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Chapter 13: Education and Religion

13.10 Religion in the United States

The United States is generally regarded as a fairly religious nation. In a 2016 survey administered by the Gallup Organization, 53% of Americans answered yes when asked, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” (Newport, 2016). In this same survey, the Gallup Organization found that 79% of Americans expressed a religious preference, with 74% identifying with a Christian religion and 5% with a non-Christian religion. The remaining 21% claimed no religious affiliation, agnosticism or atheism, or gave no response (Newport, 2016). These figures show that even though the degree of religiosity in the U.S. is in decline, that religion continues to play a significant role in the lives of many Americans.

Moreover, Americans seem more religious than the citizens of almost all the other democratic, post-industrial nations with which the United States is commonly compared. Evidence for this conclusion comes from the Pew Research Center surveys, which, similar to the Gallup survey mentioned in the preceding paragraph, found that slightly more than 50% of Americans believe religion to be very important in their lives (Pew, 2018). Comparable percentages from other democratic, post-industrial nations included the following: Spain, 22%; Canada, 27%; France, 11%; United Kingdom, 10%; Sweden, 10%; and Japan, 10% (Pew, 2018). Among its peer nations, then, the United States stands out for being religious.

When we consider all the nations of the world, however, the U.S. ranking is much lower. In several Muslim-majority countries, such as Afghanistan, Indonesia and Pakistan, more than 90% say religion is very important in their lives (Pew, 2018). Other countries with high levels of religious adherence are found in Africa, south Asia and Latin America, such as Ethiopia, 98%; India, 80%, Nigeria, 88%, Uganda, 86%, Honduras, 90% and Brazil, 72%. However, because the United States ranks higher than most of the democratic, industrialized nations with which it is most aptly compared, it makes sense to regard the United States as fairly religious.

The data on religion discussed above reveals an interesting pattern that is relevant for understanding religious differences among the 50 states of the United States. Of the nations surveyed, people in the poorest nations were most likely to say that religion was an important part of their daily lives, and people in the richest nations were least likely to feel this way. The most religious nations with high percentages of their populations saying that religion was an important part of their daily lives, are low- and low-middle income nations. In contrast, among the least religious nations are some of the world’s wealthiest nations. A Gallup report concluded that these results demonstrate “the strong relationship between a country’s socioeconomic status and the religiosity of its residents” (Crabtree, 2010). Drawing on research by sociologists and other social scientists, the report explained that religion helps people in poorer nations cope with the many hardships that poverty creates.

Similarly, researchers find the poverty-religiosity relationship pattern present in the United States. In the southern U.S., there is a high concentration of poverty, concurrently, surveys have found that these same states have the highest percentages of people proclaiming religion to be an important part of their daily lives. There are many reasons for the high degree of Southern religiosity, such as religious traditions, denominations, and racial and ethnic compositions (Newport, 2009), however, it is notable that the Southern states are also generally the poorest in the nation. If the poorest nations of the world are more religious in part because of their poverty, then the Southern states may also be more religious partly because of their poverty. In understanding religious differences among the different regions of the country, the United States has much to learn from the other nations of the world.

Religious Affiliation and Religious Identification

Religious affiliation is a term that can mean actual membership in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, or just a stated identification with a particular religion whether or not someone actually belongs to a local house of worship. Another term for religious affiliation is religious preference. Recall from the Gallup survey and Pew Research Center cited earlier that 79% of Americans express a religious preference, while just 51% say they regularly attend religious services (at least 1-2 times per month). As these figures indicate, more people identify with a religion than practice it in a formal setting.

The Pew Research Center also tracks data on religious identification (see Figure 13.12 “Religious Preference in the United States”). Half of Americans say their religious preference is Protestant (including 1.6% who are Mormon), while about 21% consider themselves Catholic. Six-percent of respondents claim a Non-Christian faith, including: Jewish, 2%; Muslim, 1%; Buddhist, .7%; and Hindu, .7%.

Figure 13.12 Religious Preference in the United States


Source: Data from Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2018). U.S. religious landscape survey. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Although Protestants are half of those who claim a religious identity, their churches can be categorized by whether or not they are evangelical, mainline or historically Black. Of those who are Protestant, 25.4% are evangelical Protestants, who stress being “born again,” a literal interpretation of the Bible, that salvation only comes through belief in Jesus and the practice of proselytizing; 14.7% are mainline Protestants, who read the Bible more as a historical document, believe there is more than one means of salvation and are less prone to proselytize; and 6.5% are historically Black Protestants, which speaks to the degree of segregation that exists in religious life in the U.S. (Green). Interestingly, while only 50% of the U.S. population identify as Protestants, a full 78% of African Americans do so, with 59% of African American Protestants attending historically black churches, 15% attending evangelical Protestant churches and just 4% attending mainline Protestant churches (Liu, 2014). In addition, Protestants can also be grouped by denomination, of which there are many, including groups such as Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Adventists.

Correlates of Religious Affiliation

As discussed above, religious affiliation differs widely in the nature of their religious belief and practice, and by demographic variables of interest to sociologists (Finke & Stark, 2005). For example, evangelical and historically Black Protestants tend to live in the South and to have low levels of education and are working-and lower-class, while mainline Protestants tend to live in the North and Northeast and are wealthier and better educated than evangelical Protestants. In their education and incomes, the majority of Catholics are in the working- and lower-classes, with 46% having earned a high school degree or less. Jews are concentrated in a few states in the northeast, are predominantly white, well-educated and middle- and upper-class (Pew, 2018).


