Maine has fewer residents who claim a religious affiliation than any other state in the union. The Pine Tree State is the only one in the country in which less than 30 percent of the population belong to a religious denomination or independent Christian church, according to a census conducted every 10 years by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
This follows a Pew study that found 40 percent of Mainers pray daily — the lowest percentage in the nation.
“What’s alarming about those numbers is that more than 300 years after the country was founded by people seeking religious freedom, the large numbers of nonaffiliated folks out here is just the norm,” the Rev. Steve Lewis, academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary, said earlier this month.
Lewis said that Maine’s slow population growth rate coupled with a continued loss of church membership would result in the closure of many churches over the next 15 to 20 years.
“But this also is a wonderful opportunity for innovation and new ministries,” Lewis said. “Mainline denominations can either assist churches in doing that or help them die with dignity.”
The 2010 census on religion, which is stored by the Association of Religious Data Archives, showed that 27.6 percent of Mainers claimed a religious affiliation compared with 36.4 percent a decade ago.
The three states with the highest percentage of residents claiming a denomination were Utah with 79.1 percent, Alabama with 62.9 percent and Louisiana with 60.6 percent.
“This is the third major national survey that has confirmed the effects of a very secular atmosphere especially in northern New England,” Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said earlier this month. “This information, sadly enough, is no surprise and is disheartening to anyone who is convinced of the importance of authentic and regular religious practice.”
In New England, 33.6 percent of the population in Vermont were members of a denomination compared with 35.2 percent in New Hampshire. Southern New Englanders were more religious with 57.2 percent in Massachusetts, 54.8 percent in Rhode Island and 51.2 percent in Connecticut belonging to a denomination.
Other surveys have shown that New England — Maine in particular — is more secular than the rest of the nation. A study released in December 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 40 percent of Mainers pray daily — the lowest percentage in the nation. That figure put the state behind Alaska and Massachusetts, where 41 percent of those surveyed said they prayed daily.
That same survey found that only 23 percent of the respondents in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont said they attended religious services once a week. Just 22 percent of Alaskans attend weekly worship services.
A Gallup tracking survey in 2011 ranked Maine the third least religious state, behind Vermont and New Hampshire. A quarter of Mainers said they were “very religious”; 23 percent did in Vermont and New Hampshire, according to the telephone survey.
Concerns about conforming to the structure of religious denominations and doubts about the existence of a higher power were reasons for Maine’s census standing offered by several people interviewed in a video for this story.
“I don’t consider myself to be a religious person, I consider myself to be a spiritual person,” said Tanya Pereira of Hampden. “I think the reason for that is I wasn’t raised with an organized religion and I’ve never found one since my childhood, even in any exploration I’ve done, that really resonated with me, that I could subscribe to all the ideals and principles and rules and regulations. So for me it’s really more just about spirituality and humanity than subscribing to one theology or organized religion.”
The 2010 data, made public early in May, are the latest in a series of reports released each decade to coincide with figures from the U.S. Census. It is compiled by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The 2010 edition, using data reported in 2009, is the sixth since the U.S. Census Bureau stopped asking questions about religious affiliation after World War II.
The national survey showed independent evangelical congregations make up one of the largest religious groups in the nation. For the first time, nondenominational congregations, ranging from storefront sanctuaries to megachurches, were counted.
Those churches were the third largest religious group in the nation after Roman Catholics and the Southern Baptist Convention. They were the fourth largest group in Maine.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland had the most members of any denomination in Maine with 190,106 adherents. Mainline Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches of the USA, the United Church of Christ and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, were second with 93,580 members reported. Third were the evangelical Protestant denominations, which include the Church of God, The Salvation Army, Wesleyan Church, Church of the Nazarene and Seventh-Day Adventist, with 56,052 adherents. The unaffiliated evangelical church members totaled 25,689.
The Catholic church and mainline Protestant denominations continue to lose members. The Catholic diocese in Maine had about 276,000 members in 1980, 283,000 in 2000 and just over 190,000 in 2010. Catholics still made up the largest religious group in 2010, with 143 of every 1,000 Mainers belonging to a parish. A decade ago, 222 of every 1,000 Mainers belonged to a Catholic church.
“The response to this unfortunate reality is what the church calls the New Evangelization, that is, finding every possible creative way to reach out to others by word and example about the good news of Jesus Christ,” Malone said. “In our diocese there are many initiatives, particularly with teens and young adults, designed to help them embrace our faith.”
In most cases, numbers are supplied by the headquarters of each denomination, although in a few cases, such as the nondenominational and Muslim categories, scholars’ surveys were used. The geographical spread shows where people worship, not where they live.
