By Carol Pipes
Americans increasingly skip church, drop prayer, and deny belief in God, but the faithful are perhaps even more devout than they were a few years ago, the latest study of Americans’ religious behaviors by Pew Research shows.
Although Pew concludes U.S. adults have become slightly less religious overall, three-quarters say religion is at least somewhat important to their lives, with 53 percent saying it’s very important and 24 percent saying somewhat. In 2007, Americans were more likely to say religion was very important (56 percent) or somewhat important (26 percent) in their lives.
Are Americans becoming less religious? Gregory A. Smith, the principal researcher behind the Pew study says it depends on where you look. Overall, the American public shows small but significant declines in belief in God and religious practices. “But if you focus just on people who say they belong to a religion—and that’s the vast majority of Americans—they are, on balance, every bit as religious as they were in the recent past,” Smith says.
Pew researchers believe a key factor in the overall decrease in religious beliefs and practice of the American public can be attributed to the nones—the growing minority of Americans (23 percent) who don’t belong to any organized faith.
This report is the second half of the 2014 Religious Landscape Study released in May and is a follow-up to an equally extensive survey on religion in America, conducted in 2007. Facts & Trends covered the first half of the report in May, which revealed several bright spots for evangelicals, including the emergence of evangelicalism and decline of Mainline Protestantism.
Here are a few key findings from the latest release:
- The majority of Americans (77 percent of all adults) continue to identify with some religious faith, though it fell from 83 percent in 2007.
- The share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God declined from 92 percent in 2007 to 89 percent in 2014.
- The share of those who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.
- The portion of nones increased from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014.
- The percentage of Americans who attend religious services weekly or more often declined from 39 percent to 36 percent.
- Slightly more than half of Americans (55 percent) pray daily, down from 58 percent in 2007.
- Fifty-seven percent of U.S. adults believe in a personal God, while 26 percent see God as an impersonal force.
- Half of all Christians—and more than 3 in 10 evangelicals—believe some non-Christian religions can lead to salvation.
Not all nones are nonbelievers. The majority (61 percent) say they believe in God. However, as this group has grown in size, it has become more secular than it was in 2007. Roughly two-thirds of the nones now say religion is of little importance in their lives, up from 57 percent in 2007. Today, 20 percent of nones pray daily, down from 22 percent in 2007. And 9 percent attend services at least monthly, down from 10 percent in 2007.
The Religiously Affiliated
By some measures, religious Americans appear to have grown more observant in recent years. Among those who claim a religious faith, 66 percent pray daily, up from 65 percent in 2007. The portions of those who regularly read scripture (40 vs. 43 percent), share their faith with others (23 vs. 26 percent), and participate in some type of small prayer or study group (27 vs. 30 percent) have increased since 2007.
Sixty-six percent say religion is very important to them, up from 64 percent in 2007. Church attendance among the religiously affiliated has remained about the same. LifeWay Research has done a significant study on the discipleship practices of churchgoers.
The importance of religion and the frequency of religious practices shrinks with each passing generation. For example, 67 percent of the silent generation say religion is “very important” in their lives, while 59 percent of baby boomers and 53 percent of Gen Xers say the same.
The number drops to 44 percent for older millennials (born 1981-1989) and 38 percent for younger millennials (born 1990-1996). Younger Americans are also less likely to pray daily than older Americans. A previous study by LifeWay Research found 31 percent of millennials pray at least once a day, and 22 percent attend worship services weekly or more.
Historically, generations tend to become more religious as they get older. So far, that’s not happening with millennials. The oldest millennials, now in their late 20s and early 30s, are less observant than they were in 2007. As older generations gradually pass away, they are being replaced by a less religious generation.