How Spiritual Are We?

The Parade in today’s newspaper has an intriguing cover story, How Spiritual Are We? Their survey looks below the overarching numbers that are often quoted from other surveys and studies. The results don’t surprise me at all. But they might surprise some of the people I know who are deeply embedded in the evangelical subculture of the South. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell about such things.

The article begins with the overarching statistic that many report, which is that 69% of Americans believe in God. However, that percentage breaks down in some pretty interesting ways. For instance, 30% of respondents said they attended religious services once a week or more. The article notes, though, that every time academic researchers have studied survey responses on that question compared with the actual attendance at religious institutions, they’ve found that at best half of those who say they attend once a week or more actually did. So realistically, across all faiths, no more than 15% of Americans attend religious services once a week or more. Regular attendance at a religious institution is no longer an American norm.

As I consider my own family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, I see the same dynamic at work. It’s the exception today, rather than the rule, to regularly attend any sort of religious service. Of course, 50% of the respondents to the survey outright said they rarely or never attend religious services. So it also appears to be a topic on which people are less inclined to prevaricate these days.

24% of respondents called themselves spiritual but not religious. That’s a tough category to unpack. I used that label for the syncretism (taking bits and pieces from different religions) that I once practiced. I also know atheists who use that label. And the article points out that some members of traditional religions use it to signal that they aren’t legalistic or rigid in their perspective. However, only 5% of respondents didn’t believe in any sort of concept of God and only an additional 7% weren’t sure if there was some sort of God or not. If I had to guess, I would expect considerable overlap between those two groups and the 12% who did not believe in any sort of an afterlife.

I will note that only 15% thought religion should be a key factor in political decisions while 58% said religion and politics should not mix at all. That doesn’t bode well for the so-called religious right in America. Maybe that movement will finally begin to drop out of the limelight it has enjoyed in recent decades, one which has been entirely out of proportion with its actual numbers. It’s probably too much to expect the movement to vanish altogether, but I’ll gladly settle for less attention given it.

Only 12% of respondents said their religion was the One True Faith ™ while a corresponding 12% said no religion has validity. The majority (59%) said all religions are valid. That’s actually a somewhat tricky question to answer. Valid can be taken in more than one way. As an American, I certainly believe that all religions (within reason — let’s exclude obvious things like human sacrifice) should be considered valid under the law and none should be given legal preference. But as a Christian, I also believe the fullness of truth and reality are revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and every other path contains, at best, a shadow of that fullness. Still, I would also not pronounce judgment on one who faithfully follows another path. God alone judges. And I expect that many Christians I know will be shocked (though hopefully not disappointed) at the multitudes God has managed to “save”.

In something that is a radical change from even our past, 82% of respondents said they would marry someone of a different faith. Curiously, 78% would not convert to another religion. Taken together, that has to mean that most Americans today don’t believe it’s important for a household to adhere to a single faith. There are many different ways to work that out in practice, but I found it an intriguing little tidbit. It probably correlates to the importance placed on religion. 44% of respondents (split half and half) said that religion was either not a factor in their lives at all, or was present, but not particularly important. 33% said religion was important, but not the most important thing. Only 24% said religion was the most important thing in their lives. I would wager that almost all of the 18% who said they would not marry someone from a different faith were a part of the 24% who said religion was the most important thing in their lives. That’s just a guess, but it seems like a safe one.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds from this point on. Though it’s a distorted myth of the first order to say that we were once a Christian nation, it seems pretty clear that we are less Christian now on a broad, general level than we have typically been in the past. That’s hardly a surprise to me. On one level, it does seem that we’ve finally reached a generation willing to take the “low church” proclamation at its word and to its logical conclusion.

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