Columns DIY Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Religion declining in importance for many Americans, especially for Millennials

Fewer than half of Americans consider religion to be an “extremely” or “very” important part of their identity, according to a new study.

The American Family Survey, an annual national survey conducted by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, found that just 43% of Americans viewed religion as a core component of their identity in 2018.

Below are six key findings about religion in the national study, which featured 3,000 respondents and had a margin of error of ±1.9%.

1. Nones are now 35% of the population.

Source: The American Family Survey, 2015–2018.

The number of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—often lumped together under the umbrella term of “nones”—is now 35%. That’s actually not a huge increase over last year, though, when the figure was 34%.

“Though the change from year to year is small, there is a clear upward trend,” said Chris Karpowitz, professor of political science at BYU and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

Catholics dipped down two percentage points, from 21% in 2017 to 19% this year.

2. But among younger Americans, Nones are inching close to half.

Source: The American Family Survey, 2015–2018.

For Millennials and even GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all. The Nones claim 44% of the 18–29 age group, and nearly that (43%) among those who are 30–44.

This is more than twice their market share among Americans older than 65, just 21% of whom say they are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. However, even that 21% is a five-point rise from where the over-65 group was in 2015, when just 16% identified themselves this way.

3. Religion is less important than family when people explain what creates their identity.

Source: The American Family Survey, 2018.

Among Americans as a whole, only 43% said religion was “extremely” or “very” important to their identity. Instead, people define their identity in terms of family: 70% said that being a spouse was important to their personal identity, while 71% cited being a parent.

“Religion is more important than race, political party, community, or job, but it’s less important than their family identities,” summarized Karpowitz.

There were exceptions to the general rule among African American and Hispanic respondents, who were more likely than whites to rank marriage, parenthood, and religion very highly.

4. Religious Americans are likely to say marriage should come before sex—but they don’t always wait until marriage.

Many Americans are concerned about sexual permissiveness, but the number who think it’s one of the biggest problems facing the country has declined by 8 percentage points since 2015.

The nation’s most religious people still say that ideally, marriage should come before sex. However, “those who prefer a more traditional sequence as their ideal do not tend to realize this in their actual lives,” according to the survey report. For both Democrats and Republicans, sex usually comes before either cohabitation or marriage.

Other cultural issues, including crime and the availability of drugs and alcohol, have also declined in importance since 2015.

What’s rising? Economic issues. The number concerned about “the costs associated with raising a family” is up by 9 points.

5. Most people think it’s fine to marry someone outside their own religion.

Barely a third of Americans believe it’s important for married couples to share the same religious affiliation (36%), which is significantly lower than the number who feel that couples should share the same social values (76%) or feelings about children (81%).

Black respondents were a bit more likely than whites to say it was important for couples to be of the same faith (44% vs. 33%), while Republicans were nearly twice as likely as Democrats to say so (51% vs. 27%).

6. Republicans are getting more religious, Democrats less so.

There’s a sorting in religion and politics: Republicans are becoming considerably more religious than Democrats.

Overall, only 30% of Democrats say that being engaged in a religious community is essential for a fulfilling life, while 58% of Republicans do. (The exception to this is African American Democrats, who resemble Republicans in being deeply religious.)

Karpowitz says that this trend toward “identity cleavages” in religion and politics is “fairly new in American politics,” and is not necessarily a change for the better.

“It’s worrisome both politically and religiously,” he said. “If religions can’t be a comfortable home for people of both parties, then it’s challenging for them to make the claim that they are welcoming to all, and that they’re places where people of very different backgrounds can find solace and community.”

Overall, he said the AFS findings confirm many of the trends other studies have shown about American religion, which is becoming less important to the majority over time.

“There’s a subset of Americans for whom religious communities and beliefs are critically important to every facet of their lives, but the percentage of Americans to whom that applies is shrinking every year.”


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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