number of Muslim adherents rose by 66.7 per cent between 2000 and 2010, reaching slightly over 2.6 million, compared to over 1 million in 2000. The rise is believed to be fueled by both immigration and conversions.

For the first time, American Muslims outnumbered Jews in most of the country’s Midwest and parts of the South. They were even more numerous than Mormons during the given period.

The number of Mormons grew by 45 per cent to 6.1 million in 2010.

“Christians are the largest group in every state, but some of the things we found interesting was the growth of the Mormons, who reported the largest numerical gain in 26 states,” said Dale Jones, a researcher who worked on the study and presented it to a conference in Chicago on Tuesday.

Mormons, whose Utah-based church's formal name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are traditionally the nation’s fastest-growing Christian group. This year, however, experts are surprised with where the faith is leading its way – Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota and other states far outside the West’s traditional “Mormon corridor”.

Released once a decade, US Religion Census includes county-level data on congregations for 236 American religious bodies, with data on adherents available for 153 participating bodies.

The study was assembled by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and included self-reported numbers from 17 of the country’s largest religious groups.

US majors in decline

The decade brought decline to some major religions.

“Catholics had the largest numeric decline," said Jones, “including big losses in Maine, where a priest abuse scandal came to light.”

Its estimated fall is 5 per cent to 58.9 million adherents over the decade.

Among the other largest US faiths, the Southern Baptist Convention held steady at 19.9 million, the United Methodist Church lost 4 per cent to 9.9 million adherents, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lost 18 per cent to 4.2 million, and the Episcopal Church lost 15 per cent of its adherents to 1.95 million.

Evangelical protestant congregations continued to grow slowly, to 50 million adherents. Most of the growth was in urban areas and the vast majority of expanding congregations have fewer than 100 members and are not large mega churches, Jones said.

He also marked that Buddhists made strong gains in the Rocky Mountain states, where the number of temples and congregations increased markedly. The total number of Buddhist adherents in the US is nearly 1 million. There was no estimate in 2000.

Among other numbers released by the Census:

• Roughly 55 per cent of Americans attend services with enough regularity to be counted.

• Some 158 million Americans were classified as “unclaimed” by any religion.