Survey: the Americans’ critical embrace of religion

Americans are deeply religious people however our exclusive survey find that many do not want religion to mix with social or political life. Thomas Hawk/Flickr, CC BY-NC

In a June 2018 article on the complex relation between religions and democracy, Nancy Ammermann and Grace Davie make a plea for “paying attention to what religious people do and how they organize, not just to their ideas and theologies or even the pronouncements of religious authorities”.

In an April 2017 Internet survey of 1,041 individuals representative of the age and race composition of the adult population in the United States, we explored people’s link to religion and their views about the role of religion in society.

In a related survey about attitudes regarding democracy, we found that more religious people do support more participatory approaches to democracy than average. The results below confirm the importance of religion for the American population, but also reveal that people are rather liberal in moral affairs and have mixed views about religious institutions. Political divisions are as salient as religiosity for many questions, confirming the polarization of US society.

33% of interviewees say they pray several times a day

According to the Pew Research Center study of the Religious Landscape in the United States, those surveyed say that religion is an important part of their life.

Pew Research Center

Our survey confirms that, by Western standards, the US population is very religious. Sixty-eight percent of the sample pray at least several times a week, 33% say that they pray several times a day, and only 14% never pray. Forty-six percent attend a religious service at least once a month (35% at least once a week). And 53% consider religion to be very important in their life. Two-thirds of the sample find it important to follow the customs handed down by their religion.

The young, the male respondents and the more educated pray less than average. The more educated and those with left-leaning political views find religion to be less important than the average of those surveyed.

IPSP, Author provided

For 57% of the respondents, their religion has been received through their upbringing. Only 25% of the respondents do not identify with the religious tradition they are the most familiar with. Interestingly, there is no systematic correlation between income, education, age, gender, or race, with this question.

IPSP, Author provided

Religious freedom

The survey shows a great support for religious freedom, though with some bias toward one’s own religion (or lack of religion). Support for religious freedom is less strong among the young, male, middle-income, or low-education respondents.

The more religious people tend to support religious freedom for themselves as well as for others more strongly than less religious people. Interestingly, political orientation does not differentiate respondents about personal religious freedom, but conservatives are less strong supporters of religious freedom for others than liberals.

IPSP, Author provided

Opinions about the role of religion in politics show a strong support, on average, for separation between state and religion. However, there is not a sharp opposition to the idea that religious leaders should have a political role, and there is moderate support for having schools provide education about religions.

Opinions about exempting religions from laws that go against their beliefs (for instance allowing polygamy or excision) are divided, the average opinion falling right in the middle, with a wide diversity of answers.

IPSP, Author provided

Male and young respondents are less supportive than average for state-religion separation, whereas stronger support comes from politically moderates and progressives, as well as non-religious respondents. Religious respondents are also less opposed to religious leaders playing a political role and more in support of special exemptions.

School education about religions (religion being taught at school or neutral teaching about several religions) does not create systematic divisions in the sample, except that the most progressive respondents join the more religious respondents in supporting such education, while the respondents above 60 are less supportive of this idea. Interestingly, the older respondents appear generally more supportive than average of a sharp separation of religion from politics.

The respondents’ attachment to freedom of religion and state-religion separation is not completely opposed to some form of enforcement of respect for religions. The greatest support, however, is limited to punishing disrespectful behaviour in a religious place and is supported by less than 40% of the sample. One third of the respondents are opposed to any form of repression against the listed acts, with even greater proportions found among the middle-aged and elder respondents, the male, the moderately religious and the non-religious.

IPSP, Author provided

Social role of religions

The respondents are overall very positive about the social role of religions, with respect to poverty, community life, and related actions.

IPSP, Author provided

Interestingly, respondents also think that religions should play a role in preserving the environment. The rich, elderly or less religious respondents are less supportive than average of this idea, while the more liberal respondents are more supportive.

IPSP, Author provided

However, their confidence in religious organizations is mixed. Fifty-one percent have great confidence in them, which is substantial but not overwhelming.

Strikingly, the minorities have lower than average confidence. The moderately and slightly religious join the non-religious in showing less-then-average confidence.

IPSP, Author provided

Among the sources of caution by the respondents, conflictuality triggered by religions is one issue, although they also grant that religions can help resolving conflicts. Conflictuality is brought up more by male, progressive respondents, and non-religious respondents.

It is also striking that the idea that religion would be very different in an ideal society attracts substantial support. Such support is stronger than average among politically moderate and progressive respondents.

Religions and morality

The respondents’ attachment to religion does translate into a religious influence over morality and eschatology, but not so much on politics or sexual practice.

Answers to these questions do not vary much with socio-demographic characteristics, but do depend on political leaning and religiosity (the moderate or somewhat progressive respondents are less influenced, the more religious are more influenced).

IPSP, Author provided

People’s opinions about various practices which are or have been contentious for some religious traditions seem indeed rather liberal, with a large tolerance for homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and extramarital sex. Euthanasia trails behind, and interestingly, suicide faces a large rejection.

IPSP, Author provided

The survey shows that the more religious respondents are generally less tolerant than average, except for polygamy (for which only the moderately religious show stronger opposition than average).

In those surveyed, women are less tolerant than men about prostitution and polygamy, but more open to homosexuality. The high-income are more tolerant than average about divorce, extramarital sex, alcohol and euthanasia. The highly educated are more open to abortion and alcohol.

The older respondents are less tolerant about homosexuality, polygamy, extramarital sex and alcohol. The more politically progressive respondents are more tolerant than average on every item including polygamy.

Women and LGBT

When asked if “women should be allowed to serve as religious leaders,” on a scale from 0 to 100 the average support is 74, with stronger support than average by the less religious respondents, and lower support by the politically conservatives – but no gender difference. Should that be understood as a criticism of religions where males dominate? (On gender issues in religious organizations, see the analysis of the IPSP report.)

The sample respondents seem rather positive about the current situation (68% think that women are well treated in the religious tradition they are most familiar with), but on the other hand, almost half of the sample think that they should be treated better. Moreover, 42% think that in the future women will be treated better (and only 7% that they will be treated less well), probably reflecting their perception of a societal trend to which religions will adapt.

The middle-aged, more educated or politically progressive respondents are more in favour of treating women better, whereas the rich are less so. Interestingly, religiosity does not correlate with responses about this issue, in contrast with the responses about female leadership.

IPSP, Author provided

The sample was also asked about how their familiar religion treats LGBT people, and the answers are less positive than for women, both for the assessment of the current situation and for possible improvements. Almost half of the sample finds that this religion is not inclusive, 38% think it should be more inclusive, and 15% would like less inclusion.

However, when asked about the likely future, 44% of the respondents think that inclusiveness will increase, and only 12% that it will decrease.

Among the more supportive of improving inclusiveness for LGBT people, one finds the more educated respondents, as well as the slightly religious and non-religious, while the less supportive include middle-income or conservative respondents.

IPSP, Author provided

Pariroo Rattan has helped with the analysis of the data. Nancy Ammermann and Grace Davie contributed to the design of the survey.

This post belongs to a series of contributions coming from the International Panel on Social Progress, a global academic initiative of more than 300 scholars from all social sciences and the humanities who have prepared a report on the perspectives for social progress in the 21st Century.