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Poll: Religious attendance is shrinking but those who remain are happy


(RNS) — For American religion in recent years, the story has often been one of decline.

A shrinking number of Americans — 16 percent — say religion is the most important thing in their lives, down from 20 percent in 2013. And nearly 3 in 10 — or 29 percent — say religion is not important to them at all, up from 19 percent 10 years ago. Those are among the findings in a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute on religion and congregations fielded in 2022 and published Tuesday (May 16).

The survey of 5,872 American adults finds that 57 percent seldom or never attend religious services (compared with 45 percent in 2019). And some of those who do are restless. The survey finds that 24 percent of Americans said they now belong to a religious congregation other than the one they grew up in; that’s up from 16 percent in 2021.

But among those who remain churchgoers, there’s a happier story, too.

Most churchgoers across Christian traditions — 59 percent — have attended their current church for more than 10 years, revealing remarkable stability.

An overwhelming number of regular attenders — 82 percent — say they are optimistic about the future of their congregation. And a whopping 89 percent say they are proud to be associated with their church.

“What struck me about the findings is the paradox,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of PRRI. “We see continued declines in the role of religion. But for those who attend regularly they seem pretty happy and satisfied, even proud of their congregations.”

Americans who attend church at least a few times a year are slightly more likely than those who seldom or never attend church to be civically or politically active. The survey shows they are more likely to have contacted a government official (23 percent vs. 19 percent), served on a committee (17 percent vs. 10 percent), or volunteered for a political campaign (7 percent vs. 4 percent).

Higher levels of civic engagement are particularly strong for Black and Hispanic churchgoers. White Americans tend to be more politically engaged than nonwhites, regardless of whether they attend church.

The survey also asked Americans what subjects they hear about from the pulpit. Most churchgoers reported poverty and inequality, followed by racism and abortion. Election fraud and Donald Trump were among the surveyed subjects least discussed. Only around 1 in 10 churchgoers said their church sometimes or often discusses the former president (8 percent) or election and voter fraud (11 percent).

In addition, 56 percent of churchgoers surveyed don’t think their churches are more politically divided than five years ago (13 percent say they are more divided).

And while 71 percent of churchgoers identified in the survey said their congregations should provide perspectives on social issues, only 45 percent agreed with the statement “Congregations should get involved in social issues.” (Black churchgoers were the exception — 63 percent said churches should get involved.)

“There’s still a hunger to hear about social issues, as long as it’s not challenging conversation,” said Deckman. That may make some sense, she added, because “most people go to church for spiritual reasons,” not political reasons.

The survey did find a growing number of people switching their religion — now about a quarter of all Americans. Catholics appeared to be the biggest losers in this game of musical chairs.

Among Americans who left their religious tradition, 37 percent say they were formerly Catholic, more than any other group. The survey also found that among mainline Protestants, 46 percent were previously Catholic, and among Black Hispanic and Asian Protestants, 42 percent are formerly Catholic.

Catholics also scored poorly on the question of whether religion is important to them. White Catholics were twice as likely in 2022 as they were in 2013 to say religion is not important (16 percent vs. 7 percent), and this gap is larger among Hispanic Catholics (13 percent vs. 2 percent).

The survey was fielded in August 2022. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.86 percentage points.