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Americans avoid church but like religion

Americans avoid church but like religion

The latest Gallup Poll to look at the religiosity of Americans shows that Americans trust religious institutions at level not seen since the last low in 1970 while at the same time Americas appear to want what religion offers more than ever.

The editorial board at The Christian Science Monitor asks ‘what’s up with that?’

The latest poll, released Wednesday, shows the most negative public opinion toward the impact of religion since 1970….

“…In 1969 and 1970, with the Vietnam War raging in controversial fashion and with the cultural and sexual revolutions underway, and to a lesser degree at times in the 1990s, Americans held negative views similar to those they hold today,” wrote Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport in an analysis of the poll. “The degree to which these views changed during the Reagan years, and after 9/11, suggest that they could change again in the years ahead.”

This year’s poll also asked if society would be better if more Americans were religious. More than three-quarters said yes. Even a majority of those with little or no religious affiliation agreed. This suggests most people look to religion as a necessity during times of social change. Religion, in other words, may appear to gain respect to more people because it offers a comforting role or makes a case for personal sacrifice. Many people, either the faithful or those who are not, see it as both defining goodness and demonstrating it.

Could this be another take on the current “spiritual but nor religious” phenomenon or simply reflective of an overall mis-trust of anything institutional?

H/T Call and Response Blog


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Erik Campano

You’re welcome! It’s a fascinating topic.


That’s a very helpful summation, Erik: thanks!

JC Fisher

Erik Campano

This is a question we have been discussing at length at Patheos.

European polls don’t show the same opinion, namely, that it would be better if more people were religious. So it’s not like we can say that there’s something rooted in all human nature that yearns for the religious in ourselves and others. This varies considerably from society to society.

Nobody can answer your question for sure. However, I don’t think this is either a take on “SBNR” or a mistrust of anything institutional. Here’s just a different interpretation…

Americans fear each other more than Europeans. That makes sense, given, among other things, crime rates, income inequality, and the ability of the US company to fire workers at will. Hence…

Many Americans think: even though I don’t go to church, it would be better if others did, because then they’d be less of a threat to me. I.e., I don’t need religion (because I’m already a good person/it doesn’t make sense/I’d rather sleep in on Sundays/whatever), but other people do. In the United States, being religious means that you’re perceived as less of a threat, because you publicly identify as a person who supports goodness and morality and surround yourself at least once a week with other people who also publicly identify this way. Church people, for the most part, fit into predictable and relatively benign patterns of behavior (Westboro Baptist Church types excluded).

But at the same time, Americans distrust religious institutions (i.e., clergy and their colleagues, the people who run religion), for good reasons. Sex abuse scandals. Financial corruption. Charlatanry. Many Americans see the institution as preying on the parishioner (no pun intended) — particularly certain denominations, like Roman Catholicism and fundamentalist Evangelicals.

But they still would like to see others go, even in the knowledge that they might be being exploited. If it sounds like I’m characterizing Americans uncharitably, then consider all the other domains in which Americans are content to see their neighbors institutionally victimized. Rich parents pay to send send their kids to fancy schools while the next neighborhood over has crumbling public education. Millions of medically insured Americans aren’t willing to vote to guarantee health care for the rest. And so forth.


Actually, the Monitor a little misleading. If you look at the actual data , it is true that a majority of those to whom religion is important think that more religion in our common civic life would be a good thing.

However, a strong majority of people who do not consider religion important, think it would have a negative effect if there were MORE religion in our lives (by 54% to 31%.)

–Susan Forsburg

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