March 4, 2019
Dave Smith, whose family has farmed potatoes and supported a church in rural Michigan for generations, is finding that lately he’s been getting a lot more out of prayer, Bible reading, and Sunday school.
Sarah Moreno’s connection to her family’s Catholic heritage inspired her to complete a rigorous master of divinity program to prepare for work in the church. But her discontent with some Vatican teachings, especially about women, grew. Now living in North Carolina, she feels her true vocation lies outside the church’s walls as a professional actor.
On Oregon’s Pacific coast, educator Jeanne St. John spent years without any particular religious affiliation, because mainline congregations seemed to shy away from her and her same-sex partner. Then a tiny Episcopal church welcomed the pair. Their marriage was blessed, and now St. John is head of the parish council.
At Harvard University’s humanist chaplaincy center, meditation teacher Rick Heller spends one night a week leading a small group that practices traditional Eastern meditation techniques stripped of all religious references. He’s just finished writing a guidebook arguing that people don’t need religion to benefit from meditation.
Separated by thousands of miles and devotees of different spiritual practices, these four show how varied Americans’ experiences with faith have become.
How is it possible for many Americans to remain deeply religious while the country is also experiencing a dramatic growth in the share of the population that is not religiously identified?
The Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, which surveyed more than 35,000 U.S. adults, found that the share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God slipped slightly from 92 percent to 89 percent between 2007 and 2014. That share is still remarkably high when compared with other advanced industrial nations.
And more recent Pew Research Center surveys (from 2018 and 2019) show that two-thirds of American adults (65 percent) continue to identify with some religious faith (including a wide variety of Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of other faith traditions).
But a large and rapidly growing minority of Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all. Twenty-six percent of Americans say they identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular in 2018 and 2019—up from 17 percent in 2009. And the 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists dropped from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent just seven years later.
Expressions of faith also differ by generation: In the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 4 in 10 of the youngest Millennials (born 1990 to 1996) said they prayed every day, compared with 6 in 10 Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and two-thirds of members of the Silent Generation.
In North Carolina, Moreno, who grew up Catholic, relates to the findings: “Many of my friends had bad church experiences and are disconnected from organized religion—but that doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on what they need for their own spiritual well-being. My friends didn’t leave the church to become atheists. They still want to find eternal peace.”
As for the future, it’s difficult to predict the possible growth in those who will identify as agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular, says Gregory Smith, an associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. “Religious trends in America are too complicated for us to assume that this rate of growth will continue indefinitely,” he says.
For more information about religious faith in America, read the Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study.
This is an abridged version of an article in Trust magazine written by David Crumm.
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