Because the definition of membership differed from the one used by the statisticians, Jehovah’s Witnesses were not included in the survey. Muslims and Jews likely were undercounted but for different reasons.
According to the Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York City, there are 3,982 active members in Maine. The annual convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Maine drew nearly 5,000 people to Portland in 2010.
The census data estimated that Penobscot County lost 50 percent of its Muslim population from 2000 to 2010. The survey estimated there were 1,332 Muslims living in Maine in 2009 with 100 living in Penobscot County. When the expanded Islamic Center of Maine opened in February 2010, Dr. Mohammad Tabbah, then chairman of its board of trustees, estimated 150 Muslims live and work in Greater Bangor, saying about half of them are students at the University of Maine.
Nate Porter, a research associate with the Association of Religion Data Archives, said last week that when mosques did not respond to requests for membership information, statisticians estimated the population using census data.
The data included Jews in Maine who belong to synagogues associated with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform national organizations for the first time. Previous surveys lumped all the movements together under Jewish.
According to the 2010 report, there were 2,128 Jews in Maine who belonged to synagogues. Most synagogues count a family unit, whether it includes one person or 10, as one member.
Being a Jew in the 21st century is an ethnic marker for some people, Rabbi Darah Lerner, teacher and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Bangor, said Tuesday. Being Jewish is not based on whether an individual is a member of or attends a synagogue, she said.
“You can be a very engaged Jew without actually attending a synagogue,” the Reform rabbi said. “Because of our small numbers, the way the religion has evolved and continued into modernity, Judaism is home based. You can be a fairly full Jewish person in rural Maine far from a synagogue.”
The fastest growing denomination in the nation over the past 10 years was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Across the country, nearly 2 million members joined the denomination, bringing the total to 6.14 million adherents.
In Maine, 10,684 Mormons were reported in the 2010 report, an increase of 3,565 members over 1990. Eight of every 1,000 people in Maine were Mormons in 2009. That makes the denomination one of the fastest growing in the state.
The fastest growing denomination in Maine over the past decade is the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. It grew 500 percent by adding three congregations with a total of 145 additional members. The denomination’s total membership in Maine is listed as 174. In 2000, the denomination had two congregations and 29 members.
The Rev. Lyford “Terry” Phillips, president of Grace Evangelical College & Seminary in Bangor, said the numbers were not surprising.
The number of Mainers attending nondenominational evangelical churches — 19 of every 1,000 residents — is one of the reasons Grace Evangelical opened in 2001, according to Phillips. It was founded as a mission of Bangor Baptist Church, an independent evangelical church.
“I don’t think the numbers regarding the nondenominational and independent churches are surprising, either,” he said. “Americans, as a rule it seems to me, don’t seek structure. In fact, we seem to work hard to blunt the hard edges of institutional structures so we won’t have to bump up against sharp edges [that] we find poke us in this place or that or limit our desire for unlimited boundaries for our thought. There are still far more ideas around about God and Jesus than there are churches in which to express the ideas.
“We evangelicals and fundamentalists take it that Maine, and Vermont and New Hampshire, just as much, are important, wide-open mission fields,” Phillips said.
The changes reflected in the nation’s religious landscape outlined in the census were a factor in Bangor Theological Seminary’s decision in February to suspend its Master of Divinity and Master of Arts programs at the end of the 2012-13 academic year, according to the Rev. Robert Grove-Markwood, president of the seminary.
“The mainline seminaries are part of an ecosystem,” he said in a recent email. “The realities of decline for many of our churches has directly impacted the vitality and sustainability of our theological schools. The patterns of declining religious participation and membership, diminishing denomination loyalty, and also growing religious pluralism, are some major indicators that the religious landscape of North America has radically changed.”
That landscape change includes a spiritual revival and renewal afoot but it is not religious, the Rev. Steven Lewis, academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary, said in January in the opening session of Convocation. He called it “humanitarian spirituality.”
Lewis is a field researcher who studies and writes about trends and movements in American Christianity.
“Salvation in the 21st century is being a good human being,” he said.
A recent seminary graduate who works as a chaplain at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor and ministers to a Congregational church in Monson said the people she encounters in her work still believe in God. It’s religious institutions they doubt.
“The concept of church is changing and moving outside the four walls and the steeple,” Shelly Snow, 40, of Dover-Foxcroft said. “Because of what I’m learning going to hospitals and nursing homes and officiating at weddings and funerals, I see there’s still a strong connection to God for people, but the concept of a formalized church is changing, just like the world is changing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.