Religion in America Today

We recently scoured dozens of polls and surveys on the topic of Religion done by Gallup over the past 15 years — here’s the ah-has:

About one-third of Americans think the Bible “is to be taken literally word for word” because it is “the actual word of God.” One in five assume an Atheist or Deist position (it’s “fables, legends,” etc.), while the rest find it “inspired” but not literally true. And there’s a strong inverse correlation between Biblical literalism and education — only 20% of college grads take it verbatim.

The percent of people who take the Bible literally has gone down significantly since the 1980’s (31% now vs. 38% then). And there was no increase in religiosity during the recent recession.

In general, we think religion’s influence on American life is declining. (67% say so.) This index is very volatile. In 2005, 50% thought so. In 2002, 71% thought religion was getting more influential. In 1971, 75% of Americans thought religion was losing ground. In other words: we have no idea.

Of course, most Americans say they believe in God. The recent scores are 78% pro, 15% opting for a “higher spirit,” and only 7% anti. So much for the ravages of Atheism. There’s regional variation: the South is highest in the pros, of course, and the West is lowest, where we’ve got 59% pro, 29% spirit-ists, and 10% anti.

The most religious states are all in the Rebellion, I mean, the South: Mississippi (85% say religion is an “important part” of their daily life), Alabama (82%) and South Carolina (80%). The least religious are Vermont (42%), New Hampshire (46%) and Maine (48%). Religiosity in America correlates with gravity — the farther north you get, the less religious, especially on the coasts. So what’s with all those Westerners who don’t believe in God but think religion is an important part of their lives? Spirit worship?

Back on Earth, 45% of people who call themselves Christians said they attended church in the past seven days. This number’s been about the same for 15 years. Back in 1955, 75% of Catholics and 42% of Protestants said so. In other words, the decline in church attendance since the 1950’s is a Catholic phenomenon.

Denominations have virtually the same attitude toward divisive issues: 40% of Christians find abortion “morally acceptable” and 62% feel the same about stem cell research. On other moral issues, Catholics are more liberal than Protestants. For example, 67% are fine with unmarried sex vs. 57% of Protestants. And 54% are okay with homosexuality vs. 45%.

Among all Americans, an equal 48% find homosexuality “morally acceptable” and “morally wrong.” In other words, we’re bi-sexually-attitudinal.

In 2009, for the first time since polling began, 51% of Americans called themselves “pro-life,” and only 42% pro-choice. In 1995, those numbers were 33% pro-life and 56% pro-choice.

Life is sacred to us! But wait. 64% of us approve of the death penalty (only 30% disapprove), and 48% think it isn’t imposed often enough. In other words, almost half of us want to see more prisoners killed. (Augustine was right.) Unlike abortion, attitudes toward the death penalty have stayed about the same since 2000.

As part of its Values & Beliefs survey, Gallup asks people “Do you feel your life has an important meaning or purpose?” Globally, about 90% of people said yes. This number was slightly higher for Christians, Hindus and Muslims than it was for Jews and Atheists (92% vs. 85%). Having a job helped surprisingly little (2% lift), ditto education.

What correlated most with a feeling of “meaning” was religious practice. No matter what the faith, says Gallup, “those who say religion is not an important part of their daily lives are significantly less likely than those who say it is an important part to feel their lives have important meaning.”

Belief, my friends, — any belief — means less than action — any action. Word.

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