Funk on Faith

More Americans say ‘no’ to religion, but the ‘yes’ of the faithful is still emphatic

A Pew Research Center report says religious devotion is holding steady or increasing, something that was evident in America’s response to Pope Francis.
A Pew Research Center report says religious devotion is holding steady or increasing, something that was evident in America’s response to Pope Francis. AFP/Getty Images

Back in May, the respected Pew Research Center made big headlines with a survey that charted the rapid increase in the number of Americans with no religious affiliation. These “nones,” the report said, make up 23 percent of U.S. adults.

That’s more than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent) and right behind evangelicals (25 percent). And yet ...

Since that Pew report, America fell hard for Pope Francis. When the religious leader visited last month, the crowds were huge and ecstatic.

Then more than 160,000 Americans showed up to venerate the relics of the Catholic Church’s youngest saint – Maria Goretti – during a national tour that included a daylong stop at Charlotte’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.

And it’s not just Catholics: Every weekend, many thousands of worshippers turn up at evangelical mega-churches like Charlotte’s Elevation.

So is religion in America on the decline? Or is it flourishing?

Actually, both are true. And the best explanation comes from another Pew Research survey that was released just this week. This poll asked 35,000 U.S. adults about religious beliefs and practices.

Yes, the survey said, the percentages of Americans who believe in God, pray daily and regularly attend religious services have all declined modestly since 2007 – the year Pew last did an equally ambitious study of religion.

But yes, the polls also found, religious devotion is holding steady or even increasing in fervor among the overwhelming majority – 77 percent – who do identify with a church or some other house of worship.

Among this group, there’s been little change in the percentages who pray every day, attend religious services at least once or twice a month and say that their faith is “very important” to them.

And there were even signs in the survey that Americans overall are growing more spiritual. About 60 percent of U.S. adults now say they regularly experience a deep sense of “spiritual peace and well being” – up 7 percent since the 2007 survey.

Those are the headlines in the newest Pew report. But the voluminous study also included scores of fascinating factoids. Here’s a sampling:

▪ Though gays and lesbians continue to get the cold shoulder from most evangelical churches, that could change. Pew found that half of young adults – millennials – who called themselves evangelical Protestants say homosexuality should be accepted by society.

▪ Is God a person or an impersonal force? Seven in 10 Christians say a person with whom people can have a relationship. Among those of non-Christian faiths, only 26 percent say they see God as a person.

▪ Should the Bible be interpreted literally, word for word? Only 31 percent of U.S. adults and 39 percent of Christians overall say yes. But two groups do give Biblical literalism the thumbs up – members pf historically black Protestant churches (59 percent) and evangelical Protestants (56 percent).

▪ Who prays more – men or women? The answer: Women, with 64 percent saying they pray daily. Only 46 percent of men pray every day.

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