A new survey estimates that 0.3 percent of American adults identify as Unitarians. That’s not very many—but it’s a lot more than belong to our churches.
Religion may express timeless truth, but a new survey shows that Americans are ever more willing to switch religions as they pursue it. No longer content with the denominational highways, they are cutting their own paths across the landscape of faith.
Of 35,000 adults interviewed as part of the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 44 percent said they had left the faith tradition of their childhood for another—or, in growing numbers, for no religion at all. Sixteen percent of respondents said they had switched their affiliation from one Protestant church or sect to another. Another 28 percent, or more than one in five, made a more dramatic switch: They changed religions, acquired a religious affiliation after having grown up without one, or dropped religion altogether. Together, the responses depicted what the researches called a “quantum leap” in the fluidity of American religion.
The survey, released in February, portrayed a fragmented American Protestantism at the end of its 400 years as the country’s dominant faith: Only 51.3 percent identify with Protestant traditions today, and the number of Protestant young adults is much lower. And it found a competitive religious marketplace in which the importance of doctrine had faded as religious consumers seek out congregations with the values, size, children’s programs, or music they prefer.
But enough of the big picture. To quote the old Borscht Belt line: What’s in it for us?
Overall, 0.3 percent of the survey’s respondents identified themselves as “Unitarians” of one sort or another, matching the percentage of self-described Sunni Muslims or members of the Church of the Nazarene. (Any smaller groups were listed as “less than” 0.3 percent.) That’s three in a thousand—a tiny ratio for a religion that claims five of the nation’s 43 presidents, but a much larger one than the total membership of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s congregations.
The survey had no details for its “Unitarian (Universalist)” subgroup. But it did give demographic data for the broader category “Unitarians and Other Liberal Faiths,” which also included people who identified as “spiritual but not religious,” eclectic, or as part of other “liberal” religious traditions. Together these groups make up 0.7 percent of the population, and are about as married, have about as many children, are somewhat older, and have higher incomes than is true, on average, nationwide.
They are more male than the population as a whole, however—54 versus 48 percent. And they are much whiter in racial composition, having at 88 percent about as many whites as Mormons, atheists, and Orthodox Christians have. They are also substantially more educated: The group had twice as many people with post-graduate degrees as the national average, although not quite so many as among Hindus and Jews.
But Unitarian Universalists, as a subgroup, may diverge slightly, given certain oddities in the way the Pew report counted Unitarians. A 2004 survey of UU World readers, for example, found that Unitarian Universalist church members are much more likely to be female, older, and even more highly educated than the “Unitarians and Other Liberal Faiths” group analyzed by Pew. (See “Demographic Contrasts” in resources sidebar on page 40.) In general, however, the Pew Forum descriptions confirm earlier research. In 2001, the American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS, ranked Unitarian Universalists the highest among 24 religious groups on four socioeconomic indicators.
Beyond those numbers, how Unitarian Universalism fares amid all the flux is an open question.
By one measure, a statistical projection of our tiny sliver of the sample, about 675,000 adults in America broadly identify as Unitarian—a surprisingly large number. It comes as no surprise that switching affiliations brings people to our congregations. UU World’s 2004 study showed, for example, that only 12 percent were raised Unitarian Universalist, with the largest number of switchers (21 percent) coming from Roman Catholicism. Considering our diminutive size in quantitative terms, Pew’s findings about the number of people who claim affinity with us may be heartening signs that our ideas and principles resonate widely—and may have positive implications for growth. But when the UUA’s membership continues to creep up at only 1 percent a year, it seems people are also switching out or abandoning their participation in UU congregations.
One immediate question is, where are all these self-identified Unitarians? The UUA’s 1,018 congregations in the United States counted just over 158,000 members in 2006. (The total UUA membership figure, which includes 24 congregations in Canada and four other nations, was 163,789.) Two previous national surveys, in 1990 and 2001, reported the number of self-identified Unitarians at three times the official UUA count at the time. In 2001, ARIS estimated 629,000 Unitarian Universalists.
Gaps between self-described and formal membership are common, said David A. Roozen, a sociologist who tracks religion trends as director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, in Hartford, Connecticut. For example, 25 percent more people identified themselves as Episcopalians and 33 percent more people claimed to be Methodists than either national body counts. The gap works the other way for some traditions, however: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints counts almost 33 percent more people as members than reported themselves to be Mormons in the Pew study.
Two factors may influence the gap in the case of our tradition. One, Roozen said, is that the concept of belonging “tends to get a little fuzzy on the liberal edge of religion,” where there may be a stronger sense of individualism, fewer clear rules, or fewer expectations for membership than in conservative faiths.
Access can also play a role. People who want to be part of a UU congregation in southern New England, parts of the West, and large U.S. cities have the opportunity, he said. “But in far northern Maine, a small town in Utah,” and other rural areas, people so inclined may not be able to go to a UU church.
Those two caveats aside, Roozen nevertheless calls the number gap between those who identify with and those who participate in our tradition “a pretty large one.” And that brings us to some discomforting questions the study provokes: Do we as Unitarian Universalists know who we are? Does the rest of the nation?
The clarity of mission or quality of worship that religion shoppers find in UU congregations could be a factor, Roozen said. He also said that the strain of individualism and solo spirituality in Unitarian Universalism—a legacy from our roots in Transcendentalism—may also play some role. “It raises the possibility that either because of what is being communicated, or for other reasons, people get the impression that Unitarian Universalism is something they can do on their own, that they don’t need to join a congregation.”
