Nearly half the residents in the Buffalo Niagara region are considered "unclaimed" by a religious group -- a stunning change from just a decade ago, when the percentage of the population affiliated with a faith tradition was higher here than in any other metropolitan area in the country.
Catholicism, most mainline Protestant denominations, Judaism and some evangelical denominations in the Buffalo Niagara region experienced huge membership declines between 2000 and 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, which last week released the results of the latest U.S. Religion Census.
The study also showed exponential growth of the local Muslim community, which is now estimated at 18,483 people in Erie and Niagara counties, up from about 5,400 a decade ago.
That makes Islam the second most-practiced world religion in Western New York, behind Christianity.
Judaism slipped to third, with a total of 8,084 adherents in Buffalo Niagara, down from an estimate of 20,150 in 2000.
The Buffalo Niagara region had a population loss of less than 3 percent -- about 34,000 people -- between 2000 and 2010. At the same time, membership in a religious tradition fell by 31 percent, or more than a quarter of a million people.
"That's a pretty big drop," noted Dale E. Jones, who conducted data analysis and mapping for the 2010 U.S. Religion Census.
The unclaimed category consists of 514,314 people and is now the single largest segment of the Buffalo Niagara population, when compared with the area's religious groups.
But it doesn't mean that all of those people have lost religious faith, Jones said.
"In one sense, it's going to be a big number because it's a catchall," he said.
Other national studies still show that most Americans profess to be Christians.
"If you go knock on doors, 80 to 85 percent of people will tell you they're Christian," Jones said, "but they're not Christian enough to belong in the local congregations."
Catholicism alone lost more than a third of its members in Erie and Niagara counties -- 217,944 parishioners in all -- over the last decade, according to the census.
However, the chief researcher at the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo estimated the 10-year loss to be far less than what the census cites.
"It all comes down to how are you counting your members," said Sister Regina Murphy, director of diocesan planning and research. "I know there's been diminishment, but not quite 35 percent."
Murphy pegged the membership loss in area parishes over the decade at about 19 percent, rather than the 35 percent cited in the study.
The census reported 404,842 Catholics in Buffalo Niagara. But Murphy said that number counts just those people who are registered in area parishes and regularly attend Mass. The 2000 census figure of 622,786 Catholics for Buffalo Niagara included a broader spectrum of people, she added.
"It was a totally different number, representing more than what we would call regularly attending adherents," Murphy said.
Nationally, Catholicism lost about 5 percent of its membership from a decade ago.
Mainline Protestant denominations suffered even greater losses over the decade, across the country and even more starkly in Western New York. Episcopal Church membership in Buffalo Niagara fell by more than 38 percent, to 8,612. Both the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church here declined by more than 30 percent.
Evangelical denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wesleyan Church also saw large losses.
In the 2000 census, the ranks of the Wesleyan Church swelled dramatically, by 210 percent, largely due to phenomenal growth at two megachurches in Clarence and Hamburg. But according to 2010 census, the denomination shrunk considerably, losing 8,330 members, or 55 percent.
Being part of a congregation appears to have become less of a priority for Western New Yorkers, said the Rev. Jonathan D. Lawrence, associate professor of religious studies and theology at Canisius College and president of the Network of Religious Communities, a local interfaith group.
"Fifty years ago, and even more recently, the church or synagogue or whatever was their social connecting place," Lawrence said. "With the Internet and everything else now, we all have other ways of getting that social connection."
The membership declines already have resulted in widespread closings of houses of worship, particularly in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which has shuttered about 75 church buildings since 2005.
Despite its losses, Catholicism remained far and away the most practiced faith tradition in the region, with 356 adherents per every 1,000 in population.
The next highest "adherence rate" was among nondenominational churches, which had 22,972 adherents, or 20 members per 1,000 in overall population.
The nondenominational category includes places like The Chapel at CrossPoint in Getzville, probably the area's largest non-Catholic congregation, as well as dozens of smaller congregations, some of which have popped up across the region in recent years. The nondenominational category wasn't included in previous censuses, so it's not clear if it is a growing segment.
However, The Chapel has had success in "planting" smaller nondenominational congregations in other parts of Erie and Niagara counties. Renovation Church in Buffalo's Black Rock section, for example, is an offshoot of The Chapel that began by worshipping in an Elmwood Avenue cinema on Sunday mornings. The congregation then purchased a former Catholic church that had been closed in the diocesan restructuring.
Similarly, Restoration Church has been gathering on Sundays in the cafeteria of The Park School in Snyder and will soon be moving into a former synagogue on Frankhauser Road in Amherst.
"Several groups like that started out just meeting in schools or theaters, and now they have their own buildings and in some cases have moved on from one building to a larger building," Lawrence said.
The nondenominational churches were followed closely by the United Methodists, which experienced a smaller membership decline than other mainline Protestant traditions. Islam had the greatest gain in members by far over the decade, according to the religion census data, which relied on estimates extrapolated from a recent nationwide mosque study conducted by a University of Kentucky researcher.
The presence of Muslims grew by 67 percent nationwide, with estimates now pegged at 2.6 million, according to the census.
But in Buffalo Niagara, the percent increase for Muslims was a whopping 242 percent.
The 18,483 estimate appeared to be accurate, according to Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.
Qazi has pegged the local Muslim population at 20,000 to 25,000 for the six counties of Western New York.
The census, which breaks down data by state, county and metro areas, cited an additional 3,000 Muslims living in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.
"In this context, I don't think it is really different from what my own personal estimates are," he said.
But Qazi said not all of the growth has occurred over the past decade. The 2000 census estimate of 5,400 was much too low, he said. The number then would have been closer to 10,000 Muslims.
Qazi attributed the growth to several factors, beginning with immigration changes dating back to the Lyndon Johnson administration that allowed immigrants from primarily Muslim countries to enter the United States.
More recently, physicians, engineers and scientists needed in the United States to fill professional posts where there is a shortage often are from Muslim backgrounds, Qazi said. And in Buffalo, the resettlement of refugees from Bosnia and Somalia has added to the local Muslim community, which also tends to have families with more children, he said.
"As much as we saw loss of population, it would be be far higher if we did not see refugee resettlement," Qazi said.
But why do Muslims gravitate toward and stay in Buffalo?
"I think the community in Buffalo is a much more tolerant community, and people are willing to stay here," he said.
The area's low cost of living compared with larger cities also is a major factor, he said.
The only other faith group of significant size to experience growth in the region was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which increased by nearly 2 million members nationwide and was among the fastest-growing traditions in the country.
The LDS Church added nearly 1,000 members in Buffalo Niagara, bringing its total membership to 3,373, up 42 percent from 2000.
The area's Jewish synagogues collectively lost a greater percentage of members over the past decade than any other group aside from the Disciples of Christ and the Salvation Army, according to the census.
Michael Wise, president of the Jewish Federation of Buffalo, did not dispute the census figures, saying they sounded "fairly accurate" as a representation of how many Jews in the region were affiliated with a temple.
Jones, of the religion statisticians group, noted that the religion census does not account for people who might be Jewish or Muslim but have no connection to a synagogue or mosque.
"This is talking about those affiliated with a religious congregation, not those of Jewish heritage or of Muslim heritage," he said.
The Jewish federation's guesstimates of the local Jewish population were "more in the neighborhood of 10,000 to 12,000," Wise said.
The federation is planning to do its own demographic study within the next six months to get a better handle on the size of the Jewish community. The information will be used to plan critical services and strengthen the various Jewish institutions here, he added.
"If our institutions are to be strong, we need to be filling the halls of our schools, the Jewish Community Center and of course the synagogues," Wise said.