One of the big news stories from last year was the revelation that Americans are leaving their churches and religious institutions in droves. They are becoming "unaffiliated", although there was a lot of debate over what that meant. Are Americans losing religion, or is it simply that they are disillusioned with what they're being offered?
A new analysis, using data collected over the last three decades by the General Social Survey, sheds some light on this - and also tells us more about just who is religious in the USA these days. Some of the answers are quite surprising.
First a little bit about how they framed the questions on religion in the General Social Survey - it's not straightforward. First, they asked "what is your religious preference". Those who said "none" were counted as unaffiliated and weren't asked any further questions. Those who gave a religious preference were then asked how often they attended religious services and how strong was their faith.
So the data on strength of faith and religious attendance relate only to the dwindling number of people who are affiliated. That's important to remember.
The new analysis (Kevin Flannelly and colleagues from the Spears Research Institute, New York) confirmed that religious affiliation has dropped off over the years of the survey (since 1972). Now, you might think that this happens because those who are lukewarm in their religion have dropped out. If that were so, then the average 'religious strength' of those left in would go up.
In fact, that hasn't happened. Even those still affiliated to a religious faith go to services less often than they used to. And people still in religion are no more fervent than the religious of 30 years ago.
But there are some interesting differences between the affiliated and the non affiliated. For example, the unaffiliated are, on average, better educated than the affiliated. Yet, among the affiliated, the better-educated actually have stronger faith and go to Church more often.
Perhaps that's because those educated people who remain in religion do so as an active choice.
It works the opposite way around for income. After adjusting for all the other factors, richer people are more likely to be affiliated. However, among the affiliated, wealth means weaker faith.
The last anomaly is children. Previous research suggests that religious people tend to have more children than the non-religious. And, indeed, this new research shows that the unaffiliated have fewer children than the affiliated. But, among the affiliated, those with stronger religious faith actually have fewer children those whose faith is weaker.
Now, the effect is tiny. However, it does suggest something interesting about the connection between religion and fertility. It suggests that families join (or remain in) a religion for the religious congregations - a social structure in which to raise their children - rather any particular religious zeal.
It's the classic demonstration of the difference between being religious and being believer.
Flannelly KJ, Galek K, Kytle J, & Silton NR (2010). Religion in America--1972-2006: religious affiliation, attendance, and strength of faith. Psychological reports, 106 (3), 875-90 PMID: 20712176
This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
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