Today on The Cycle: Future of Religion in America

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God is Alive and Well
God is Alive and Well

Frank Newport, Gallup Editor-In-Chief, joins the conversation during today’s guest spot to discuss his new book  God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America. His book is based on more than a million interviews over the past four years showing how baby boomers are more likely to become religious as they age; even though they may not believe in the institution of religion.

Despite the widespread belief about the demise of religion in America, Frank Newport finds religion is as powerful and influential as ever. And, according to the latest Gallup poll 40% say they are very religious and 29% admit they are moderately religious compared to the 31%  that say they are nonreligious.

Be sure to tune in at 3:30 p.m. for the full conversation and you can check out an excerpt of his book below.

CHAPTER I

In God We Still Trust

AMERICA TODAY IS STILL A LARGELY RELIGIOUS NATION

Many years ago, in the months after the June 1944 D-Day invasion of France and just before the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, Dr. George Gallup decided to ask Americans back on the home front a simple five-word question: “Do you believe in God?” Dr. Gallup liked his questions short and to the point. This simple question, at a very basic level, picked up on the fundamentals of religious potential in this country. Gallup’s 1944 survey showed that 96% of Americans responded “yes,” they did believe in God. Only 1% said “no,” with a few respondents hesitating or saying that they had no opinion — a ringing affirmation of the belief in God.

Fast forward to 2011 — a very different world that has gone through decades of change. Although wars are still being fought, there is nothing like the conflagration that was World War II. The world is much more sophisticated, technologically advanced, skeptical. Time magazine published a cover story titled “Is God Dead?” in the 1960s. Books are published with names like God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and, as noted earlier,

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The God Delusion. Certainly, the percentage of Americans who believe in God would be lower now, right?

Not by much. More than nine in 10 Americans still said “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?” in May 2011. 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 past several decades, belief in God, at least as measured in this direct way, has remained high and relatively stable.

In 1976, Gallup used a slightly different question, asking: “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” Back then, 94% of Americans agreed. That percentage stayed fairly steady through 1994. In the May 2011 survey, 91% of Americans agreed, and 8% said “no.”

As you have figured out by this point, the percentage of Americans who definitively say there is no God is generally 6% to 8%, no matter how we ask the question. Defiant atheism among ordinary Americans is minimal — despite a few doubts about exactly what form God may take.

Now let me share some other indications that religion continues to matter and remains an important part of American society. One of these indicators is attendance at religious services. Gallup has in one way or another asked Americans about their church attendance since the 1930s, way back to the Great Depression.

Church attendance peaked in the 1950s, when self-reported church attendance was higher than it had been before and higher than it has been since. But self-reported church attendance today is actually not much lower than it has been at most other points in

 

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time, including during the Great Depression. In fact, a 1940 Gallup survey showed that about the same percentage of Americans reported attending religious services then as is the case today.

About 40% of Americans — sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less — say they attend religious services at least once a week or almost weekly. About 15% of Americans say that they never attend church. Overall, this is fairly indicative of a religious nation.

Gallup has asked Americans since the 1950s if they believe that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems or if they believe that religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date. In the 1950s and 1960s, more people said that religion can answer all or most of the day’s problems than say that today. But over the last 25 years, there hasn’t been a lot of change. About six in 10 Americans consistently say that religion can answer life’s problems.

The number of Americans who say religion is very important in their daily lives dropped substantially between 1952, when Gallup first asked this question, and the late 1970s. From that point on, there have been some ups and downs, but they have not been dramatic. Importance of religion actually increased slightly at points over the last several decades from its low point in the late 1970s. More recently, it has nudged down. But at 55% today, it’s no lower than it was 30 years ago. There is no indication that there has been a continuous drop in the personal aspect of religion in recent years.

When we put it all together, we get the image of a basically religious American population whose underlying religiousness has not changed a lot in recent decades. There seems to have been a religious upswing of sorts in the 1950s and into the early 1960s but a general period of stability in the decades since.

