Religion is less important in the lives of many Americans : NPR
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The importance of religion in the lives of Americans is declining.
However, for people who still attend religious services, they say they are optimistic about the future of their house of worship. Those are among the findings of a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
Only 16% of Americans surveyed said religion is the most important thing in their lives, according to the PRRI study, down from 20% a decade ago.
Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, says this data reflects another trend in American religious life. “Americans,” she says, “are becoming more and more likely to become religiously unaffiliated.”
For Catholics and mainline Protestants, the importance of religion has declined somewhat in the past decade, according to Deckman. The drop is not as steep, though, once broken down by other demographics. For example, 38% of black Protestants and 42% of white evangelical Protestants say religion is most important.
Deckman is not surprised that religious salience is highest among those groups. “But it’s certainly less than 50%,” she says. “And that’s a change from maybe previous decades of findings.”
The report, titled “Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social Upheaval,” surveyed more than 6,600 adults from all 50 states. Despite deep political divisions in the United States, a majority of churchgoers — 56% — do not believe their own church is more politically divided than five years ago.
Deckman says this may be due to a selection that has already occurred: People tend to associate with congregations that align with their political beliefs, in part to avoid conflicts they experience in wider society.
The research also shows that Black Protestants are the only Christian group in which a majority — 63% — believe congregations should get involved in social issues even if doing so means having difficult conversations.
Deckman says this comparatively higher percentage is likely due to the historical connection between Black churches and the Civil Rights Movement. “And that’s why,” she says, “black churches are more open to having these conversations in their pews.”
Deckman credits the racial justice movement in recent years as strengthening the will of some congregations to preach, “Black Lives Matter,” even if it upsets some people. That message has been heard from the pulpits in many predominantly Black congregations.
PRRI found that Christian congregations remain largely racially segregated. Even though the United States as a whole is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, the vast majority of Christian churchgoers report that their congregations are “mostly monoracial.” Eighty percent of white mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians and Presbyterians, say their churches are mostly white. The same is true for 77% of white Catholics and 75% of white evangelical Protestants.
The research also found that religious Americans are on the move.
Twenty-four percent of those who responded said that they had previously followed a different faith tradition than the one they practice now, mostly leaving Christianity or religion altogether. That figure has increased significantly from just a few years ago. In 2021, only 16% said they changed religions.
Among those who have left a religion, more than a third say they used to be Catholic.
Participation in houses of worship continues to decline, according to the study. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they “rarely” attend religious services, and 29% of respondents said they “never” attend religious services. Ten years ago, those figures were 22% and 21%, respectively.
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have influenced a larger trend. In 2019, 19% of Americans said they attended a religious service once a week. That percentage is now down to 16% who attend weekly and 13% said they attend “a few times a year.”
However despite the downward trends in overall church attendance, PRRI has found that those who are still going are happy. Eight and two percent say they are optimistic about the future of their church.