And now it's time for our weekly conversation Faith Matters, where we talk about matters of religion and spirituality. So what's your religion? That's generally not a question for polite company, but a new survey posed it to thousands of Americans who answered, and it turns out that the number of people who claimed no religion is on the rise in America and almost all traditional denominations in America are on the decline. Here to talk more about this study is Mark Silk. He's the director of the Program on Public Values at Trinity College, which commissioned the survey, and he joins us from member station WNPR in Hartford, Connecticut.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Professor MARK SILK (Director, Program on Public Values, Trinity College): Delighted to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, exactly how many people say they have no religion? How big is the change? And I guess number isn't quite the right word, because one of the points that this survey makes is that we've had a large population increase in the United States, so the number of people overall who may profess a particular religious faith might be larger, but the percentages are declining. So, I guess that would be probably the right way to ask the question. So what percentage of the population says they have no religion, and how much of a change is that from the last time this question was asked?

Prof. SILK: Well, the first time it was asked in this series of surveys, very large surveys, in 1990, the number was 8.2 percent. It's now 15 percent. The biggest increase occurred in the 1990s, but it still edged up another percentage point this decade. And that reflects a growth of - from something over 14 million in 1990 to now over 34 million. So it's pretty substantial.

MARTIN: Is this a trend among all demographic groups, particularly racial groups?

Prof. SILK: It's amazing. It's all demographic groups, all geographical groups, every state in the union experienced this. It's the only such universal phenomenon in the entire survey - that is, you know, some states have more Catholics proportionally than they did in 1990, other states have less, that kind of thing. This is the one universal trend.

MARTIN: There's been a lot of conversation about how Latinos have - some Latinos are moving away from the traditional relationship with the Catholic Church into more evangelical, Protestant denominations. But you also found that Latinos are also moving away from - some moving away from religion entirely, along with other members of the population. Was that a surprise?

Prof. SILK: Well, it was a bit of a surprise. I mean, you think of Latinos, like African-Americans, as kind of nailed into place in religion. And in both groups, there was a doubling of the number of these no-religious people, slightly higher among Hispanics. And interestingly enough, we interviewed Hispanics, Latinos in both English and Spanish, and there was really no difference.

Those who chose to speak Spanish to be interviewed were more Catholic than the English-speaking ones, who had a higher proportion of Protestants - not that many, but still higher. But among these no-religion people, who we call nones -N-O-N-E-S - that was the same change.

MARTIN: Among the biggest changes was among mainline - traditional, mainline, Protestant denominations. Can you tell us more about that?

Prof. SILK: Well, they were the big losers in this survey. They were, in 1990, around 18.7 percent of the population - 17.2 percent, so not much of a decline and actually an increase in the absolute numbers in 2001. But they dropped precipitously down to about 12.9 percent this last year. And that, again, was across the board. And we see, among minorities, considerable declines - black, mainline, you know, black United Methodists.

I should mention this, you know, since we're talking about ethnic minorities, that Asian-Americans are the most no-religion people. They're now up at 27 percent. And if any minority leads the way in that group, it's the Asians.

MARTIN: I wonder why.

Prof. SILK: Well, I think some of it has to do with relatively low religious affiliation where they've come from, if you're talking about immigrant groups, Chinese. That's not true about some Asians. Koreans and Philippines are quite religious. But Japanese and Chinese - not that we have huge Japanese immigration - tend to not have that much religion.

So they started out at 16 percent in 1990, you know, which is well over - well, twice as large as the population as a whole.

The other thing is the West Coast tends to be relatively high in these nones, and a high proportion of Asians live on the West Coast. Whether they're influencing the West Coast or the West Coast is influencing them is a nice question.

MARTIN: What about the question of religions that are not so traditional to the United States that we hear more about than we used to, in part because of immigration and in part because of world events and we're more engaged in other parts of the world and interested? So it's like Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. What about that?

Prof. SILK: Yeah. Islam has been on the rise, but from a quite low level. This is a somewhat contested subject. Members of Muslim organizations contend that the kinds of surveys that we've done where you do these large telephone surveys, undercount Muslims.

That's disputed. But in our series, Muslims start off at .3 percent of the population in 1990, and they've about doubled now, and they've continued to rise. They include, of course, 30, 40 percent African-American Muslims, as well as Muslims from other parts, you know, from abroad, immigrating in.

As far as Eastern religions, Hinduism and so on, Sikhism, those experienced a considerable rise in the 1990s, but have - that's really flattened out and -even, you know, in absolute numbers slightly declined.

MARTIN: And is that rise due to immigration?

Prof. SILK: I think substantially. There was a considerable immigration from the Indian subcontinent in the 1990s, and one of the striking things in terms of - you know, if you sort of look at the proportions of Asians and their religion, what you see is a very substantial, almost a halving of the proportion of Asians who are Christians and a big bump up in Muslims and Eastern religions. And I think that reflects migration from the Indian subcontinent.

MARTIN: And so, of course, the final question would be why? Why, overall, are Americans becoming more like Europe, which has much less of an attachment to traditional religion than we do, at least in (unintelligible). And why do you think this is?

Prof. SILK: Well, I think there are several things that one can point to. You know, there's always been a significant portion of Americans who are fairly loosely attached to religion, and, you know, in some cases, I think what we're seeing is people who, once upon a time, felt like they needed to name a religious identity.

You know, I was raised - you know, I guess I was sent to Presbyterian kindergarten, so I must be a Presbyterian. It's kind of, you know, I need a religious identity.

I think by the 1990s, there was this category of no-religion. People felt, well, you know, maybe I once was that, but at the moment, I don't have any. So I think there's a way in which we've opened up space for people to simply say I don't have religion.

I think there's a political dimension of this, as well.

MARTIN: Professor, I'm sorry, we're going to have to leave it there. A very rich topic, and thank you for your time. Mark Silk is a professor of religion in public life and director of the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. I thank you so much.

Prof. SILK: Delighted to have been here.

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