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THE RISE OF THE “NONES”

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Studying human behavior, as I do, is often humbling. I am humbled here to point out that we do have one measure of religion that has shown change over time: the percentage of Americans who are variously called “unaffiliated,” “nones,” or the “non-identifiers.” This is “The Rise of the Nones,” which sounds like a bad movie title.

Imagine that your phone rings and it is a Gallup interviewer. During the interview, which of course you graciously consent to do, the interviewer asks you: “What is your religious preference — are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, another religion, or no religion?”

If you say “another religion,” you would be asked: “Would that fall under the general category of Protestant religions, is it a Christian religion, but not Protestant, or is it something else?” Gallup often goes beyond that point and asks non-Catholic Christians to name their denomination.

Between 13% and 14% of Americans say they have no religious identity, and another 3% to 4% say they don’t know what their preference is. If you go back to the 1950s, by contrast, nearly everybody responded to the question with a religious identity. The percentage of Americans who respond “no religion” when asked this question has grown from near zero in the 1950s to 13% to 14% in 2010 and 2011.

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Those who have no religious identity have been heavily scrutinized in recent years. This is partially because social scientists like change, and this change is a highly reliable finding — it can be replicated repeatedly. The rise in “no identity” responders is remarkably constant across survey organizations, which is always a good thing in survey science. Regardless of who does the asking, or how the question is asked, fewer Americans today have a religious “brand” to which they claim allegiance.

What does this mean? You might think the reason for the rise in the nones is pretty straightforward: Americans are simply less religious now than they were in previous decades. But remember, other indicators of religiousness don’t follow this same downward trajectory. So we have to pause before making the assumption that the rise in the nones is a clear-cut indicator of a decrease in religiousness.

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In fact, a lot of social scientists are uncertain about the meaning of the rise in the nones. Sociologists Chaeyoon Lim, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam had this to say recently, “There is little consensus on what the rise of nones means for religion in America.”

Let’s try to shed some light on this.

Remember that a higher percentage of Americans say they believe in God than say they have a religious identity. This means by definition that there is a gap — some people who believe in God do not have a religious identity. Not all non-identifiers are atheists or anti-religionists. In fact, as many of those who don’t have a religious identity in our Gallup surveys say they believe in God as say they don’t.

Other researchers find similar patterns, and some go so far as to call the non-identifiers “unchurched believers.” Researchers at the Pew Research Center put it this way recently: “The unaffiliated population is a very diverse group. Not all those who are unaffiliated lack spiritual beliefs or religious behaviors; in fact, roughly four-in-ten unaffiliated individuals say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. … a significant number of those who left their childhood faith and have become unaffiliated leave open the possibility that they may one day join a religion. Among both those who were raised Catholic and Protestant who are now unaffiliated, for example, roughly one-in-three say they just have not found the right religion yet.”

All of this points to a simple conclusion: When Americans answer the “what is your religion” question by saying “none,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are devoid of religiousness. A “none” response could also mean that the respondents simply don’t

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belong to a formal religious organization, group, or denomination. Or it could mean that they don’t choose to label themselves with the name of a formal religious organization, group, or denomination. The “none” in these instances reflects how the respondents wanted to view themselves or how they chose to express their religion, not necessarily an absence of religiousness.

Remember what we are dealing with here: a decrease in the percentage of Americans who verbally offer up the specific name of a religious group or denomination when asked what their religion is. In other words, a verbal report of an aspect of themselves. In this case, religion.

What if I asked you to name your ethnic background? That’s not something we can easily determine through a blood test. It’s not written on your passport. Like most people, you probably have different strains of nationality. It’s up to you to choose how you want to see yourself. I have British and French ancestors. When asked, I have to choose which of these, or both, I want to claim as my ancestry. In the same way, you have to choose how you want to portray yourself when asked about your religion.

So, the “rise of the nones” in recent years essentially means that people are changing how they identify their religion when they are asked about it. Why? One of two reasons: First, it could reflect a basic decrease in Americans’ religiousness — a rise, as it were, of Richard Dawkins-types in the U.S. population. Second, it could reflect a change in how Americans choose to label their religious identity — and nothing at all about how religious they are underneath it all. In other words, a change in how people report on their personal religiousness.

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Today on The Cycle: Future of Religion in America

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