Guest post: Religiosity drops in America

December 8, 2011 • 8:02 am

Sigmund, who apparently scours the literature more closely than I, has, at my invitation, written up the results of a new Pew Survey on the prevalence of faith in America.  The results are heartening.

Pew Research Center survey reveals decline in US religiosity

by Sigmund

On November 17th, the Pew Research Center released the results of the survey, “American Exceptionalism Subsides—The American-Western European Values Gap”, designed to compare attitudes of the US population with those of four Western European countries, namely Britain, Germany, France and Spain.

The study involved a telephone based poll of 1000 participants in each country who were asked the same set of questions. While primarily focused on the question of “exceptionalism” – pride in ones national culture above all other cultures – it included several questions that help illuminate the difference in the value given to religion between the US and European populations.

Previous studies have demonstrated a much higher degree of religiosity in the US compared with most of Europe and the current survey, perhaps unsurprisingly, supports this finding.

“Half of Americans deem religion very important in their lives; fewer than a quarter in Spain (22%), Germany (21%), Britain (17%) and France (13%) share this view.

Moreover, Americans are far more inclined than Western Europeans to say it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values; 53% say this is the case in the U.S., compared with just one-third in Germany, 20% in Britain, 19% in Spain and 15% in France.”

Of particular interest, however, is the demographic breakdown of the US results. For instance the results reveals major differences in US attitudes to religion based on gender (women are much more likely than men , 59% vs 41%, to consider religion as being very important, as are older compared to younger individuals (57% vs 41%).

It is also worth noting that the religious attitudes of political moderates in the US are far closer to those of political conservatives than those of political liberals. When asked: “Is it necessary to believe in God to be moral?”, the US results show that 66% of conservatives agree, compared with 52% of moderates and 26% of liberals. [JAC note: perhaps this explains the Obama administration’s pandering to conservative views about contraception in their decision yesterday.]

One intriguing result from the demographic breakdown is in the effect that a college education appears to have on religious attitudes. While there is little difference in how those with and without a college degree view the importance of religion, individuals who have been to college are far less likely to say “it is necessary to believe in God to be moral” (37% vs 59%), suggesting, perhaps, that exposure to nonreligious individuals in the university may reduce bias against the nonreligious.

Despite the rather bleak current figures for the US population, the survey does give reason for optimism.

The current questionnaire is part of the Pew Centers global attitudes survey, a series of polls carried out in several countries over the past decade. Because the same questions have been asked of the same populations at regular intervals, we can see whether attitudes towards religion, or other subjects in the survey, remain stable or are changing.

In regards the question “Do you consider religion very important?”, the US results show a 9% decrease (59% to 50%) between 2002 and 2011. In comparison the European results for the same question in 2011 are both far lower than the US result (going from 13% in France to 22% in Spain) and much less variable over the preceding decade.

The shift of US religious opinion towards a more secular outlook is mirrored in the gradual change in the answer to the question “Should homosexuality be accepted?” The current result for the US population (60% saying that homosexuality should be accepted) shows a 9% increase since the 2002 survey, albeit still remaining far below the European levels, which vary from 81% in Britain to 91% in Spain.

If the current rate of change continues (and the demographic differences between religious attitudes of the young and older age groups render this change practically inevitable) we can predict a decline of US religiosity to levels approaching that of Western Europe within the next two generations.

35 thoughts on “Guest post: Religiosity drops in America

    1. Stockholm syndrome?

      That’s a pithy answer; I’m sure the real answer is much more complicated. But it seems similar to the phenomenon of African-Americans staunchly embracing the religion of the people who enslaved their ancestors.

    2. I’m sure the reasons are complex, but the phenomenon is well-known. I think it may even hold in other cultures, but don’t hold me to that. It’s definitely true in the US though.

    3. Why do women think this when religion is so very much against the fair sex?

      I get the impression that women are more likely to fall for woo in general, regardless of type: reiki, reflexology, astrology, religion or whatever. Here for example is one survey giving alternative medicine usage figures of 81% of women, 59% of men.

      Could it be that the higher religiosity of women comes first, and the oppression of them follows? That, as they are less likely to run away from religion, religious leaders can get away with oppressing them?

    4. I think this is mostly tied to women still being the primary caregivers of their children and the fact that religion provides community, including important things like childcare. It’s the whole “It takes a village…” thing. It’s something we atheists need to start providing.

      That’s why the religious right wants to deprive women of their reproductive rights. Keeping women pregnant and/or at home caring for children keeps them in need of the community and support that the church provides. It’s really a sick cycle.

  1. It would be worth looking at these results across years, to see if people become more religious as they age. If there is such a tendency, it would affect Jerry’s projection about the future, which was based on the observation that young people today are less religious than old people.

    I think as people age and start to get sick more often, and closer to death, wishful thinking may often replace rationality.

    1. Various lines of evidence (overall trends of religiosity and high levels of religiosity among the youth in underdeveloped nations) suggest that this is newer generations in developed countries being less religious as opposed to people simply becoming religious as they age.

  2. “we can predict a decline of US religiosity to levels approaching that of Western Europe within the next two generations.”

