Traditional religions, unaffiliated predominate in Pittsburgh

Written by Peter Smith on .

I find three major takeaways from a new grassroots survey on religion in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

The first is that, for all the colorful diversity of Pittsburgh's religious scene, the traditional faith groups still have the big numbers. The second is that there's a big showing for those with no religious affiliation. The third is that, on political issues that take on a strong religious cast, Yinzers are, no surprise, maroon.


  • Protestant: about 40 percent (a breakdown follows below).
  • Catholics: 36 percent.
  • Unaffiliated: 18 percent.
  • Jewish: 2 percent.
  • Hindu: 1 percent.
  • Orthodox Christian: 1 percent.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses: 1 percent.
  • Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists: Fractions of a percent each.
  • Other: 1 percent.

These numbers come from an extensive survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute as part of the American Values Atlas. It's an in-depth nationwide survey of people for their religious affiliations and views on various issues colored by religious belief or disbelief. For local purposes, the area surveyed was the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, also used for U.S. Census purposes.

PRRI surveyed 482 people in and around Pittsburgh for a margin of error of 5.1 percentage points; it surveyed more statewide and even more nationwide. 

If there's a drawback, it's that nothing like this survey -- the kind where pollsters call people up individually -- seems to have been done before on a metro level, so there's nothing to compare it with. But studies of religious membership statistics have shown declines in many of the largest area groups, such as Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians. 

Pittsburgh is a famously Catholic, and particularly famous for the diverse European immigrant groups that gave Catholic parishes rich ethnic identities. Unfortunately, this survey barely touched that aspect. It found less than half of a percent each of Catholics who were Hispanic -- far, far less than in many regions -- or not white. The survey didn't do any breakdown along European ethnicities. It didn't show levels of those in Eastern Catholic rites, such as Ukrainians (something we're more interested in here than in much of the country.)

As for Protestants, the bigger denominational (or not) groups include:

  • Methodists: 8 percent.
  • Presbyterians: 8 percent.
  • Non-denominational: 7 percent.
  • Baptist: 5 percent.
  • Lutheran: 4 percent.
  • Pentecostal: 3 percent.

Even those labels are general, because there are various stripes of each of those groups, divided along theological and racial lines. 

Another way that the survey slices it is:

  • White mainline Protestant: 18 percent
  • White evangelical Protestant: 16 percent.
  • Black Protestant: 3 percent.
  • Other non-white Protestant: 2 percent.

Just three years ago, it was big news that people who did not identify with religion had grown to nearly 20 percent of the American population, according to the Pew Research Center. The least religious regions have been identified as New England and the Northwest. But three years later, even the relatively religious southwestern Pennsylvania is approaching that level -- 18 percent. Nationally, it's now 22 percent, according to PRRI. Unfortunately, the 2012 Pew study didn't break the numbers down at the metropolitan level.

One manifestation of this locally may be Sunday Assembly, a godless congregation that meets for fellowship but not faith. But the "Nones" are a diverse lot. Some are staunch atheists or agnostics. Others are spiritual-but-not religious people, many of whom believe in God but who don't join a congregation and mix and match their doctrines and practices (everything from Christ to crystals). 

Among the smaller groups, the 2 percent in the Jewish population is actually more than an adjusted study of synagogue membership counts, perhaps due to people who identify culturally but not religiously as Jewish.

The 1 percent of Hindus is in keeping with Pittsburgh's unusually high proportion of South Asian immigrants compared with other nationalities -- as are the lower percentages of Muslims and Buddhists. Also, there is a small percentage of Hispanic Catholics or Protestants compared with much of the country.

On other issues, Yinzers are more Democratic but no more liberal than the national population. They mirror the national support for legal abortion and same-sex marriage (figuring in margins of error) but are less likely to see immigrants as a national strength rather than burden.

Overall, the Pittsburgh region looks a lot like Pennsylvania politically. But Yinzers are more Catholic and less Protestant than Keystoners overall.


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