The Story: A new study finds that the typical American believes the United States is far more religiously diverse than it actually is, overestimating the number of Mormons and Muslims and underestimating the number of Protestants.
The Background: Grey Matter Research surveyed American adults and asked people to estimate what proportion of Americans are part of or affiliated with eight major faith perspectives: Protestant (including Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and all other Protestant groups), Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, atheist or agnostic (don’t believe in God or don’t believe we can know whether there is a God), believe in God or a higher power but have no particular religious preference, and any other religious group.
According to the study, the typical American adult estimates the religious affiliation in the U.S. as follows: 24% Catholic, 20% Protestant, 19% unaffiliated, 9% Jewish, 9% atheist or agnostic, 7% Muslim, 7% Mormon, and 5% from all other religious groups.
The typical American badly underestimates how many Protestants there are in the country, notes the report, and overestimates the presence of religious minorities such as Mormon, Muslim, and atheist/agnostic.
The Takeaways: Some of the more interesting findings from the survey include:
• The average American estimated the number of Protestants as 20%; the actual number is 51%.
• The average American estimated the number of those affiliated with the Jewish religion as 9%; the actual number is 2%.
• The average American estimates that 7% of the population is Muslim; the actual number is under 1%.
• The average American estimates that 7% of the population is Mormon; the actual number is about 2%.
• The average American estimates that 9% of Americans are atheist or agnostic; the actual number is about 4%.
• The average American estimates that 19% of the people in this country believe in God but have no religious preference; the actual number who are religiously unaffiliated is around 12%.
• People under age 35 are especially likely to underestimate the proportion of Protestants, and to overestimate the presence of atheists/agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated.
• People tend to overestimate the proportion of their own faith group. Among people who identify with the Catholic Church, the average estimate is that 39% of the country is Catholic; the actual number is 24%. Among people who identify as atheists or agnostics, the average estimate is that 16% of the American population is atheist or agnostic. Among people who express no particular faith identification, the average perception is that 35% of Americans believe in God but have no actual religious preference.