Research: Study may surprise you on religion

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Pew Research statistics on religious affiliations have typically categorized Americans by church-specific affiliations. Christian or Buddhist, Catholic or Protestant, unaffiliated or agnostic, and so on.

In a survey reported Aug. 29, they tried a new approach: How do Americans approach religion in general? What do we have in common?

The new typology sorts Americans into seven groups, based on general beliefs, how actively they practice, the value placed on religion, and from what sources they derive meaning. Something interesting came up; while race, ethnicity, age, education and political opinions were not among the measuring classifications, Pew Research noticed that some groups correlated with strong partisan leanings or distinctive demographic profiles, illustrating how intrinsic are such connections in our culture.

Note that within each category (named by Pew) below could be any religion or denomination; these reach beyond such affiliations.

I. “Highly religious” — three categories, totaling 39 percent:

Sunday stalwarts: The most religious group, they actively and more strictly practice their faith, are deeply involved in their congregations, and describe themselves as politically conservative. “Sunday” is meant loosely; this category also includes very devout Jews, Muslims, and Seventh-Day Adventists.

God-and-country believers: Less active in formal church groups, but, like Sunday Stalwarts, they hold many traditional religious beliefs and tilt right on sociopolitical issues. They’re the most likely of any group to see immigrants as a threat. Both these and Sunday Stalwarts contain the most evangelical Christians.

Diversely devout: Contains the most racial and ethnic minorities; also more diverse in spiritual and political beliefs. This is the only group in which solid majorities say they believe simultaneously in a Biblical God, in psychics, reincarnation, and that spiritual energy exists in all things. In this group, Protestants number fewest, and “nones” (no particular affiliation) number most.

II. “Somewhat religious” — two, totaling 32 percent:

Relaxed religious: Seventy percent of these believe in God, and 40 percent pray daily. But few attend services or read scripture. Nearly all said it isn’t necessary to believe in God to be a moral person.

Spiritually awake: All hold New Age beliefs (rejected by most of the Relaxed Religious) and believe in some higher power, although not the Biblical God. Few regularly attend religious services.

III. “Non-religious” — two, totaling 29 percent:

Solidly secular: The least religious group. Relatively affluent, highly educated adults — mostly white; more men than women — identifying as neither religious nor spiritual, rejecting New Age beliefs. Tend toward Democratic affiliation.

Religion resisters: Do believe in some higher power or spiritual force (but not God of the Bible or Quran). Many have some New Age beliefs or consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. They have negative views of organized religion, believing churches have too much political influence and do more harm than good. Generally politically liberal.

Pew found other patterns in the December 2017 survey.

Many “religious” don’t attend church. Except for Sunday Stalwarts, relatively few Americans frequently attend religious services or read scripture.

Most Americans believe in God. The Solidly Secular are the only group with a majority who don’t believe in some higher power. Even among Religion Resisters, the majority believe in some kind of spiritual force.

New Age beliefs are common. Even among the most religious Sunday Stalwarts, three in 10 believe in psychics, and say spiritual energy exists in natural objects, such as mountains and trees.

Most separate morality from theistic belief. Can one be moral without believing in God? The perceived answer established a borderline for the seven typologies. Those in the three “highly religious” groups staunchly responded that belief in God is a prerequisite for being a good person. By contrast, “overwhelming majorities” in the other five groups are united in the opposite view, that one need not believe in God to be moral and have good values.

Americans draw meaning and fulfillment from many sources — loved ones, careers, music and books, the outdoors. As might be expected, the most religious categories call faith their most important source, with that emphasis decreasing along with religious inclination.

For much more information on this survey, including methodology and correlations with particular religions and denominations, see:


Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist with the Hagadone News Network. Contact:

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