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Secularism is on the rise, but Americans are still finding community and purpose in spirituality

Where are Americans turning for what religion has traditionally provided? We asked them.

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American secularism is on the rise.

Twenty-four percent of Americans don’t affiliate with any religion, according to a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey, which is up 8 percentage points in the past five years. Nowhere is the trend away from religion greater than in younger generations, where more than a third of people ages 18 to 29 are unaffiliated compared to just over 10 percent of people ages 65 and up.

But without religion — traditionally a source of community, purpose, and moral teaching — how are unaffiliated Americans filling this void? Some have suggested that increasingly tribal political identities have taken the traditional space of religion, along with fitness and exercise classes, and “workism” or careerism. Others think we simply might not be replacing organized religion with anything in particular, making us lonelier and more disconnected.

In a recent survey of more than 2,000 Americans ages 18 to 65-plus with Vox First Person and Morning Consult, we set out to find an answer. We asked people where they currently stand on religious or spiritual beliefs, and where they feel the strongest sense of community and purpose.

Their answers revealed that most Americans organize their communities and sense of identity around their family unit, though religious institutions followed closely behind. Our survey also revealed that work, hobbies, or political affiliation matter on average much less to people than their spiritual beliefs or family.

Overall, most Americans still feel connected to a higher being or spiritual belief. Religious attendance may be dwindling, but people are still interested in finding community and purpose through faith of some kind.

Here are the full results of our survey.

Family and friends provide the biggest sense of community

Friends and family were the top source of community for respondents, at 80 and 78 percent, respectively, but religion and spirituality were the next most common. “I get a sense of purpose and a worldview I can use as a lens to see the world around me,” said Kevin Thomas, a 38-year-old Roman Catholic from New York who participated in the poll. He attends weekly church or religious meetups about his faith. “The other big piece of that is belonging to a community that cares about each other and being part of something that’s larger than myself.”

Following closely behind religion were the 42 percent of people who identified work as a place of community. Only around 18 percent of people identified politics and political activism as a communal source for them.

We also wanted to know what kinds of social or ritualistic activities people participate in regularly that might provide purpose, community, or identity. Exercise classes were the activity that most people attended once a week or more, with gaming (defined as video game or board game) meetups ranking next. Recreational sports team games, hanging out at a local bar, or a discussion group or meetup for a hobby all tied for third.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Family and friends ranked highest for giving people a sense of purpose. Work and politics ranked lowest.

Most people said they derive the most sense of purpose from their friends, family, and romantic relationships.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

We also wanted to know where people turned for guidance when facing a major life decision or crisis. Family and romantic partner ranked highest, at 51 percent and 48 percent, with God or a higher power coming up next at 44 percent. Work mentor and therapist or counselor were ranked much lower, with only 8 percent and 4 percent, respectively, identifying these figures as sources of advice.

People identify more as spiritual than religious

The vast majority — 77 percent — of people we surveyed said they believe in a god or higher being. But how that belief takes form varied.

At 56 percent, a slim majority of people considered themselves very or somewhat religious. But many more considered themselves “spiritual” — 70 percent of participants said they were very or somewhat spiritual. Of those surveyed, about a third were Christian, while 8 percent considered themselves atheist or agnostic and 19 percent identified as no religion in particular.

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People who identify as “spiritual” are a growing group in the United States, and, as Tara Isabella Burton reported for Vox, that can take on a variety of meanings. Generally, though, those who identify as spiritual believe in some kind of connection to a higher purpose or being but do not participate regularly in organized religion.

For John White, a 71-year-old from Wisconsin, being spiritual means “just believing in something bigger than yourself.” White, who left the evangelical Baptist Church and later the Presbyterian Church because he didn’t like the institution of religion, said that being spiritual “is about worshipping a being, while knowing that there are different religions throughout the world and they can’t all be wrong.”

Bill Dame, who is 69 and lives in Kansas, doesn’t attend church but tries to “treat people decent,” which he said is all God wants. “I don’t really pray, not in the sense of falling on my knees or anything like that,” he said. “But when certain things happen in your life, difficult things, [I] ask God, ‘What did you do that for? Why are you doing this to me?’ Or, ‘Help me out here, will you?’”

People who left their religion say it happened naturally

Of the people who left the religion they were raised with, most said it happened naturally over time or that they became more spiritual rather than religious. But about a quarter of respondents also mentioned that they left their religion because they were uncomfortable with the direction of the institution.

Dame said he became less religious because he felt the churches he attended did not live up to the values they preached. “I just think most of them are hypocrites,” he said. “And with the Catholics and all that sexual abuse stuff, I’m really upset about that. But the church, they won’t do anything to stop it.”

Twenty-four percent said they didn’t like the institution of religion and/or that they felt their religion focused too much on power and politics. Fourteen percent specifically identified sexual abuse scandals as a reason they left their religion.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Of those who left the religion they were raised with, 63 percent said it happened sometime before they turned 25.

For people who indicated they no longer identify with a religion, we asked what would make them want to get involved again. They told us community and a sense of purpose.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

K-12 is the place where most people met their closest friend

We asked people about how many people they would consider their close friends. Fifty-three percent told us they had about one to three close friends, with 28 percent choosing four to six. Only about 6 percent said they had either zero or more than 10.

We also asked about the setting in which these friendships formed. Most people told us K-12 school, while only 4 percent said they had met their closest friend through their religious community. “I work so much and I go to school and have a family, so I don’t have a whole lot of time for a social life. Most of the relationships I’ve built from a friend perspective was early on,” said Jerimiah Kent, 33, who lives in upstate New York.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Most people are pretty happy

We rounded out the survey by asking people to give a general sense of their happiness and loneliness level, on a scale from 1 to 5. People clustered on the generally happy end of the spectrum, with 62 percent of respondents rating themselves a 4 or 5, with 5 meaning “very happy.”

Our survey results showed similar responses on the question of loneliness. Fifty-four percent of respondents rated themselves a 4 or 5, with 5 meaning they consider themselves not lonely at all.

However, more people told us they were lonely than unhappy. Nineteen percent of respondents rated themselves a 1 (very lonely) or 2, while only 12 percent of respondents said they were a 1 (very unhappy) or 2.

“I don’t miss [religion],” said Dame. “I just try to live a good and decent life. I’ve got my set of values, of course — but I try to do right by everyone.”

Why did you no longer identify with the religion you were raised in? What does “spiritual, but not religious” mean to you? Where are you finding community and purpose outside of religion? Tell us more here.


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