Is religion less important than it used to be?

Is religion less important now than it used to be? There are many ways to think of this question. For example, is religion less important in politics, in local communities, in education, in community life, and so forth. However, one critical feature of the importance of religion regards its importance to individual people.

Since 1986, the New York Times, CBS, Gallup, and several other groups have surveyed Americans about the importance of religion. In particular, they have asked Americans the following question: “How important is religion in your daily life? Is it extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not at all important?”

This question has been asked more than 50 times over a 25-year period, which gives a sense of how Americans have changed on this issue.

In the latest survey, collected in February 2011, 26% of respondents reported that religion is “extremely important to them,” 25% said “very important,” 33% said “somewhat important,” and 14% said “not at all important.” As such, about of Americans experience religion as highly important in their lives (i.e., “extremely” or “very”). About one-third hold it as marginally important (i.e., “somewhat”), and the rest not important.

To understand how this has changed over time, I have plotted answers to this survey question over the past 25 years. (I averaged across surveys when multiple surveys asked this question in a given year. Also, this question wasn’t asked in every year). The results are shown in the following figure.

(Click to enlarge)

As shown in this figure, the number of Americans who view religion as not at all important in their daily life held steady from 1985 to about 2003 at around 8-9%. Since then, however, it has risen steadily to 14% in 2011.

At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of Americans who view religion as extremely important in their daily lives has also increased. In the 1980s, only 21%-22% of Americans viewed religion as extremely important. This percentage increased steadily over the next to decades, to where it’s now at 26%–a change almost as large as the increase in Americans who view religion as not at all important.

Religion as moderately to strongly important. Through 2007, at least, the percentage of Americans who viewed religion as “very” important said steady at about 33%. However, the percentage who viewed it as “somewhat” important dropped, from the most frequently-given answer, 36% in 1986, to only 22% in 2007. In 2010 and 2011, however, the percentage of “very” dropped considerably and the percentage of “somewhat” has risen. It’s too early to tell if this is a robust trend.

A more simple examination compares 1986 to 2011.

Extremely important  22% 26%
Very important           34% 25%
Somewhat important  36% 33%
Not important at all     8% 14%

From these data, several trends seem to emerge.

1) Over the past 25 years, Americans are more polarized regarding the importance of religion. More Americans view it as not at all important in their daily lives, and more Americans view it as extremely important.
2) For the most part, the increase in viewing religion as not at all important has come at the expense of those who view it as somewhat important. In other words, some of the people who view religion as moderately important as downgrading it to not important at all.
3) The last two years *may* represent a change in the importance of religion. While the most devout religious people (i.e., “extremely important) hold on to their beliefs, there is a significant drop in those who religion as “very” important, with these people appearing to transition to viewing it as only “somewhat” important. It’s too early to tell, however, whether this is a robust long-term trend. If it is, it could portend further polarization—as the middle ground of religious importance disappears.

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