Since we’re going to be reading a book about some of the ways faith is lived in America (and how that affects how deities spend their time on the continent), I thought it was worthwhile to pull in some actual facts on the state of American religion. So I called on my long-time friend and resident theologian Chris Ashley, a Ph.D. student at Union Theological Seminary who works on, among other things, the relationship of gay people to evangelical faith, and who is particularly qualified to comment on this particular subject because he carried Neil Gaiman’s luggage at one of the book signings on the American Gods tour. Denominationally, we differ on our preferences in monotheism, and our baseball teams (he is a benighted Cubs fan), but he’s a great guy (some of you have met him in comments) and I’m grateful to him for pulling this together.
By Chris Ashley
The premise of American Gods is plausible because everybody knows Americans are highly religious, especially when we’re compared to the world’s other wealthy and powerful nations. But how religious are we, exactly, and how is that landscape changing?
Americans overwhelmingly identify with some form or descendant of Christianity. As of 2007, the figure was about 79 percent. (All numbers, unless otherwise cited, are from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey.) Within Christianity, the three largest subgroups are evangelical Protestants (e.g. Southern Baptists, Pentecostals), Roman Catholics, and “mainline” Protestants (e.g. Methodists, Lutherans). Evangelicals are just over a quarter of the population, Catholics just under, and the mainline just under a fifth.
After Christians, the single largest religious group, and the fastest-growing one, is the unaffiliated, at just over 16 percent. This statistical construct includes avowed atheists and agnostics, as well as those who simply have no identification. The latter, some 12 percent of the United States as a whole, is larger than any single denomination other than the Catholics. There are approximately as many self-identified atheists as Jews or Mormons (1.6 percent for atheists; 1.7 percent for the others). The unaffiliated are a more exact cross-section of America than any other religious group, matching income and ethic proportions of the population as a whole very closely. Among other major world religions, there are about as many Buddhists as Muslims and slightly fewer Hindus (0.7 percent, 0.6 percent, 0.4 percent).