    Hallelujah! Thank Dog for small favors. But hmmm… I’ll be dead by then.

  3. I would like to see this broken down by ethnicity. My guess is that numbers concerning religiosity would be much higher among minorities both in the US and Europe.

      1. In Wayne’s World education = indoctrination?
        A Christian would think that

        Any reasoning that pokes holes in Christian belief would be seen as indoctrination by a Christian

        Wayne you are blind to the irony of your comment & a complete muppet

      2. How fortunate for those poorly educated minorities that the evil critical thinking hasn’t gotten its claws into them! Praise Jesus for their ignorance!


  4. And the Dutch finance minister is a homosexual, living with someone, AND the belongs to the Christian Democrat Party.

  5. I don’t like the phrasing “Is religion important to you?” The religious oppression of women and homosexuals and minorities and people who can think and, well, everybody, is a very important concern of mine. Therefore, religion is very important to me. If I ever get to take this poll, I would have to lie in order to answer the intent rather than the literal meaning of the question. And they probably don’t include my answer to the morality question in the possible answers: religion makes it harder to be moral.

  6. If the current rate of change continues (and the demographic differences between religious attitudes of the young and older age groups render this change practically inevitable) . . .

    Aren’t there also data showing people tend to become more conservative as they age?

    1. I think you’re right, Diane. It seems rather naive to assume that ones views on anything will remain consistent throughout their entire life.

    2. I don’t know if this is really true, especially on social issues. Despite the beating liberalism has taken on economic issues (mostly unjustifiably), liberalism just keeps on rolling on social issues. I think older people are most conservative because the center just keep shifting away from them.

    3. I think people do tend to become more conservative and religious with age but it is not an inevitable end point. Remember, a slight shift towards religiosity in those who age will be countered if each new generation is much less religious than the previous ones.
      I think the data fit with that model rather than one in which people start off by being non religious in their twenties and the same individuals become very religious by the time they are old.
      It might be helpful to think of other social aspects that also seem to change in the same way. Attitudes towards race, and more recently towards homosexuality, seem to be shifting slowly, in line with a model in which individual views, once formed are not easily swayed. Rather, the older age group, who had their opinions fixed in a much more conservative time, are slowly dying out. They are being replaced by those who came of age in the sixties and seventies, when race relationships or sexuality were not seen as ‘moral’ issues.

      1. LOL, thanks for that last sentence! As those of us who came of age in the 60’s and 70’s are now in our fifties or sixties, and thus written off as fogeys by most everyone else, I’ve found my patience sorely tried by some of the comments found frequently in these sorts of threads. (The understanding that everyone who lives long enough will eventually have to deal with ageism as well is small comfort…)

        Forgive me, though, if, as a woman who’s seen feminism suffer a huge backlash, I’m less optimistic about prevailing against other patriarchy-based ideologies; though I’m always delighted to have my fatalistic cynicism challenged. I hope I live long enough to see the data plotted out another 3 decades or so.

  7. we can predict a decline of US religiosity to levels approaching that of Western Europe within the next two generations.

    Would it be inappropriate here to say “Thank God!”?

    Why do women think this when religion is so very much against the fair sex?

    I think Stephen P has something there, but also, women are often less educated, especially in less enlightened parts of the country such as Utah and the Bible Belt, where they’re supposed to be wives & mothers and not worry their pretty heads about “serious” matters. I imagine it would be enlightening to break out the men and women into college/no college groups.

  8. Actually, Sigmund’s initial projection was based on correct assumptions.
    Pew, among others, has done several studies where the religiosity of a given age group is tracked over time.

    That is, the degree of religiosity of 18-29 year olds in 1955, say, is compared to the degree of religiosity of 18-29 year olds in 1980, or more recently.

    I don’t have these studies at my fingertips, and can’t search for the cites now, but I distinctly recall Googling for such studies when similar questions arose in the past, and finding plenty of supporting evidence for the assertion that, in fact, Americans are becoming less religious over time to a degree that exceeds any alleged trend to become more conservative with age (an allegation that seems to me more based on political aphorisms like, “if you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, and if you aren’t a conservative when your old, you haven’t a brain” than actual data. I’ll also note that these kind of wishful aphorisms appear to come exclusively from the Right).

    Perhaps some other readers can provide some links to the age groups comparisons over time to which I am referring. Besides Pew, I think some of this was discussed when the most recent ARIS was released.

    1. Since you’re not posting any citations, I’ll feel free to not do so, too. Have you watched the liberals of your generation age? I have mine. It’s not pretty.

      Also, the “degree of religiosity” doesn’t say much about the kind of religiosity, a distinction that does matter. For example, in the late 60’s/early 70’s, when the country as a whole was much more liberal, religions in general were not trying to cram fundamentalism down everyone’s throat. The RCC was known mostly for its antiwar activism! Being more pro-“religiosity” when the face of US religion was much more progressive is a different matter than being so now, when its face is Dark-Age.

  9. Thanks for calling attention to these data. I had the impression, from what I have read and seen, that religion is declining in importance in the USA. The data seem to confirm this.

  10. There’s some similar trends on religiosity in the GSS (variable RELITEN). The trend with Cohort (which I usually group by decade) is remarkable.

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