Sigmund, who apparently scours the literature more closely than I, has, at my invitation, written up the results of a new Pew Survey on the prevalence of faith in America. The results are heartening.
Pew Research Center survey reveals decline in US religiosity
On November 17th, the Pew Research Center released the results of the survey, “American Exceptionalism Subsides—The American-Western European Values Gap”, designed to compare attitudes of the US population with those of four Western European countries, namely Britain, Germany, France and Spain.
The study involved a telephone based poll of 1000 participants in each country who were asked the same set of questions. While primarily focused on the question of “exceptionalism” – pride in ones national culture above all other cultures – it included several questions that help illuminate the difference in the value given to religion between the US and European populations.
Previous studies have demonstrated a much higher degree of religiosity in the US compared with most of Europe and the current survey, perhaps unsurprisingly, supports this finding.
“Half of Americans deem religion very important in their lives; fewer than a quarter in Spain (22%), Germany (21%), Britain (17%) and France (13%) share this view.
Moreover, Americans are far more inclined than Western Europeans to say it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values; 53% say this is the case in the U.S., compared with just one-third in Germany, 20% in Britain, 19% in Spain and 15% in France.”
Of particular interest, however, is the demographic breakdown of the US results. For instance the results reveals major differences in US attitudes to religion based on gender (women are much more likely than men , 59% vs 41%, to consider religion as being very important, as are older compared to younger individuals (57% vs 41%).
It is also worth noting that the religious attitudes of political moderates in the US are far closer to those of political conservatives than those of political liberals. When asked: “Is it necessary to believe in God to be moral?”, the US results show that 66% of conservatives agree, compared with 52% of moderates and 26% of liberals. [JAC note: perhaps this explains the Obama administration's pandering to conservative views about contraception in their decision yesterday.]
One intriguing result from the demographic breakdown is in the effect that a college education appears to have on religious attitudes. While there is little difference in how those with and without a college degree view the importance of religion, individuals who have been to college are far less likely to say “it is necessary to believe in God to be moral” (37% vs 59%), suggesting, perhaps, that exposure to nonreligious individuals in the university may reduce bias against the nonreligious.
Despite the rather bleak current figures for the US population, the survey does give reason for optimism.
The current questionnaire is part of the Pew Centers global attitudes survey, a series of polls carried out in several countries over the past decade. Because the same questions have been asked of the same populations at regular intervals, we can see whether attitudes towards religion, or other subjects in the survey, remain stable or are changing.
In regards the question “Do you consider religion very important?”, the US results show a 9% decrease (59% to 50%) between 2002 and 2011. In comparison the European results for the same question in 2011 are both far lower than the US result (going from 13% in France to 22% in Spain) and much less variable over the preceding decade.
The shift of US religious opinion towards a more secular outlook is mirrored in the gradual change in the answer to the question “Should homosexuality be accepted?” The current result for the US population (60% saying that homosexuality should be accepted) shows a 9% increase since the 2002 survey, albeit still remaining far below the European levels, which vary from 81% in Britain to 91% in Spain.
If the current rate of change continues (and the demographic differences between religious attitudes of the young and older age groups render this change practically inevitable) we can predict a decline of US religiosity to levels approaching that of Western Europe within the next two generations.