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U.S. numbers shift sharply since last parliament.

When the first Parliament of the World's Religions met in Chicago in 1893 - an event being commemorated by a similar international gathering this month - the religious composition of the United States was far less diverse.

The surveys that measure religious preference did not exist in 1893. But church records and other sources from the period attest that the United States was predominantly a nation of Protestants despite broad shifts already taking place. In the 19th century, Catholics and Jews found their numbers swelling as immigrants from southern and eastern Europe reached U.S. shores. And of course, American Indian religions were common, although few records were kept.

Almost unknown, except among Eastern intellectuals and Protestant missionaries, were the many Asian and African religions, largely regarded as exotic. Indeed, some religions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, trace their experience in this hemisphere back to the time of the first Parliament.

Today Protestants are still dominant among religious groups, but they represent a minority of the overall population. Some 44 percent of the U.S. population are Protestants compared to 26 percent who are Roman Catholics and 1 percent who are Orthodox Christians. Jews make up 2 to 3 percent of the population, and Mormons, considered barely respectable in 1893, now make up 3 percent. Another 9 percent describe themselves simply as "Christians" or belong to one of the many sects or interdenominational churches outside traditional denominational boundaries.

So far, just 2 percent of people in the United States belong to religions outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, but adherents of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are beginning to have an impact. Minarets and ashrams are becoming increasingly visible in urban landscapes.

Other countries in the Western hemisphere have also seen religious shifts during the past 100 years. Roman Catholicism remains the dominant religion throughout Latin America and in Canada (41 percent), but Protestants are strong in Canada (32 percent) and growing in Latin America, especially in fundamentalist and Pentecostal expressions.

Catholics remain especially strong in Mexico (86 percent) and Chile (80 percent) but are fewer in Brazil (72 percent), Bolivia (69 percent) and Uruguay (56 percent).

Jews and Orthodox Christians are present in Latin America and Canada in numbers about equal to those in the United States.

Perhaps most remarkable is the finding that so many people throughout North and South America continue to express a preference for a religious faith. While in each of the countries surveyed a segment of the population expresses no particular religious preference, only one in 25 or less professes to be either an atheist or an agnostic in any given country.

The U.S. findings are based on interviews throughout 1992 with more than 41,000 adults 18 and older. Data for other countries was obtained in interviews of 1,000 or more adults in each of the areas. The margin of error could be 1 percentage point in either direction for the U.S. findings; 3 percent for other surveys.
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Title Annotation:Parliament of the World's Religions
Author:Gallup, George H., Jr.; Bezilla, Robert
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 10, 1993
Words:492
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