Poll Finds Americans, Especially Millennials, Moving Away From Religion

Nov 2, 2015
Originally published on November 5, 2015 12:54 pm

Religion is apparently weakening in America. A new report from the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of Americans who say they believe in God, pray daily and attend church regularly is declining.

Among the findings:

  • The share of Americans who say they are "absolutely certain" that God exists has dropped 8 percentage points, from 71 percent to 63 percent, since 2007, when the last comparable study was made.

  • The percentage of adults who describe themselves as "religiously affiliated" has shrunk 6 points since 2007, from 83 percent to 77 percent.

  • The shares of the U.S. adult population who consider religion "very important" to them, pray daily and attend services at least once a month have declined between 3 and 4 percentage points over the past eight years.

The shift is small but statistically significant, according to the authors, given that the changes have taken place in a relatively short period of time, and the survey sample is large enough (about 35,000 U.S. adults) to be considered reliable.

Skepticism about religion is especially evident among young people. The Pew study found that barely a quarter of "millennials" (born between 1981 and 1996) attend church services on a weekly basis, compared with more than half of U.S. adults born before 1946. Only about 4 in 10 millennials say religion is important in their lives, compared with more than half of those who are older, including two-thirds of those born before 1946.

The Pew researchers acknowledge that some young people may become more religious as they grow older, but their data suggest that the generational differences in religiosity could well endure. "The oldest Millennials, now in their late 20s and early 30s, are generally less observant than they were seven years ago," the authors write. "If these trends continue American society is likely to grow less religious even if those who are adults today maintain their current levels of religious commitment."

The weakening of religious beliefs and practices has clear political overtones. The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated people is largely benefiting Democrats, for whom "nones" are now the single largest religious constituency. Evangelicals, meanwhile, constitute the largest religious group in the Republican Party, and the share of evangelicals who identify with the Republicans has grown since 2007.

Indeed, the Pew report suggests that polarization along religious lines may be increasing in the United States. While the percentage of Americans who say they don't affiliate with any religious tradition is growing, those people who still identify with a religion are becoming even more devout. A growing share of the "religiously affiliated" say they regularly read scripture, participate in prayer groups and share their faith with others.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have more evidence today that Americans are becoming less religious. A new survey says the number of people in this country who say they believe in God, who say they pray daily and who attend church is going down. The findings come from the Pew Research Center, and NPR's Tom Gjelten has been looking into them. Hi, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how is this country different than it was a few years ago?

GJELTEN: The first thing to keep in mind - and this is important - is that Americans, by and large, are still a really religious people, certainly in comparison, for example, to Europeans.

INSKEEP: Sure.

GJELTEN: But we now have two studies, one in 2007 and one that has just been released, that shows that Americans clearly are becoming less religious. Just to give you one example - in 2007, 71 percent of Americans said they were absolutely certain they believe in God. That number now is down to 63 percent. Most Americans still say they pray at least once a day, but the number who say they seldom or never pray has jumped by five points. Eighteen percent said that in 2007; 23 percent today say they never pray at all. These are somewhat small changes, but they are significant.

INSKEEP: Because...

GJELTEN: They're significant for two reasons. One because this is not a lot of time - 2007 to 2015 - so these are significant in terms of how much change in a short period of time. The other thing is this was a really big study - 35,000 people - so the margin of error is quite small.

INSKEEP: OK, so when you start slicing up the population, is everybody's religious belief changing or evolving in the same way?

GJELTEN: Everybody seems to be getting less religious. However, there are major differences between men and women, for example. Women are more religious than men, and young people are a lot less religious than older people. For example, the over 50 crowd, 6 in 10 say they pray every day, two-thirds say religion is very important to them. For the youngest group, only 4 out of 10 would say those same things.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you about that, Tom, because, of course, younger people get older and it's a truism among people who pay attention to churchgoing that you're born, you grow up, maybe you go to church as a kid, then you go away from the church. Later, you're older, you have kids, you go back to church. Is that just what's happening here?

GJELTEN: That is a truism and there are data to support that. However, older millennials who were younger millenials in 2007, they're not getting any more religious. In fact, they have become even less religious.

INSKEEP: Wow. Now, is there a connection between people's political beliefs and their religious beliefs?

GJELTEN: Yes, this study looks at people who are not affiliated religiously. They called them the nones. They have no religious affiliation. Right now, that is the single largest religious group in the Democratic Party. If you take another example - evangelical conservatives. Fifty-six percent of evangelical Christians say they are Republican or lean Republican; just 28 percent say they indentify more with the Democrats. And that split is wider today than it was in 2007. So evangelical conservatives, evangelical Protestants, are more likely today to say they're Republican than they were in 2007.

INSKEEP: What is the effect when you have such a difference between the religious beliefs, demographically speaking, of the two political parties?

GJELTEN: I think what we're seeing here is evidence of the growing friction in the American electorate. The people who are religiously affiliated are actually becoming more devout, Steve. People who are unaffiliated are becoming less and less devout, so these differences that we saw in 2007 are becoming more pronounced. The culture wars are playing out in such a way that there is greater polarization along religious lines just as there's greater polarization along political lines.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks as always.

GJELTEN: You bet.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.