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Religious belief in the United States fascinates people, because as a Western industrialized nation, the U.S. stands out both for the number of people who profess a religious affiliation and the intensity of their belief.
While there are some indications that certain groups are on the same downward trajectory of religious faith as in other developed countries, other studies confirm the importance of religion for Americans.
At times, however, there remain unanswered questions, such as a recent finding that Christians are an exception to the general rule that educational level correlates with a decline in religious belief and practice.
In 2015, the Pew Forum published a study showing a decline in American adults saying they believe in God and attending religious services, as well as praying on a daily basis. Pew was careful to point out that the U.S. still has a very high percentage of people describing themselves as religious compared to other industrialized nations, yet the decrease was significant.
The decline was mostly laid at the feet of the “nones” (those who have no religious affiliation, mostly Millenials). In that study, the percentage of those who have no religion, including those who say they are atheist or agnostic, rose to 23 percent from 17 percent in 2007.
There have been indications that “nones” in general are on the rise, and their beliefs will probably change similar studies.
The 2015 study appeared to show that people who described themselves as religious were, in essence, doubling down on just how religious they are, and participating in more activities such as Bible study. Therefore, the intensity of religious belief may make up some of the ground lost in the numbers of people claiming to be religious.
Recently, Pew also found something that might seem counter-intuitive. While those with college degrees are usually less religious, less likely to pray, and less likely to say they have a strong belief in God, Pew found that Christians, on average, seem to buck the trend.
Pew reports that, “among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.”
The study points out that respondents overwhelmingly classified themselves as Christian, or members of one of many Christian denominations.
The majority of “nones” reflected the basic assumption that the more educated a person becomes, the less religious they’re likely to be.
Julia Brumbaugh, an associate professor of religious studies at Regis University in Denver, wasn’t surprised when she saw the study on her Facebook feed. Though admitting she hadn’t read it thoroughly, she said the fact that Christians have historically “engaged with science, art and a holistic view of humanity” led her to believe academic advancement would have little effect on their religious commitment.
On the other hand, Timothy Miller, professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, says that he is “a little skeptical of the numbers.” He says that longstanding Gallup findings have weekly churchgoing a bit under 40 percent, so some of Pew’s study subjects saying they attend services might indicate “pious lying” in terms of people reporting they go to church when they actually don’t.
As people learned from the 2016 election, polling can be skewed by folks not reporting truthfully.
Miller says he thinks the Pew Forum does good work, “but it was a surprising finding.”
In response to doubts Miller raised, Pew’s Greg Smith, Associate Director of Religion Research, emailed Crux that “it is true that surveys which ask directly about attendance at religious services obtain higher estimates of weekly attendance than do alternative methods of estimating religious attendance. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that respondents are engaging in ‘pious lying.’”
Smith points to a footnote in the study that says when responding to a study question about how often they attend services, it is important to note that “respondents who say they attend every week may be indicating that they see themselves as the kind of people who regularly go to services, rather than that they never miss a week of church.”
Another Pew study from 2016 demonstrated that the most educated religious groups in the U.S. are Jews and Hindus, while a 2016 Pew global study showed that Hindus had less education than other religious traditions worldwide.
Most Hindus are concentrated in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, where the economic level of people is considerably lower than most Hindus in the U.S. This raises the question as to how much economics comes to play in a person’s religiosity as well as the education level.
Pew generally does not try to explain their findings other than giving general statements about what the study shows. Brumbaugh was surprised that at least in the case of Jewish Americans, the results weren’t similar to Christians, but theorized that perhaps the level of public ritual involved in Judaism makes the difference. It could be the same for Hindus.
It would seem more studies from various angles need to be done and examined before any concrete conclusions can be drawn. In terms of the reach and depth of “pious lying,” there may never be any way to quantify it fully, even if common sense dictates it’s probably there to at least some degree.
The Pew study can be found here.