Understanding religious diversity in metro Denver

Making sense of new county-level data on religious affiliations

A rendering of the SEA Community Center, an Islamic community center that will be built in southeast Aurora in future years. Its development is part of a growing and expanding Muslim community in the Denver metro area.
A rendering of the SEA Community Center, an Islamic community center that will be built in southeast Aurora in future years. Its development is part of a growing and expanding Muslim community in the Denver metro area.
Courtesy photo
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The Denver metro area is religiously diverse and it’s becoming increasingly so.

A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute – called the 2020 Census on American Religion – found that “religious diversity scores” for Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, and Jefferson counties in 2020 were all above average when compared to the rest of the U.S.

The array of religious identities in the state — where one religious subset doesn’t represent more than half of the population — doesn’t surprise Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver.

“Historically, Colorado has been a place for religious freedom and religious experimentation,” Raschke said. “Colorado is a lot harder place than other parts of the country to figure out or get an actual profile out of.”

In making sense of the new PRRI data, Raschke and other experts explained that some religious groups maintain large numbers and influence because they have been around for a while. However, the Denver metro area religious landscape continues to shift in noticeable ways because a lot of people migrate to the area, both from within and outside the U.S.

Averaging data for Arapahoe, Adams, Douglas and Jefferson counties, white evangelical Christians represent 16% of the population, 8% are Hispanic Catholic, 1% are Muslim, 2% are Jewish, and 31% are religiously unaffiliated.

Across the U.S., the average for white evangelical Christians is 14%, while 8% are Hispanic Catholic, 1% are Muslim, 1% are Jewish, and 23% are religiously unaffiliated. The county-level data is from a PRRI survey that collected hundreds of thousands of responses from adults across the country between 2013 to 2019.

Tracing similar data from previous years is difficult, given that the county-level data in the 2020 Census on American Religion is the first of its kind.

Anecdotally, Rashcke said some of the fastest-growing religious affiliations in the metro area are Muslims, Hindus, and religiously unaffiliated, also called “nones.” There are a few reasons for that.

First, Raschke said, “what’s happening in Denver is pretty much following religious and demographic trends nationwide.” What’s happening in the U.S., such as the dramatic rise of the nones, is happening here.

However, certain migration patterns also uniquely affect the Denver area’s religious makeup.

“As you migrate more people to a place, it changes. And it is influenced by those that are moving in and the size that is moving in,” said Elizabeth Garner, state demographer with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

One of those groups is young adults, representing a large percentage of the nones in the U.S.

“Typically, when we migrate people to Colorado, and to Denver, we migrate young adults,” Garner said.

Then there are racial and ethnic minority groups coming to the Denver metro area from within the U.S. and outside. Both have a major impact on Colorado, Garner said.

In Colorado, “...migration has a larger influence than birth. Not every state is the same,” Garner said. “In terms of religion, that’s what I would assume as well. Is that where we migrate people from, and those trends will influence what happens in the state.”

Imam Shemsadeen Ben-Masaud, director of student affairs and community engagement at Crescent View Academy in Aurora, said those trends are especially pronounced in the Denver metro Muslim community.

Ben-Masaud, who was born and raised in Colorado, said his dad moved to Colorado in 1977 and at the time, there were only two mosques in the Denver area that people held inside their homes. Now, there are dozens of mosques in the metro area.

The Front Range’s Muslim community started with a small number of immigrants and refugees who primarily arrived from other countries, Ben-Masaud said. But now, the growth is a byproduct of several factors. Those early immigrants began having families and some middle-income Muslims moved from other states for work. The continued influx of refugees from Muslim-majority countries also counts, he said.

From 2000 to 2010, 56% of foreign-born Coloradans were from Latin America, 21% were from Asia, and 11% were from Africa, according to U.S. Census Bureau data provided by the state demography office. From 2010 onwards, 38% are from Latin America, 33% are from Asia, and 15% are from Africa.

Meanwhile, Garner noted, international migration only represents 20% of net migration in Colorado.

No matter the cause, Ben-Masaud, said Colorado’s new Muslim communities are growing.

“The idea is that now that first-generation American (Muslims) or second-generation American (Muslims) are connected to these mosques, religious centers, faith centers,” Ben-Masaud said. “We can now continue the growth of the community and continue to serve the community and then maybe provide some of the services that our parents couldn’t.”

Ben-Masaud said that people born in and raised in larger hubs for local Muslims – such as central Aurora – are moving into quickly developing areas, such as south Aurora and Centennial.

“A lot of those families have been established. They might have lived closer to the mosque and the school here 30 years ago when they first came. Now they are established. Now their kids have kids. Now they have income, and they are buying the houses out there,” the imam said. “Who is filling their space here, where they left behind? It’s the newer immigrants. So, the Somalis, the Africans, Kenyans, Afghans, and Iraqis.”

In the coming years, Ben-Masaud said new mosques and Islamic community centers will likely be built in southeast Aurora and Centennial. One of them will be the SEA Community Center, an Islamic community center in southeast Aurora that will include a prayer hall, a gymnasium for youth, and a professional cafeteria.  

Ben-Masaud also noted that there’s a large Afghan Muslim population in Northglenn and Thornton, who are members of the Metro Denver North Islamic Center, or Masjid Ikhlas. Many of the people who attend the Islamic Center of Golden are students from the Persian Gulf region who are studying at Colorado School of Mines, Ben-Masaud said.

For Ben-Masaud, it’s been neat to observe the drastic growth of the metro area Islamic community over time. “We grew up thinking, `why are we here, why don’t we live in California?’ But now everybody is coming here and there’s now like, okay there’s attention on us, there are more people with experience coming in,” he said. “We’ve really become this geographic hub, that while isolated, it’s looking positive for the future.”

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