Overall, America is becoming a less religious nation. The percentage of adults who report a religious affiliation has fallen in seven years from 83% to 77%. This has been matched by the growth in the percentage of adults who are unaffiliated (the “nones”), from 16% to 23%. Only 21% of the religiously unaffiliated now have a mostly positive view of religion. The majority of the “nones” have mixed feelings about religion (62%), and 16% have a mostly negative view of religion. Nearly half (49%) of those who identify with a religion have a mostly positive view of religion, a somewhat smaller number (46%) have a mixed view, and 5% have a mostly negative view. This question was not asked in 2007 so there are no comparable data, but religious leaders should not be taking much comfort in the fact that less than half of their parishioners can summon up a mostly positive view of what they do.
Those who are religious were asked to rate the importance of religion in their lives, from very important, to somewhat important, not too important, and not at all important. The religious groups which identify religion as being very important to them are the Jehovah’s Witnesses (90% rate their religion very important to them), Black Protestants (85%), and Mormons (84%). Other Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians (largely the followers of the Russian Orthodox Church), fall within the 50% to 80% range of those who rate religion as very important to them. Surprisingly, only 72% of Evangelicals view their religion as very important to them, which is unexpected given how active Evangelicals are in promoting Christianity in cultural and political spheres. Religious enthusiasm falls off quite dramatically with smaller groups of believers. Only 35% of Buddhists said their religion was very important to them, and Jews ranked the lowest in enthusiasm, at 31%.
There was widespread consensus among all respondents that religion can “bring people together and strengthen community bonds.” At least 80% of all religious believers agreed with this aspect of religion. The one exception which really stood out were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of whom only 57% believed in that statement. Even atheists and agnostics were in line with religious believers. Fully 75% of atheists felt that religion is a force for bringing people together.
On the negative side, around 45% of most religious believers felt religious organizations “are too concerned with money and power.” More than half of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus felt this way, while 66% of the “nones” said religion was too focused on money and power. Again, a strong outlier to this question were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of whom 82% agreed with this statement. Why this should be so is odd, given that the Jehovah’s Witnesses function within a cult-like atmosphere where heavy financial burdens are placed on the members. Perhaps the purposeful seclusion of the Witnesses from society gives them the perspective that all other religions are too focused on worldly concerns.
Attendance at worship services is declining. Only 36% of all respondents say they attend a religious service weekly, down from 39% seven years previously. 30% of adults say they never or seldom attend a religious service, up from 27% previously. If these trends continue, more adults will never attend a religious service than will attend weekly. The categorization of “never or seldom attend” implies to me the individual never purposefully attends a service. Many people attend a religious service once a year or so for a wedding or a funeral of someone they know.
Some peculiarities showed up in the survey. 34% of non-denominational Charismatic Christians speak in tongues weekly, which seems low given that Charismatics are known for speaking in tongues. This percentage is down from 44% seven years ago. 40% of Americans meditate weekly, about the same percentage as in the previous survey. 55% of respondents said they prayed weekly, but 23% said they seldom or never prayed, up 5% from the previous survey. 67% of Hindus never eat beef, and 40% of Jews as well as 90% of Muslims never eat pork. 49% of Buddhists say they have an altar at home for private worship; a substantial number of Hindus also worship from home rather than attend outside services at a temple.
In the surveys regarding adherence to a particular religion, attendance at worship services, use of prayer, reliance on Scripture, and belief in God, the age breakdowns reveal a consistent pattern. Religious belief and practice is noticeably stronger the older the respondent. The growth in “nones” is much more pronounced among those 18-29 than those 65 and older, and this progression persists in the age groups between these two extremes. This suggests that religious belief in the U.S. will remain in a downward trend as the Baby Boomer generation dies off, unless the patterns to date change. These patterns indicate that religious belief or disbelief is formed in one’s younger years, and a lifetime behavior is thus created.
We can now turn to the other important question in the survey. What is it Americans believe about God?