December 24, 1999
Americans Remain Very Religious, but Not Necessarily in Conventional Ways
Many feel that they do not have to follow the strict teachings of their religion and
that religions have unnecessary rules and responsibilities
by Frank Newport
GALLUP NEWS SERVICE
A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows that Americans remain intensely religious in many conventional ways, but at the same time embrace nontraditional approaches to religion.
Gallup has been tracking Americans' religious attitudes and behavior for decades. As has been the case for many years, Gallup's basic measures of religious attitudes and behavior continue to show remarkably high levels of religiosity. Some of the key trends, as updated in the latest poll conducted December 9-12 survey, are as follows:
|Six out of 10 Americans say that religion is very important in their life, and another three out of 10 say it is fairly important. Only 11% say that religion is not at all important. The "very important" percentage was as low as 52% at one point in the late 70s, and was at 70% in 1965, but has generally been in the high 50% to low 60% range in recent years.|
|About two thirds of Americans claim to be a member of a church or synagogue, a number which too has not changed much at all over the years. Additionally, when asked to state their religious preference, only nine percent of the public say "none"; the rest of Americans are connected enough -- however loosely -- with a religion or denomination to be able to name it in response to this question.|
|Only eight percent of the public say that they never attend church or synagogue. Another 28% say they attend religious services "seldom," which means that about two-thirds of the population claim to attend services at least once a month or more often. Thirty-six percent say they attend once a week. Similarly, when asked if they attended church or synagogue in the last seven days (before the interview), 45% say "yes." This measure of church attendance has been one of the most remarkably stable measures in Gallup Poll history, staying at roughly the same level -- in the high 30% to low 40% range -- for 30 years.|
|Almost nine out of 10 Americans (86%) say that they believe in God, even when given the choice of saying that they "don't believe in God, but believe in a universal spirit or higher power" (chosen by only eight percent). In fact, only five percent of the population choose neither of these choices and thus claim a more straightforward atheistic position.|
|When given a choice between saying "religion can answer all or most of today's problems," or that "religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date," 68% of Americans choose the former, while only 19% choose the "old-fashioned" response. This breakout has stayed roughly the same for over 25 years.|
|Seventy-nine percent of Americans say they agree with the statement "there will be a day when God judges whether you go to heaven or hell."|
At the same time, the responses to several new questions about religion included in the poll suggest that some Americans approach religion in less than conventional ways.
One question asked Americans if they would define themselves as religious, or as "spiritual, but not religious." Only 54% of the public choose the straight "religious" label, while 30% say they would define themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." Even 20% of those who say that religion is very important in their daily lives define themselves as spiritual but not religious.
The results of the survey also suggest that despite their outward affiliation with a religion and frequent church attendance, less than half of Americans live their daily lives strictly by the code or teachings of their religious faith. While 48% say that they pay more attention "to God and religious teachings" in deciding how to conduct their lives, almost as many, 45%, say that they pay more attention to their "own views and the views of others." Although those who say that religion is very important in their lives are most likely to pay more attention to God and religious teaching, a quarter rely more on their own views, or others' views. Groups that are most likely to pay more attention to their own views than God's include men, younger Americans (including 65% of those 18-29), and those living on either coast.
Along the same lines, about half of Americans say that religions have unnecessary rules and responsibilities. Catholics are more likely than Protestants to have this belief, by a 59% to 46% margin.
There is clear evidence from the survey results that many Americans -- although personally devout -- don't view their religion as the only true path to God. Seventy-five percent say that there is a religion "other than their own that offers a true path to God," and of that number a substantial majority believe that this other path to God is equally as good as their own.
Additionally, although the vast majority of Americans say that there will come a day when God judges people and decides whether they will go to heaven or hell, the poll finds that 44% believe that a good person will go to heaven, whether or not he or she believes in God.
The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,037 adults, 18 years and older, conducted December 9-12, 1999. For results based on the whole sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your beliefs: you are religious, you are spiritual but not religious, or you are neither?
|1999 Dec 9-12|
|Spiritual, but not religious||30|
|Both religious and spiritual (vol.)||6|
Which of the following statements comes closest to your belief about God: you believe in God, you don't believe in God, but you do believe in a universal spirit or higher power, or you don't believe in either?
|1999 Dec 9-12|
|Believe in God||86%|
|Believe in universal spirit/ higher power||8|
|Don't believe in either||5|
Which of the following statements comes closest to the way you decide how to conduct your life: you pay more attention to God and religious teachings or you pay more attention to your own views and views of others? [ROTATED]
|Pay more attention to God and religious teachings||48%|
|Pay more attention to your own views and the views of others||45|
Do you think there is any religion other than your own that offers a true path to God? [BASED ON -- 945 -- AMERICANS WITH A RELIGIOUS PREFERENCE; ± 4 PCT PTS]
(If Yes) Do you think your religion is the best path to God, or are others equally good? [BASED ON -- 711 -- AMERICANS WHO BELIEVE OTHER RELIGIONS OFFER PATH TO GOD; ± 4 PCT PTS]
|Own religion is best path||16%|
|Others are equally good||82|
Next, as I read a list of statements about religion, please say whether you agree or disagree with each one. [Random Order]
|Religions have unnecessary rules and responsibilities||52%||46||2|
|There are a lot of things taught in my religion that I don't really believe||39%||59||2|
|If you are a good person you will go to heaven, whether or not you believe in God||44%||50||6|
|There will be a day when God judges whether you go to heaven or hell||79%||19||2|