Americans Confused About the Number of Protestants, Atheists, Mormons, and Muslims

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. 

  • Wesley

    What an interesting picture of N. A. ideas re: religious affiliation. I find it telling that people assume such low numbers of protestants and also that they assume such a multi-religious cross section. I take this as both due to wishful thinking of those minorities as well as those who want to think we are this “P.C.” society that embraces all views. Now, we are a society that seeks to be embracing/pluralistic but it seems that those views of orthodox Christianity are often also the ones quickly excluded from the table.

  • Neo

    This is one of those studies that just makes me shrug, and strive to abide by Edwards resolutions: “I will live for God…” and “If no one else does, I still will.”

    • CG

      Like that one old hymn: “Though none go with me, still I will follow”

  • mel

    I got something much different from the article. I can see how we are influenced not only by the media which portrays Christian affiliations to be shrinking everyday but by our every day contact with people. Unless a person attends our church or makes some casual reference to faith on the kids’ soccer field we assume that they have none. Or at least I do because media and even Christian blogs lead me to believe that the “others” are increasing in numbers every day. Leaving us with the thought that the Holy Spirit is indeed limited and the programs of the other religions are more appealing for some reason.

    Obviously if there truly were as many people of faith that even that survey says then the US should look very different morally. So “affiliation” simple means that in a person’s family they consider themselves such-in-such even if they only stepped in that said church three times in their whole childhood.

  • The Janitor

    These numbers could indicate a few different things.

    1. A very very small minority (under 10 percent) can be very powerful and very successful in getting their ideas across.

    2. Christians are hugely ineffective at getting their ideas across.

    3. Protestants (or Christian generally) don’t have beliefs much different than a secular atheist at a socio-cultural level.

    4. The numbers are wrong (e.g., people labeling themselves as one thing for no substantive reason and so forth).

    I suspect it’s a combination of all these.

    • KL


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  • Jonathan

    The reality stats are very encouraging. Good to know that 75% of America is still “Christian”. And the rest is so scattered that Christian is 10X more dominant than any single other association

    • melody

      Does this nation LOOK Christian to you?

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  • Brian Watson

    The problem with these surveys is that they ask people what religion they affiliate with. We know a lot of people consider themselves Christians who don’t have a relationship with Jesus and are not regenerate. I would guess that the real number is less than 20 percent. (Consider that 9 percent of Americans have a biblical worldview – I don’t think we should be comforted by the fact that 51 percent of Americans claim to be Protestants when the vast majority of them would deny the authority and inerrancy of the Bible and the exclusivity of Christ.

    In 2003, a Barna poll stated that only 9 percent of self-proclaimed born-again Christians had a biblical worldview (which, by the way, was very simply defined). See

  • Sara F.

    Fascinating. I think the media has scared many Christians into silence — we think we are outnumbered and are afraid to be portrayed as unloving
    ( )
    I was particularly surprised by the small number of Muslims… so much tip-toeing around by the media of such a small group of people…

    • John Carpenter

      I think you’re right. We see the country through the lens of the media and they exaggerate the numbers Catholics, Jews and atheists. Some of that is benign: when in dramas, they prefer religions that have a strong visual representation, like a priest in a clerical collar rather than boring Protestantism that looks normal. But some of it is agenda-driven.

  • Derek

    I suspect we make the same assumptions with any group the news media blows trumpets for while trashing Christianity.


    Fascinating. But the fact that so many people can be confused about the real numbers shows the cultural climate itself as well.

  • Dana Young

    What Brian Watson said:
    “I don’t think we should be comforted by the fact that 51 percent of Americans claim to be Protestants when the vast majority of them would deny the authority and inerrancy of the Bible and the exclusivity of Christ.”

  • Simon

    The rusults don’t surprise me. American evangelicals have a persecution complex that is almost innate. The pilgrims settled in North America to escape religious persecution, so this mentality is not hard to explain.

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  • MIke

    51% Christian? Sorry, I don’t see it.

    That would mean that every other person I encounter should be born again, believe the scripture, the deity of Christ, the trinity…that is funny. Not sure where the numbers came from, but I don’t see them as accurate.

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