March 4, 2019

How Religious Are Americans?

In a devout country, share of religiously unaffiliated is growing

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 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.

The vast majority of American adults (77%) continued to identify with some religious faith. This population—comprising a wide variety of Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of other faith traditions—was, on the whole, just as religiously committed in 2014 as it was in 2007. And some measures showed that the religiously affiliated appeared to be even more religiously committed in 2014 than in 2007.

But a growing minority of Americans say they have no religious affiliation at all. Twenty-three percent of Americans said they identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular in 2014—up from 16 percent in 2007. The share of Americans who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists dropped from 71 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2014. Still, the majority of Americans without a religious affiliation say they believe in God. 

23
percent of Americans said they identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular in 2014

Expressions of faith also differ by generation: Four-in-ten of the youngest Millennials (born 1990 to 1996) said they prayed every day, compared with six-in-ten 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.”

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.

Sarah Moreno, North Carolina resident

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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