April 4, 2014

U.S. doesn’t rank high in religious diversity

The United States has often been described as a religiously diverse country, an image celebrated in forums ranging from scholarly work to a popular bumper sticker and even a recent Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl. But, from a global perspective, the United States really is not all that religiously diverse, according to a new Pew Research Center study. In fact, 95% of the U.S. population is either Christian or religiously unaffiliated, while all other religions combined account for just 5% of Americans. As a result, the U.S. ranks 68th out of 232 countries and territories on our Religious Diversity Index.

The new study treats all Christians as members of the same religion. The U.S. has an enormous variety of Christian denominations, and if diversity within the world’s largest faith were taken into account, the United States likely would rank higher. But the study treats Christianity no differently than Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism – all of which also have a lot of internal diversity, yet are considered as single religions in the study.

FT_most-religiously-diverse-countriesThe study looks at the share of each country’s population that belongs to eight major religious groups, including the unaffiliated (those who identify as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion). The closer a country comes to having equal shares of the eight groups, the higher its score on the 10-point index. By this measure, Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country, followed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Six of the top 12 countries and territories on the Religious Diversity Index are in Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, China and Hong Kong). Several of them have substantial Buddhist, Christian and unaffiliated populations, as well as many adherents of “folk” religions. At the other end of the scale, among the places with the least religious diversity are Vatican City (more than 99% Christian) and such overwhelmingly Muslim countries as Morocco, Somalia and Afghanistan.

The U.S. is classified as “moderate” in terms of religious diversity. While adherents of many world religions live in the United States – the world’s third most populous country – most of those religions each represent less than 2% of the U.S. population. That includes people who identify their religion in surveys as Judaism (1.8%), Buddhism (1.2%), Islam (0.9%), Hinduism (0.6%) and folk or traditional religions (0.2%).

There’s an important distinction between religious diversity and religious freedom, which this report does not measure. (We’ve studied global restrictions on religion, both in the form of government restrictions and social hostilities, in a separate series of reports.) The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, of course, guarantees the right to “free exercise” of religion, which has been celebrated by figures ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Norman Rockwell.

But even as Tocqueville (in the late 1830s) wrote that the “sects that exist in the United States are innumerable,” he also observed that all those sects “are comprised within the great unity of Christianity.” The country has certainly changed over the centuries, but it remains a nation with an overwhelming Christian majority.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religious Affiliation, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of Alan Cooperman

    is director of religion research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. lobotom2 years ago

    The applied methodology may be a measure for “diversity,” but that measure calls for an overrepresentation of very small ethnic groups at the cost of other religious groups.
    For example, if 99% of one population group that makes only 1% of the population was represented in one religious category, that would be claimed to be more “diverse” (especially if the group only includes 1-2 % of the most populous ethnicities). In reality, it’s a sign of segregation.
    Also, this type of “diversity” depends on an artificial division of population groups and religious groups. If you separate Asians into smaller ethnic groups, suddenly the diversity is entirely changed because one group is mostly Hindu/Muslim, and the other group is mostly Buddhist. Dividing Muslims into Sunni, Shia, Sufi, etc. will again change the results. Thus, this measure of diversity is artificial and arbitrary.
    A group that is equally accepting of everybody has the same make-up as the general population, meaning that the same percentage of each ethnic group is represented (e.g. 20% of each ethnic group, thus making it a representative subset of the actual population). This calculation does not depend on artificial distinctions, unlike the Pew study.
    The standard based on the actual population make-up would also enable large religious groups to be diverse. Under the Pew standard, large groups cannot be as diverse as small groups because small ethnicites cannot have an equal share in a large religion due to the small total number of individuals within the small ethnic group.

  2. George Morgan3 years ago

    Way too simplistic! Treating all of any group as identical is not accurate — especially true when it comes to religious groups. Many of the sub-groups are so different from one another, that they won’t have anything to do with each other — and is a number of situations are even viewed as “enemy”.

  3. Ronald D. Van3 years ago

    I’m a Jew and an atheist. Mormorns do not accept the Nicene Creed, the one
    non-negotiable determinant of Christian affiliation.

    It looks like you have included Mormons as Christians.

    1. DougH3 years ago

      The Nicene Creed is non-negotiable? That would come as a real surprise to the Arians, Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites, and Monophysites. It’s more than a little odd to mandate acceptance of a doctrinal statement made almost three centuries after a religion was founded to be considered Christian. Especially if, applied retroactively, doing so would possibly reject the membership claims of most of the new faith’s adherents up to that point. For that matter, it would come as a surprise to the Jehovah’s Witnesses today.

      If you believe that Jesus was the Son of God who suffered and died for the sins of the world and rose again on the third day, you’re a Christian.

  4. Dennis Richardson3 years ago

    How tragic. That is really unfortunate, when the whole world on this planet will see eye -to-eye eventually. Planet earth to be very single minded with every body else, some where else.

  5. Richard3 years ago

    And this is a problem because?

  6. nas3 years ago

    I think this assumes a particular definition of diversity, i.e., different faith groups making up more equal percentages of the population. But diversity could also be defined as the range or variety of different faith groups that are present. By that measure, wouldn’t America be the most religiously diverse country because it has *some* members of every (or almost every) faith group in existence, even if they are small in number?

  7. muhammas3 years ago

    And this is why america preaches about religious tolerance. A minute population of America is Muslims and still they face surveillance in their mosques. Shame on America – Hypocrisy, thy name is Uncle San

  8. Howard Pepper3 years ago

    Thanks for a very interesting article… I’m linking to it from my blog.

  9. Doubter3 years ago

    1) When did ‘unafilliated’ become a ‘major religious group’ ?

    2) Why is diversity an especially useful indicator of anything? Wouldn’t it be better to measure religious tolerance, either between groups or of group(s) by the state?

    1. Bruce Drake3 years ago

      Dear Doubter: As far as studies on religious tolerance, see our January report: Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High pewrsr.ch/1dsC5lE

  10. DennisLurvey3 years ago

    just because you were born into a christian family does not make you a believing christian. christianity is also a culture as are all other religions. 30% of ppl under 30 are not religious/atheists, tho they could never admit that to their parents. you may live the christian culture but laugh at the dogma (behind your families backs).

    1. Thomas R3 years ago

      Not religious doesn’t equate to atheist. Granted up to 30% may not be certain God exists, but that could include various shades of agnostic or even religious persons with doubts. Going by this site people under-30 believe in Heaven, Hell, Miracles, and Angels at almost exactly average rates.