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ANALYSIS: Religious Practice in America: Mixed Results, But Religion Is Still Important

Survey Looks at Landscape

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By some measures Americans are becoming less religious. At the same time there is stability in the overall pattern of religious behavior and by some measures those Americans who are religious are more devout than in the past.

These findings come from a large-scale survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. The report, released earlier this month, is based on evidence provided by the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study.

The study was based on a nationally representative telephone survey of 35,071 adults. It is the second report from this survey, with the first one published in May this year focusing on the demographic characteristics of U.S. religious groups.

Compared with 2007 there was a slight decline in the number of adults who say they believe in God, declining from 92% to 89%. A more significant reduction occurred in the percentage who said they were “absolutely certain” that God exists, from 71% in 2007 to 63% in 2014.

There is also a growing share of Americans who are not identified with any religion. These unaffiliated people are termed “nones” and in 2014 they accounted for 23% of the adult population, up from 16% in 2007.

Nevertheless, a majority of the “nones” declare that they believe in God, even though they are less religiously observant than those who identify with a specific faith.

Of the 77% of Americans who do identify with a specific faith, two-thirds declare that they pray every day and that religion is very important to them. Approximately six in 10 say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month.

Higher religious practice

Some results of the survey pointed to a growth in religious practice among those who are religiously affiliated. The number of religiously affiliated adults who say they regularly read scripture, share their faith with others and participate in small prayer groups or scripture study groups all increased modestly compared to the results in 2007.

In addition, about six in 10 adults now say they regularly feel a deep sense of “spiritual peace and well-being,” up 7% since 2007.

The study explained that the decline in religious affiliation and practice is due to a generational change, with an older generation of Christians being replaced by young adults who are less likely to be attached to organized religion.

One factor that plays an important role in influencing the level of religious practice is which church or organization a person belongs to.

Roughly eight in 10 or more of evangelical Protestants, as well as Protestants who belong to churches that are part of the historically black Protestant tradition, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses say religion is “very important” in their lives. Lower down the scale are mainline Protestants and Catholics, with around six in 10 saying that religion is very important for them.

These numbers have remained constant over time, as has the rate of attendance at religious services. The study also noted that some indicators have risen. For example,the number of those who say they share their faith with nonbelievers or members of other faith traditions, and the percentage of those who say they read scripture outside of religious services.

This contrasts with the attitude of the religious “nones” where in recent years there has been a decline in the numbers of those who say religion is important for them and the number of those who pray.

One-third of religiously unaffiliated adults now say they do not believe in God, up 11 points since 2007, the study noted.

Thus, the report explained, the absolute number of Americans who are highly religious has not changed, but the United States is growing less religious in percentage terms because as the overall population has grown there are now many more non-religious people compared with the past.

This pattern of change seems set to continue if the study by the Pew Center reflects long-term trends. The younger group of adults, in their late teens up to their early 30s, are much less religiously observant than older adults. Moreover, even younger adults who are religiously affiliated are less observant than those who are older.

This trend has to be counterbalanced against other studies that show there is a tendency for people to become more religious as they get older, the study qualified.

Spiritual but not religious

One way to interpret the data, the Pew Center continued, is to say that the adult population is becoming less religious, but more spiritual. Compared with 2007 the share of respondents in 2014 who declared they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week rose by seven percentage points.

As well, 46% say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis, a sharp increase since 2007.

Large numbers of adults also declared that they frequently feel a deep sense of gratitude, including two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated.

Overall, while America still stands out among Western countries for its high level of religious practice, it too is experiencing the effects of a growing secularization that looks set to continue in the near future.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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