New survey suggests religion less important in American lives

WASHINGTON – The relative importance of religion in the lives of Americans appears to be on a decline according to a new report released today from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.  Meanwhile, a previous study from the PRRI found that almost one in four Americans said they followed a different religious tradition or denomination than they did in the past.

Despite the troubling backdrop of a rising societal trend among Christian denominations and conservative faiths calling out the dangers of “Witchcraft” and “Paganism,” the PRRI finds that “more Americans than ever have disaffiliated with organized religion, and religious leaders have faced a cultural milieu increasingly polarized along racial and political lines.”

The report, titled “Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social Upheaval,” surveyed 5,872 adults (age 18 and up) living in all 50 states in the United States. An additional 536 participants were recruited using an online survey panel; then an additional 212 were added from the panel to increase the number of white Protestants. The surveys were executed last year between August 9 and August 30, 2022.  The survey employed census data to weigh the likelihood of participant inclusion to build a representative sample of the US population.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Religious affiliation was broken down by Christianity which itself was further demarcated by Catholic vs protestant denominations in the study.  Demographics (sex, race, Hispanicity, age) were used to create additional subgroups as was political affiliation.

Perhaps most significant to the broader Pagan and Pagan-adjacent community is the inclusion of an “Other non-Christian” category which the study noted, “includes Muslim, Buddhist, Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, and those who belong to any other world religion.”

It is not clear from the report of the data how any Pagan faiths were sampled or included.

As for the findings of the report, they are not dramatic but still significant. A mere 16% of Americans surveyed said religion is the most important thing in their lives down from 20% a decade ago. However, it does matter because of how religious teachings intersect with secular experiences and beliefs, specifically on issues such as reproductive health, abortion, and the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

Studies have consistently found a turn away from Christianity toward becoming religiously unaffiliated and this study identified a similar trend.  “The proportion of those who are religiously unaffiliated has risen to 27% from 16% in 2006.” Nevertheless, as the report notes, “Despite a diversifying religious landscape, most Americans are still Christian.”

But this report also included issues of diversity. Christians of color make up about 25% of the country, and the diversity exposes other issues.

While Christians appear to remain static on social issues and despite the obvious deep political divides in America, a majority of churchgoers (56%) do not believe their own church is more politically divided now than five years ago. However, Churchgoers of color are more likely than their non-churchgoing counterparts to be civically engaged: 63% of Black Protestants reported that congregations should be part of the dialogue on social issues even if that involved difficult conversations.

“Christians of color are almost twice as likely as white Christians to wish their church talked more about health care issues (42% v. 22%) and transgender rights (26% v. 14%),” the report noted.

Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, crediting movements like Black Lives Matter told NPR that “this comparatively higher percentage is likely due to the historic connection between Black churches and the Civil Rights Movement. ‘And so,” she says, ‘Black churches are more open to having these conversations in their pews.’”

But the findings heavily show that most congregations are “monoracial.” Eighty percent of white Protestants, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians, report their churches are predominantly white as do 77% of white Catholics and 75% of white evangelical Protestants.

Another issue identified by the report is religion switching and the fluidity of the religious landscape.   The report found that the “Reasons for switching religious tradition or denomination vary, but a majority of those who changed (56%) say they stopped believing in the religion’s teachings.”  Social issues also influenced the abandonment of prior religious beliefs “Another 30% indicate they were turned off by the religion’s negative teachings about or treatment of LGBTQ people, 29% say their family was never that religious growing up, 27% say they were disillusioned by scandals involving leaders in their former religion, 18% point to a traumatic event in their lives, and 17% say their church became too focused on politics.” The last time the same issues were sampled was in 2016 during the previous US presidential election cycle.

The report did not state what religion individuals switched to but did not that “A significant minority of Americans practice more than one religion. Nearly one in five Americans (19%) say they consider themselves “a follower of the teachings or practices of more than one religion.” Adherents of non-Christian religions (26%), Hispanic Catholics (24%), and white mainline/non-evangelical Protestants (24%) are among those most likely to be multi-religious, while white evangelical Protestants (18%) and Protestants of color (16%) are the least likely to follow more than one religion’s teachings.”

The full report is available on the PRRI website.

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