As I ride my BOOKCYCLE around Lake Worth, the question that I am asked most often is: “Do you have any books on religion or spirituality?”
We hear anecdotally that Americans are very religious, but just how religious are we?
The Gallup Organization has been polling Americans on this very question since 1944. The results of their polling may surprise you. Here is a June 3, 2011 article from the Gallup website (http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx):
More Than 9 in 10 Americans Continue to Believe in God
Professed belief is lower among younger Americans, Easterners, and liberals
by Frank Newport
PRINCETON, NJ — More than 9 in 10 Americans still say “Yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?”; this is down only slightly from the 1940s, when Gallup first asked this question.
Despite the many changes that have rippled through American society over the last 6 ½ decades, belief in God as measured in this direct way has remained high and relatively stable. Gallup initially used this question wording in November 1944, when 96% said “Yes.” That percentage dropped to 94% in 1947, but increased to 98% in several Gallup surveys conducted in the 1950s and 1960s. Gallup stopped using this question format in the 1960s, before including it again in Gallup’s May 5-8 survey this year.
In 1976, Gallup began using a slightly different question format to measure belief in a deity — “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” — and found that 94% of Americans agreed. That percentage stayed fairly steady through 1994, and is at 91% in the May 2011 survey.
Young Americans, Liberals, Easterners Least Likely to Believe in God
Responses to the two slightly different question formats from Gallup’s May 5-8 survey can be combined to provide a larger sample for subgroup analysis. The results show that belief in God appears to be generally high across most subgroups of the American population.
Belief in God drops below 90% among younger Americans, liberals, those living in the East, those with postgraduate educations, and political independents. However, belief in God is nearly universal among Republicans and conservatives and, to a slightly lesser degree, in the South.
Belief in God Lower When Other Alternatives Offered
Gallup has asked about belief in God using different question wordings in past surveys, all of which give respondents expanded response alternatives. One such question includes the explicit choice of belief in a universal spirit or higher power, while another allows respondents to express doubts about belief in God. Using these questions, the percentages of Americans who say they believe in God without doubts or as separate from a universal spirit have ranged from 73% to 86%.
The percentages who more definitively say there is no God are generally 6% or 7% across these questions, similar to the 7% or 8% who do not believe in God in the questions asked this year. This suggests that most Americans do believe in God, but when given the opportunity to express some uncertainty, a modest percentage opt to do so.
None of these expanded question formats was used by Gallup before the late 1990s, leaving open the question of how Americans would have responded to these wordings in the 1940s or 1950s.
Survey Methods: Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 5-8, 2011, with a random sample of 1,018 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
An extensive new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life details statistics on religion in America and explores the shifts taking place in the U.S. religious landscape. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds that religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid. (http://religions.pewforum.org/reports):
More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
The Landscape Survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%. Moreover, the Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds of different denominations loosely grouped around three fairly distinct religious traditions – evangelical Protestant churches (26.3% of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1%) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9%).
While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, the statistics show that Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic). Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the U.S., including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
Although there are about half as many Catholics in the U.S. as Protestants, the number of Catholics nearly rivals the number of members of evangelical Protestant churches and far exceeds the number of members of both mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. The U.S. also includes a significant number of members of the third major branch of global Christianity – Orthodoxy – whose adherents now account for 0.6% of the U.S. adult population. American Christianity also includes sizeable numbers of Mormons (1.7% of the adult population), Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.7%) and other Christian groups (0.3%).
Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).
Even smaller religions in the U.S. reflect considerable internal diversity. For instance, most Jews (1.7% of the overall adult population) identify with one of three major groups: Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism. Similarly, more than half of Buddhists (0.7% of the overall adult population) belong to one of three major groups within Buddhism: Zen, Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism. Muslims (0.6% of the overall adult population) divide primarily into two major groups: Sunni and Shia.
Other highlights in the report include:
- Men are significantly more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation. Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13% of women.
- Among people who are married, nearly four-in-ten (37%) are married to a spouse with a different religious affiliation. (This figure includes Protestants who are married to another Protestant from a different denominational family, such as a Baptist who is married to a Methodist.) Hindus and Mormons are the most likely to be married (78% and 71%, respectively) and to be married to someone of the same religion (90% and 83%, respectively).
- Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one-in-five Mormon adults and 15% of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.
- The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.
- Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Even among those blacks who are unaffiliated, three-in-four belong to the “religious unaffiliated” category (that is, they say that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives), compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.
- Nearly half of Hindus in the U.S., one-third of Jews and a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall. Hindus and Jews are also much more likely than other groups to report high income levels.
- People not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions. Among the unaffiliated, 31% are under age 30 and 71% are under age 50. Comparable numbers for the overall adult population are 20% and 59%, respectively.
- By contrast, members of mainline Protestant churches and Jews are older, on average, than members of other groups. Roughly half of Jews and members of mainline churches are age 50 and older, compared with approximately four-in-ten American adults overall.
- In sharp contrast to Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism in the U.S. is primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. Only one-in-three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three-in-four Buddhists say they are converts to Buddhism.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses have the lowest retention rate of any religious tradition. Only 37% of all those who say they were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses still identify themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Members of Baptist churches account for one-third of all Protestants and close to one-fifth of the total U.S. adult population. Baptists also account for nearly two-thirds of members of historically black Protestant churches.