Race and ethnicity are related to religious affiliation. African Americans are overwhelmingly Protestant, for example, while Latinos are primarily Catholic. Photo by Lukas Hartmann from Pexels

As indicated above, race and ethnicity are related to religious affiliation. African Americans are overwhelmingly Protestant, affiliating primarily with the Baptist denomination, while Latinos are most likely to be Catholic. Conversely, Asian Americans more often affiliate with the Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim faiths (See Figure 13.13 “Racial and Ethnic Composition by Religious Group”). White Americans are found in significant numbers among Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist and Protestant denominations.

Figure 13.13 Racial and Ethnic Composition by Religious Group


Source: Data from Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2018). U.S. religious landscape survey. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Age is yet another factor related to religious affiliation, as older people are more likely than younger people to belong to a church or synagogue. As young people marry and “put roots down,” their religious affiliation increases, partly because many wish to expose their children to a religious education. However, of those individuals who claim no religious affiliation, 72% are under the age of 50 (Pew, 2018). Religious groups also vary in their age distribution, with Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus having a higher proportion of their adherents under the age of 50 (81%, 64% and 90%, respectively), while 50% or more of Catholics and evangelical Protestants Jews and mainline Protestants are 50 years old or older.


The degree of religiosity, or the significance of religion in a person’s life, an important topic of investigation, also varies by different social factors. Religiosity is measured in surveys in questions asking about the belief in a God, the importance of religion in one’s life, attendance at formal religious services and the frequency of prayer. People can belong to a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, or claim a religious preference, but that does not necessarily mean they are very religious.


Older people are more likely than younger people to belong to a church or synagogue. Asim Bharwani – Reading at the Wall – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

National data on prayer is perhaps especially telling when it comes to the level of religiosity (see Figure 13.14 “Frequency of Prayer”), as prayer occurs both with others and by oneself. Fifty-five percent of Americans say they pray at least once daily, while 23% say they never pray (Pew, 2018). Women are more likely than men to pray daily: 59% of women say they pray daily, versus only 41% of men. Daily praying is also more common among older people than younger people, among African Americans than whites, and among people without a college degree than those with a college degree. As these demographic differences indicate, the social backgrounds of Americans affect this important dimension of their religiosity.

Figure 13.14 Frequency of Prayer


Source: Data from Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2018). U.S. religious landscape survey. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

In addition to gender and age, the degree of religiosity also varies by race-ethnicity. For instance, when asked about their belief in God, 83% of African Americans stated that they believe in God with absolute certainty, compared to 61% of White Americans, 44% of Asian Americans and 59% of Latinos (Pew, 2018). Conversely, only 1% of African Americans do not believe in God, while 11% of White Americans, 19% of Asian Americans and 6% of Latinos do not believe (Pew, 2018). Similarly, 75% of African American adults state that religion is very important in their lives, while 59% of Latinos, 49% of White Americans and 36% of Asian Americans make this same claim (Pew, 2018). As you would expect, religious practice correlates with the above data, with African Americans having the highest rates of attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and participation in religious education groups (Pew, 2018).

When we try to determine why some people are more religious than others, we are treating religiosity as a dependent variable. But religiosity itself can also be an independent variable, as it affects attitudes on a wide range of social, political, and moral issues. Generally speaking, the more religious people are, the more conservative their attitudes in these areas (Adamczyk & Pitt, 2009). For instance, when surveyed, 62% if adults in the U.S. state that homosexuality should be accepted, while 31% say it should be discouraged. When examining conservative religious groups, such as evangelical Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, data shows significantly less tolerance for sexual orientation diversity, with 55% of evangelical Protestants, 76% of Jehovah’s Witnesses and 57% of Mormons stating that homosexuality should be discouraged (Pew, 2018). This data aligns closely with religious belief and practice. Of those who believe homosexuality should be discouraged, 84% believe in God with absolute certainty, 78% say religion is a very important part of their daily lives, 59% attend religious services at least one time per week and 76% pray on a daily basis. Similar data is found when people are surveyed regarding attitudes about same-sex marriage, abortion rights and human evolution, in that people belonging to conservative religions tend to oppose same-sex marriage and the legal right to an abortion, and believe in a creationist doctrine rather than in human evolution (Pew, 2018).

While religiosity can affect attitudes on various issues, it can also affect behavior and health. Researchers have found that involvement in religion, especially attendance at religious services, is positively associated with better physical and mental health, including lower rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and mortality (Ellison & Hummer, 2010; Green & Elliott, 2010). It is also linked to higher rates of happiness and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

These effects are thought to stem from several reasons. First, religious attendance increases social ties that provide emotional and practical support when someone has various problems and that also raise one’s self-esteem. Second, personal religious belief can provide spiritual comfort in times of trouble. Third, religious involvement promotes healthy lifestyles for at least some people, including lower use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, and reduces the frequency of other risky behaviors such as gambling and unsafe sex. Lower participation in all of these activities helps in turn to increase one’s physical and mental health.


Key Terms

Religiosity – the significance of religion in a person’s life.

Religious affiliation – a term that can mean actual membership in a church or synagogue, or just a stated identification with a particular religion whether or not someone actually belongs to a local house of worship.

Religious preference – another term for religious affiliation.


Continue to 13.11 Trends in Religious Belief and Activity


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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