Topbar search

Affiliation Matters

The latest Pew Religious Landscape Survey is full of interesting insights into changes occurring in American religion. As I look at these survey results, here are a few of the things I’ve noted.

On most measures of religiosity (prayer, attendance, belief, etc.), those who are in the “affiliated” camp are just as observant and believing as they were in 2007. The changes, as Pew points out, are happening because of two reinforcing trends: More Americans are in the “unaffiliated” camp, and those unaffiliated people are becoming less believing, less attending, and generally more “secular.”

This overall trend is driven by generational replacement. While some young unaffiliates may become more religious as they grow older, they show every sign of being rather stable in their non-religious lives. With over half of their generational compatriots attending religious services yearly or less, they do not live in a world that pushes them toward affiliation the way 1950s baby boom families were pushed toward congregational doors.

Are they still “spiritual”? The survey finds that close to half of the unaffiliated claim to experience a deep sense of wonder about the universe or a feeling of spiritual peace. About a quarter of them claim to meditate, and about that many say they pray regularly. A sizeable portion of the unaffiliated, then, are not tone deaf to some sort of spiritual belief and practice. BUT, on all of those measures, people who attend services are far more likely to give positive responses. My research would lead me to say that the longer a person remains in the unaffiliated and non-attending camp, the less likely they will be to report these spiritual beliefs and practices. In other words, the “spirituality” of the nones isn’t different in kind from the “religiosity” of those who are involved with a religious group. Rather, it is something of a residual that may very well disappear when not reinforced by participation with other spiritual people.

What does almost everyone agree about? That religious groups are good for society! Very sizeable majorities say they bring people together and help the needy, and that view is held by unaffiliated people almost as strongly (about 80%) as it is by the affiliated (about 90%).

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org