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The importance of religion in the lives of Americans is shrinking

Just 16% of Americans surveyed said religion is the most important thing in their lives, according to a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Mary Smyth
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Just 16% of Americans surveyed said religion is the most important thing in their lives, according to a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The importance of religion in the lives of Americans is on the decline.

However, for people who do still attend religious services, they say they're 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).

Just 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 that this data reflects another trend in American religious life. "Americans," she says, "are becoming increasingly likely to become religiously unaffiliated."

For Catholics and mainline Protestants, the importance of religion has declined somewhat in the last decade, according to Deckman. The drop isn't 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 isn't surprised that religious salience is highest among those groups. "But certainly it's less than 50%," she says. "And that's a change from perhaps earlier decades of findings."

The report, titled "Religion and Congregations in a Time of Social and Political Upheaval," surveyed more than 6,600 adults from all 50 states. Despite the deep political divides in the U.S., the majority of churchgoers — 56% — do not believe their own church is more politically divided than five years ago.

Deckman says that this could be due to sorting that has already taken place: People tend to affiliate with congregations that align with their political beliefs, in part to avoid conflicts they experience in broader society.

The research also shows that Black Protestants are the only Christian group in which a majority — 63% — believes that congregations should get involved in social issues even if doing so means having difficult conversations.

Deckman says that this comparatively higher percentage is likely due to the historic connection between Black churches and the Civil Rights Movement. "And so," she says, "Black churches are more open to having these conversations in their pews."

Deckman credits the racial justice movement over the last several years as fortifying the resolve of some congregations to preach, "Black Lives Matter," even if it upsets some people. That message has long been heard from pulpits in many predominantly Black congregations.

PRRI found that Christian congregations are still largely racially segregated. Even though the U.S. 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 respondents said they previously followed a different faith tradition from the one they practice now, mostly leaving Christianity or religion altogether. That figure is up significantly from just a couple of years ago. In 2021, only 16% said they had changed religions.

Among those who've left a religion, more than one-third say they were formerly Catholic.

Participation in houses of worship continues to decline, according to the study. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they "seldom" attend religious services, and 29% of respondents said they "never" attend religious services. A decade 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 has now dropped to 16% attending weekly and 13% saying they attend "a few times a year."

Yet despite the downward trends in overall church attendance, PRRI found that those still going are happy. Eight-two percent say they're optimistic about the future of their church.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose
Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.

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