by Tamara Lytle M’89
As U.S. Census takers fanned out across the country, they asked Americans a bevy of personal questions, from their salary to their marital status, what language they speak at home, and how much they pay for their housing.
But neither the long-form Census survey nor the short one that millions of people filled out asked about a topic that pervades American life and culture: religion. How many people believe, and in what?
For that, the government and researchers across the world turn to Trinity College.
Trinity’s Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar last year published the American Religious Identification Survey, which uncovered a wealth of fascinating answers to the question of religion in the United States. A growing number of Americans, for instance, now say they have no religious affiliation. The figure is 34 million now and will grow to one in four Americans within 20 years, they predicted. The survey was made possible by grants from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and the Posen Foundation.
The study created a firestorm of media attention. Thousands of newspaper
and magazine stories, television and radio reports, blog postings, and
other news reports appeared throughout the U.S. and the world.
“It was just astonishing,” says Michele Jacklin, director of media relations for Trinity College. After the report was first released in the spring of 2009, a news service estimated that the coverage amounted to $1 million in free publicity for Trinity. And that was before a follow-up report by Kosmin and Keysar about the no-religion group generated another tidal wave of coverage. “From a public relations standpoint, it was just a huge boon to us,” says Jacklin.
The worldwide interest is driven by America’s role as superpower and trendsetter, she says. And within the U.S., interest was high on a topic that is important to so many Americans. After all, Barry Kosmin notes, 54 percent of Americans (160 million) belong to some sort of religious congregation or grouping. And even small towns that have little more than a bank and a Dunkin’ Donuts usually have a church.
Ariela Keysar adds that much of American traditional life revolves around religion—even for the non-religious. (Think Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts.)
Survey research about religion helps build understanding of the population because religion is correlated with politics, community relationships, and worldviews, says Kosmin.