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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

A Religious City

When commentators discuss parts of the country where people hold strongly to religious beliefs and practices, they rarely include New York. In fact, for much of its history, people from the rest of the U.S. have tended to view the city as a godless metropolis in a largely god-fearing land.

The statistics, though, tell a very different story. If belonging to a religion translates to being religious, New Yorkers are very religious when compared to Americans as a whole. The proportion of people identified as adhering to an organized religion in New York City makes the five boroughs as religious as many places in the so-called "Bible Belt." Yet people here belong - and do not belong - to different religions than residents of other parts of the country.

An estimated 6.8 million New Yorkers - or more than 83 percent of the population -- were identified as being affiliated with some organized religion in 2000. This rate of adherents is higher than all the states except Louisiana - even slightly higher than Utah. (These numbers include those who were said to be affiliated with many different religious groups and were adjusted to take into account non-reporting and other factors.)

Since 1990, though, there seems to be some decline in religious affiliation in New York City. In 2000, three-fifths of all New Yorkers were reported as affiliated with one or another religious body and so were called religious "adherents." The number was down to 4.8 million from just over 5 million in 1990. (These are the unadjusted figures.)

Where the Religions Are
  New York City New York State United States
All Religions (adjusted)
Adherents 6,682,139 14,366,781 173,046,520
Rate 83.44 75.71 61.49
All Religions (Unadjusted)
Adherents 4,783,779 11,459,836 141,364,420
Adherence Rate 59.74 60.39 50.23

The data used here are from the Religious Congregations and Membership Survey sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of Religious Bodies and distributed by the Association of Religious Data Archives. These data ask representatives of each congregation for the number of members they serve. Data on religious adherents was released February 1 and are available through www.socialexplorer.com Social Explorer and from the www.thearda.com Association of Religious Data Archives.

Where the Religions Are
  Brooklyn Manhattan Queens Staten Island Bronx
All Religions (adjusted)
Adherents 2,359,578 1,374,628 1,411,006 396,026 1,140,902
Adherence Rate 95.71 89.42 63.29 89.25 85.61
All Religions (unadjusted)
Adherents 1,552,336 1,075,375 1,072,693 332,964 750,411
Adherence Rate 62.97 69.96 48.12 75.04 56.31

Looking at the whole metropolitan area, which includes 39 counties in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as Pike County, Pennsylvania, almost 79 percent of the population are adherents, making the metro area 31st out of 276 in terms of religious affiliation. Virtually all the metropolitan areas reporting a higher proportion are in the South, including Lafayette, Louisiana, with the New York City area having a higher proportion of adherents than the Salt Lake City or Little Rock area.

Furthermore, New York State is the fifth most religious state. Only Louisiana, Mississippi, Utah and North Dakota have a higher proportion of religious adherents.

At the other end of the scale, West Virginia, Maine, Nevada, Washington and Oregon have the smallest percentage of their populations identified as belonging to an organized religion. Between 35 percent and 40 percent of their residents are adherents, compared to New York State's 75 percent. Metropolitan areas in those states have similarly low rates of religious membership.

A Diversity of Faiths

Religious though New York City may be, its mix of religious, as with its mix of residents, differs greatly from the rest of the United States. New York City is much more Catholic (62 percent versus 44 percent) and much more Jewish (22 percent versus 4.3 percent) than is the rest of the United States.

While smaller in number, Muslims and members of various Eastern Orthodox churches also have more members proportionately in New York City than in the state or the country. For example, slightly more than 2 percent of New Yorkers attend mosques, compared to only about a half of 1 percent of all Americans.

Protestants are much less well represented among New York City's religious members. In New York City 4.2 percent of religious adherents belong to evangelical Protestant churches and 6.5 to mainline Protestant churches, compared to 28.2 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively, for the nation as a whole

The pattern of religions varies throughout the city. Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn have a higher proportion of Jews and Muslims, while Staten Island and the Bronx are much more Catholic. Manhattan has the highest proportion of mainline Protestants, while Brooklyn leads in terms of Evangelical Protestants.

Where the Religions Are:
Percent of Total Adherents
  Brooklyn Manhattan Queens Staten Island Bronx
Catholics 58.8% 52.5% 60.0% 79.6% 77.5%
Evangelical Protestant 5.5% 3.0% 3.9% 2.8% 4.2%
Mainline Protestant 6.6% 9.3% 5.7% 4.3% 4.7%
Jewish 24.4% 29.2% 22.2% 10.1% 11.2%
Muslim 3.7% 3.4% 4.9% 2.4% 1.6%
Eastern Orthodox 0.7% 1.8% 2.7% 0.6% 0.5%
Other Religions 0.2% 0.7% 0.7% 0.3% 0.3%

Measuring Religion

The data presented here represent one method of measuring religion in the United States. Other measures, such as the American Religious Identification Survey estimate religion by asking individuals their religious identification.

Both approaches to measuring religion have some biases. However, the general patterns found seem to be the same. Both identify New York City and State as quite religious and the Pacific Northwest to be much less so. They also corroborate one another in terms of the patterns of religion identification and membership in the city. In the s religious identification survey, taken in 2001, about 13.4 percent of New York State residents did not identify with any religion. Estimating the number of people affiliated with any religion, though, particularly for Muslims and Jews, poses difficulties. The Census does not ask people about their religious affiliation.

To look at the figures for about 150 religious denominations by county and state, go to www.thearda.com or to www.socialexplorer.com A book was recently published that presented much more detail from the ARIS: Religion in a Free Market. Further analysis of data similar to that presented here can be found in The Churching of America, 1776 to 2005.

Where the Religions Are
  New York City New York State United States
% of Adherents By Group      
Catholics 62.0% 65.9% 43.9%
Evangelical Protestant 4.2% 4.9% 28.2%
Mainline Protestant 6.5% 11.3% 18.5%
Jewish 21.9% 14.4% 4.3%
Muslim 3.5% 2.0% 1.1%
Eastern Orthodox 1.4% 1.0% 0.7%
Other Religions 0.4% 0.5% 3.2%

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and been in charge of Gotham Gazette's demographics topic page since 2000. The opinions expressed are his alone.

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