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People, Religion in the United States

largest religion, residential segregation, largest religious group, Protestant denominations, Greek Orthodox Church

The variety of religious beliefs in the United States surpasses the nation’s multitude of ethnicities, nationalities, and races, making religion another source of diversity rather than a unifying force. This is true even though the vast majority of Americans—83 percent—identify themselves as Christian. One-third of these self-identified Christians are unaffiliated with any church. Moreover, practicing Christians belong to a wide variety of churches that differ on theology, organization, programs, and policies. The largest number of Christians in the United States belong to one of the many Protestant denominations—groups that vary widely in their beliefs and practices. Roman Catholics constitute the next largest group of American Christians, followed by the Eastern Orthodox.

Most Christians in America are Protestant, but hundreds of Protestant denominations and independent congregations exist. Many of the major denominations, such as Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists, are splintered into separate groups that have different ideas about theology or church organization. Some Protestant religious movements, including Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, cut across many different Protestant organizations.

Roman Catholics, the next largest religious group in the United States, are far more unified than Protestants. This is due in part to Roman Catholicism’s hierarchical structure and willingness to allow a degree of debate within its ranks, even while insisting on certain core beliefs. The Eastern Orthodox Church, the third major group of Christian churches, is divided by national origin, with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church being the largest of the branches in the United States.

Among many Protestant denominations, blacks and whites generally maintain distinct organizations and practices, or at least separate congregations. Even among Roman Catholics the residential segregation in American society produces separate parishes and parish schools.

Judaism is the next largest religion in the United States, with about 2 percent of the population in 2001. It is also divided into branches, with the largest being Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative. Other religions practiced in America include Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Islam is among the fastest-growing religious groups; its members were just about 1 percent of the U.S. population in 2001.

Large numbers of Americans do not have a religious view of the world–some 8 percent are nonreligious, secular, or are atheists; that is, they do not believe in a god or gods. Adding these to the nonpracticing Christian population means that slightly more than a quarter of the American population is unaffiliated with any church or denomination. This mixture of multiple religious and secular points of view existed from the beginning of European colonization.

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