The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, minister of the First Parish Church of Norwell, Massachusetts, was dismayed by the report. “I know it makes some optimistic about the potential for growth,” she said. “But the notion of lots more people admiring us from a distance, or thinking they can be a Unitarian alone, isn’t very interesting to me. We are our congregations. The issue isn’t how many think we’re cool but how many visit our congregations.”
The Rev. Gail Seavey, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, wasn’t surprised that the Pew results showed so many more people calling themselves Unitarian than are formal members. “Part of our ministry has always been to people who are not members,” she said.
She pointed to Unitarianism’s roots in the radical free church movement of the Protestant Reformation. Two of its pillars were an individual relationship to the divine and free association. “You needed free individuals, those who were kings and queens of their own souls,” Seavey said, “but for the spirit to move they had to freely gather.” People could come and go and have their personal conscience respected.
Unitarian Universalism has compelling religious ideas, Seavey said, “but we haven’t done as good a job putting out there what it means to gather in free association.” Her own 425-member congregation has successfully adopted a “high-commitment” membership model.
“I think the more we can learn to serve people’s needs in community, the more we can grow,” Seavey said.
Of newcomers at her church, only half have some inkling of what Unitarian Universalism is. “They associate us with personal spirituality, and they associate ‘religion’ with the bad things religious communities have done over the years,” she said. Many are surprised, she said, to find her church an outpost of both spirituality and religion.
The Pew findings that drew the most attention were those that showed increased fluidity in the religious lives of Americans and the declining number who have a firm religious identity.
One out of four adults under age 30, and one in six overall, fell in the unaffiliated category—a slight increase over the 14 percent that ARIS said had “no religion” in 2001. At 16.1 percent in the Pew survey, the unaffiliated were only two percentage points smaller than self-identified mainline Protestants.
But as a group they were also hard to peg. Religion remained important to more than one-third of them. “Some in the unaffiliated group prayed or had religious beliefs, or engaged in behaviors we might call religious, but weren’t affiliated at present with any group,” said religion sociologist John Green, a senior fellow of the Pew Forum and coauthor of the study. (This was in keeping with the ARIS study, which found that 67 percent of its “no religion” cohort “affirmed God’s existence,” with 45 percent strongly agreeing with that belief.) “Some may have been burned by a prior experience with religion,” Green added.
Another segment in this group, 6.3 percent of the overall sample, ranged from mildly ho-hum to completely indifferent to religion, Green said. Only 4 percent described themselves as atheistic, agnostic, or hostile to religion. Although even here, there was subjectivity. According to the report, any respondent who self-described as an atheist or agnostic was counted as such—“even though some of them may believe in some notion of God.”
Gary Tobin, a co-author of an excellent small study, The Decline of Religious Identity in the United States, published in 2004, agreed that fewer Americans solidly identity with a religion. He said this trend reflected the fact that people increasingly see themselves as having multiple roles and identifies, in religion and other domains. He added that a strong anti-institutional trend has also led to an increase in what some sociologists call “invisible religion.”
However, “it may not mean ‘no’ to religion as much as ‘no’ to organized religion,” Tobin said.
How surveys measure for irreligion can also artificially inflate it, Tobin said. The ARIS study, for example, asked respondents about “their belief in the existence of God, belief in miracles, and the general benefit of a belief in God in terms of personal help.” If a survey communicates indirectly, Tobin said, “that to be religious you have to believe certain things, some people will be inclined to say they’re not religious, even if, by another standard, they are.”
Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, said affiliation should be seen in a wider timeframe. “If someone who is 80 and has been religious all their life has stopped going to their regular place of worship, they may tell the interviewer that they have no current affiliation. But how meaningful is that against the background of the person’s whole life?”
The Pew Forum’s February report was not a measurement of religious behavior or belief—a second report, to be released in June, will cover those subjects—but the personal realm of religious self-identification. Because religious identify in America has become complex and multilayered, the survey was something of a national religious Rorschach test.
“It was about the religious groups people think they are a part of, whether or not they actually belong by other criteria,” said Green. “We went with where people said they were.”
But to keep the 154 respondents who used some form of the word “Unitarian” to describe their affiliation from splitting into groups too small to analyze, Pew lumped them together as the subgroup “Unitarian (Universalist).” It included those who identified as Unitarian, Unitarian Universalist, Universalist, or as having a “compound” identity of Unitarian and something else. It also included people who were raised UU but never participated as adults, who attended a UU congregation in the past, or who identified only in very broad terms as Unitarian.
“We got lots of interesting answers in this group,” said Green. “Some responses were more explicit, others more vague, but the unifying term was Unitarian, so that is what we called the group.”
Unitarian Universalism’s “big tent” inclusivity is a point of pride for UUs across the spectrum of belief. It reflects a willingness to find common ground rather than highlight differences. The large number of unaffiliated, self-described Unitarians may suggest, however, that the community dimensions of Unitarian Universalism, our congregational and denominational life, are widely perceived as unnecessary. When religious seekers encounter the UU “brand,” will they be more likely to find the solo version, or the congregational one?
It may be good news that three in a thousand adults identify in some way with our tradition, but their vague sense of what Unitarian Universalism is may always confound our efforts to make our sociological profile match the historical and intellectual role it has played in American culture.
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Richard Higgins is the author of Thoreau and the Language of Trees (Univ. of California Press, 2017). He has written for the Boston Globe, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Century, and Smithsonian, among other publications.