The holiday season is a time for gift exchanges, mulled wine and twinkling lights—but it’s also a time of year rooted in spiritual traditions and religious gatherings across the country.
Though San Francisco’s holiday-time offerings reflect the spiritual diversity of its residents, the city is perhaps better known for its counterculture undercurrents and infamous cults than its traditional religious zeal. And SF has long been called a haven for religious “nones”—those who have no spiritual or religious affiliation, and who far outnumber the number of nuns in SF.
New data from the U.S. Religious Census (not affiliated with the federal Census Bureau) suggests that the face of San Francisco’s religious community has changed in the last ten years, reflecting shifts in the city’s population and broader American views on spirituality.
To start, San Francisco has consistently clocked in as one of the most religiously unaffiliated metro areas in the United States. Data from the Religious Census, the Pew Research Center and other research bodies consistently report SF as a city with high spiritual diversity, but not nearly that many adherents.
Though the total number of religious adherents both nationwide and in SF has increased since 1990, the percentage of San Francisco’s population who say they follow a particular faith has steadily declined over the past 30 years, dropping to just 35% of the population in 2020.
San Francisco doesn’t have a reputation for religiosity, especially when compared with the rest of the country.
Overall, San Francisco’s share of residents that adhere to a particular religion has remained below 45% since 1990, roughly 10% below the national average. By comparison, religious adherents comprise over three-fourths of Utah’s population, many of whom are part of the LDS church.
The religious portion of the population has been on the decline for some years now, both in San Francisco and across the country. The growing number of religious adherents might be attributed to population growth overall, and locally, to SF’s population boom during the 2010s.
Congregations and Religious Groups in SF
Interestingly, San Francisco now has double the number of congregations and places of worship that it did 30 years ago. But per capita, San Francisco’s population boom outpaced the spread of new congregations: The city had 1,631 congregations per capita in 2020, a roughly 32% decline from 1990.
As for the most popular religion in the Bay? Catholics take the top spot, with over 160,000 adherents in 2020. But with congregations, Buddhists edge out the Catholics, with 55 different Buddhist congregations spread across the city.
The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies runs a U.S. religious “census” every 10 years, documenting the number of congregations and adherents for a wide range of spiritual traditions. The 2020 version included 372 different faith groups, though a single study cannot comprehensively capture the entire range of SF’s spiritual communities.
One thing is certain: Most San Franciscans don’t rank religion as something they’re passionate about. When asked about their activities, just 21% of respondents to The Standard’s Fall Voter Poll said they attend a church, temple or another house of worship regularly, compared with 83% of people saying they enjoy going to restaurants and 75% saying they frequent local parks.
Liz Lindqwister can be reached at [email protected]