New Survey Finds Some Americans More Devout, Others More Adrift

However, the Pew Research Center said that, for the first time, its survey showed the religiously unaffiliated outnumber Catholics in the U.S.

Hands in prayer at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, Jan. 17
Hands in prayer at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, Jan. 17 (photo: Catholic Charities/Jeffrey Bruno (CC BY 2.0))

WASHINGTON — The vast majority of Americans continue to identify with religious faith, a Pew study has found. However, there are some indications of a modest decline in overall religious affiliation and practice, including among Catholics.

“Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. Indeed, by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago,” the Pew Research Center said Nov. 3.

Pew’s survey has suggested that the American public is becoming less religious on some key measures of religiosity, with a small decrease since 2007 in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly go to religious services. At the same time, there is also “a great deal of stability.”

Among those affiliated with a religion, there appear to be increases in regular reading of Scripture, faith-sharing and participation in small prayer groups or Scripture study groups, according to two separate Pew surveys from 2007 and 2014.

Pew’s 2014 survey found that about 21% of U.S. adults identify as Catholic. This is a decline from 24% in 2007. For the first time, the survey showed that the religiously unaffiliated appeared to outnumber Catholics.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights noted the study’s finding that nine in 10 adults believe in God, and three-quarters of respondents say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.

Donohue noted that the survey found only 14% of respondents said their Church should adopt “modern beliefs and practices.”

“That’s quite an indictment. Are the elites listening?” he asked.

The Pew Research Center analysis drew on the "Religious Landscape Study," which surveyed 35,000-plus U.S. adults in 2014. The survey claims an overall margin of error of plus or minus 0.6 percentage points. An initial study on the report was published in May 2015.

Religiously affiliated respondents in 2014 were about as religious as they were in 2007, according to their self-reported daily prayer, their monthly religious-service attendance and their view that religion is important to them.

However, the number of religiously affiliated adults has dropped from 83% to 77%. The religiously unaffiliated are increasingly unlikely to say they believe in God, declining from 70% in 2007 to 61% in 2014.

The unaffiliated showed slight declines in daily prayer and religious-service attendance, though about 10% of the unaffiliated still attend religious services monthly, and 20% pray daily.

The Pew survey found “small but statistically significant” decreases in the percentage of Americans who say they pray every day, attend religious services regularly and consider religion to be very important in their lives.

Donohue said the survey responses on abortion show that 80% of respondents oppose abortion on demand, with 16% saying abortion should be illegal in all cases, and 27% saying it should be illegal in most cases, while 30% saying it should be legal in most cases.

Donohue said it is “worth noting” that only 24% of Americans strongly support “same-sex marriage,” although about 53% favor such unions. The religiously affiliated are evenly split 46%, both for and against.