Christianity still stands as New England's main faith

By VICTORIA GUAY, Foster's Online, October 30, 2005

Dover, NH (USA) -- While evangelical Christianity is gaining some ground in New England, the region's religious makeup otherwise has varied little in recent decades, remaining split roughly evenly between Protestants and Catholics, according to one expert.

?There are always going to be changes in the religious landscape that are dictated by general population shifts,? said Michelle Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociology professor. ?However, there is still a fair amount of religious stability in New England.?

The region still has the nation's highest concentration of Catholics despite the increasing number of evangelical adherents, Dillon said.

About 37 percent of the northeast is Catholic. The South is only 16 percent Catholic, an annual Gallup poll showed last year. The poll showed Protestants are the nation's largest religious group, with half of Americans identifying themselves as such.

Protestant congregations far outnumber Catholic churches in New Hampshire, but Catholic parishes tend to be larger, said New Hampshire Council of Churches spokesman David Lamarre. The council includes 650 congregations from 10 Christian denominations.

Only a small percentage of people claim adherence to other faiths regionally and nationally.

?There are still very few Muslims in New Hampshire and Maine,?Dillon said. ?But there is a growing Buddhist population and a new interest in 'new age' religions.?

The number of people who say they don't belong to any religion has risen nationally over the last decade. The group includes atheists as well as people who consider themselves people of faith not affiliated with any organized religions.

Ten percent of Americans told Gallup last year that they are Christian, but of no particular denomination. Five percent of Americans identified with non-Christian religions such as Judaism or Islam. Nine percent of Americans said they have no religious preferences, but are agnostic or atheistic.

Two percent did not respond.

The Gallup Organization has been tracking America's religious preferences since 1948. The organization's nearly 60 years of research has shown a significant decline among Protestants, a slight downturn in the number of people who identify as Jewish and a slight rise in the number of Catholics.

Protestant affiliation fell from 69 percent in 1948 to 50 percent in 2004. Catholics rose from 21 percent in the late 1940s to 24 percent by 2004, though the percentage fluctuated over time rather than rising steadily.

When Gallup first began its research, it only offered Protestant, Catholic and Jewish as affiliations. But since 2000, the organization's choices have included no affiliation, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim or orthodox religions such as Greek or Russian.

Religion plays an important role in the personal lives of most Americans, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of people who call religion very important to them has gradually increased over the past two decades after declining sharply between the mid-1960s and late 1970s.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans, or 64 percent, call religion very important. Nine-in-10 pray at least once a week, and the overwhelming majority of people described God in very personal terms, the organization has reported.