New data from the Pew Research Center sheds light on the changing face of American belief.
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The Pew Research Center this week released a new batch of findings drawn from the group’s Religious Landscape Study of 2014. In it, the center describes Americans’ shifting religious attitudes and practices, painting a picture of a country whose faith-based makeup is in the midst of some significant—if subtle—changes.
According to Pew’s study, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “religiously affiliated” has dropped from 83 to 77 percent since the organization conducted its first Religious Landscape study, in 2007. Similarly, in that same time period the number of Americans who believe in God, and those who are “absolutely certain” that God exists dropped from 92 to 89 percent, and 71 to 63 percent, respectively. Read together, these trends point to a general pivot away from traditional religious identification.
However, while the United States may be becoming less religious as a whole, those who do identify as religiously affiliated have held relatively steadfast in terms of indicators of faith. For example, among that group, the proportion professing a belief in God remained unchanged at 97 percent. In fact, the number of adults identified as religiously affiliated who claim to “rely mainly on their religious beliefs for guidance on questions about right and wrong” saw a noticeable increase, up seven points from 34 to 41 percent between 2007 and 2014. And while not specifically “religious” per se, American adults who identify with indicators of a less-specific spirituality have increased in number, as well, with a seven-point increase to 59 percent for adults who claim a sense of “spiritual peace and well-being” since 2007. Similarly, the number of American adults who admit to a sense of “wonder about the universe” on a weekly basis has gone up seven points, from 39 to 46 percent in that time frame.
So if the overall trend toward organized religion is downward, but the religiousness of those already affiliated is relatively untouched, what is to account for the change since 2007? The answer, according to Pew, is Millennials, especially younger ones who are only now beginning to come into their own as adults. Explains the study:
Millennials—especially the youngest Millennials, who have entered adulthood since the first Landscape Study was conducted—are far less religious than their elders. For example, only 27% of Millennials say they attend religious services on a weekly basis, compared with 51% of adults in the Silent generation. Four-in-ten of the youngest Millennials say they pray every day, compared with six-in-ten Baby Boomers and two-thirds of members of the Silent generation. Only about half of Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with seven-in-ten Americans in the Silent and Baby Boom cohorts. And only about four-in-ten Millennials say religion is very important in their lives, compared with more than half in the older generational cohorts.
Similarly, the decrease in religiosity can be paired with an increase in “nones,” the overtly un-religiously affiliated demographic which now makes up a full 36 percent of Millennials between 18 and 24, and 34 percent of those between 25 and 33. Their ascendency marks a significant shift in the way religion manifests—or doesn’t—in American life, both public and private. It is, ultimately, as much about a generational shift as it is a belief-based one.
With this pivot toward a new model for American faith and religiosity, the study points to a number of corollary effects. Among them is this optimistic trend: Acceptance of homosexuality has increased among nearly all the religious groups included in the Pew study—a fact the center links to the ascendency of more tolerant Millennials within major religions.
What’s more, there are overt political takeaways, as well. Pew reports that a full 28 percent of unaffiliated “nones” now comprise a larger share of the self-identified Democrat or Democrat-leaning adults. More than any other Christian denomination:
While “none” participation does exist in the GOP, the Pew study shows that their participation is occurring at a much slower rate of growth.
To create their Religious Landscape Study, the Pew Research Center conducted a nationwide telephone poll of more than 35,000 adults. It’s a follow-up to the center’s first Religious Landscape Study, in 2007.
A full rundown of the study—which is well worth a read—can be found here.