A new way to categorize Americans by religion

A new way to categorize Americans by religion

The FINANCIAL -- Most U.S. adults identify with a particular religious denomination or group. They describe themselves as Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Mormon or Muslim– to name just a few of the hundreds of identities or affiliations that people give in surveys.

Others describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or say they have no particular religious affiliation. These are the conventional categories into which Americans sort themselves. But a new Pew Research Center analysis looks at beliefs and behaviors that cut across many denominations – important traits that unite people of different faiths, or that divide people who have the same religious affiliation – producing a new and revealing classification, or typology, of religion in America.

The new typology sorts Americans into seven groups based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives.

Race, ethnicity, age, education and political opinions were not among the characteristics used to create the groups. Yet some of the groups have strong partisan leanings or distinctive demographic profiles, illuminating the intrinsic connections between religion, race and politics in America.

About the names …

The names of the typology groups try to convey distinguishing characteristics in just a few words. Of course, no name this brief can perfectly describe a group, and some license was taken in choosing them. For example, “Sunday Stalwarts” includes some highly religious people (such as Jews, Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists) who do not observe the Sabbath on Sunday. However, nine-in-ten respondents who fall into this group identify with Christian churches that generally hold services on Sunday.

Similarly, the broader group categories – highly religious, somewhat religious and nonreligious – are meant to convey general characteristics about the subgroups they comprise. For example, while God-and-Country Believers and the Diversely Devout are less likely than Sunday Stalwarts to participate in weekly worship, they are all categorized as highly religious due to similar beliefs, prayer habits, and ways they view and interact with God, among other factors.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Solidly Secular are the least religious of the seven groups. These relatively affluent, highly educated U.S. adults – mostly white and male – tend to describe themselves as neither religious nor spiritual and to reject all New Age beliefs as well as belief in the God of the Bible. In fact, many do not believe in a higher power at all. Religion Resisters, on the other hand, largely do believe in some higher power or spiritual force (but not the God of the Bible), and many have some New Age beliefs and consider themselves spiritual but not religious. At the same time, members of this group express strongly negative views of organized religion, saying that churches have too much influence in politics and that, overall, religion does more harm than good. Both of these nonreligious typology groups are generally liberal and Democratic in their political views.

The middle two groups straddle the border between the highly religious and the nonreligious. Seven-in-ten Relaxed Religious Americans say they believe in the God of the Bible, and four-in-ten pray daily. But relatively few attend religious services or read scripture, and they almost unanimously say it is not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. All Spiritually Awake Americans hold at least some New Age beliefs (views rejected by most of the Relaxed Religious) and believe in God or some higher power, though many do not believe in the biblical God and relatively few attend religious services on a weekly basis.

Although traditional religious affiliation categories were not used as a determining factor in making the typology groups, it is nonetheless illuminating to look at each group’s religious composition. While there are clear patterns across the groups, no typology group is uniform in its religious affiliation. This shows that members of widely disparate religious traditions sometimes have a lot in common: Sunday Stalwarts, for instance, are largely Protestant, but also include Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others.

Among the highly religious typology groups, the religious identity profiles of Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country Believers are very similar. Majorities in each group are Protestant, and evangelical Protestantism constitutes the single largest religious tradition in both groups. Compared with Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers include more Catholics (24% vs. 13%) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (8% vs. 1%), and somewhat fewer Mormons (less than 1% vs. 5%).

A majority of the Solidly Secular (76%) and Religion Resisters (71%) are unaffiliated, including one-in-five in each group who describe themselves as agnostic. Religion Resisters are more likely than the Solidly Secular to describe their religion as “nothing in particular” (45% vs. 23%), while the Solidly Secular are more likely than Religion Resisters to describe themselves as atheists (31% vs. 6%).

Like the highly religious groups, the somewhat religious groups are mostly composed of Christians. There are more evangelicals among the Relaxed Religious than among the Spiritually Awake (25% vs. 16%), and more religious “nones” among the Spiritually Awake than among the Relaxed Religious (30% vs. 17%).

Among the other striking patterns in the typology:

Only the Sunday Stalwarts make a weekly habit of attending religious services, reading scriptureOutside of the Sunday Stalwarts, relatively few Americans – even those who otherwise hold strong religious beliefs – frequently attend religious services or read scripture. About eight-in-ten Sunday Stalwarts attend religious services at least once a week – three times greater than the share of frequent attenders among God-and-Country Believers, and roughly seven times larger than the proportion of the Diversely Devout who are as observant. A similar pattern exists among the groups in the share who regularly read the Bible or other holy scriptures.

The Solidly Secular are the only group that includes sizable numbers who say they do not believe in God or any kind of higher power. Even among the Religion Resisters, who generally view religious institutions with great skepticism, the vast majority believe in some higher power or spiritual force (though not necessarily in the biblical depiction of God). By contrast, across all five groups that are either highly religious or somewhat religious, there is broad agreement that God exists and has characteristics such as being all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful. Large majorities in these five groups also say they talk to God.

Even among the most traditionally religious groups, some people hold New Age beliefsNew Age beliefs are common, even among Americans who are highly religious in traditional ways. For example, about three-in-ten Sunday Stalwarts believe in psychics, and a similar share say that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects such as mountains, trees and crystals. Smaller shares believe in reincarnation and astrology. Overall, half of Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country Believers and nearly all of the Diversely Devout affirm at least one of these four New Age beliefs. One of these items was among the characteristics used to create the groups, and it helps define the boundaries of the two somewhat religious typology groups, as well as the two nonreligious groups: Nearly all of the Spiritually Awake and Religion Resisters believe there is spiritual energy in physical objects, while virtually none of the Relaxed Religious or the Solidly Secular do.

Americans draw meaning and fulfillment from many different sources – not only from their families, friends and careers, but also from being in the great outdoors, taking care of pets, listening to music and reading. Still, about two-thirds of Sunday Stalwarts say their religious faith is the single most important source of meaning in their lives. While roughly half or more in the two other highly religious groups also say they draw a great deal of meaning from their faith, far fewer say it is the most important source. Family time ranks as the top source of meaning in life for most of the groups.

Although no political measures were used to create the typology, arraying the groups from most to least religious also effectively sorts Americans by party identification and political ideology. Republicans make up a majority of Sunday Stalwarts and God-and-Country Believers, while even larger majorities of Democrats comprise the two nonreligious groups. Similarly, self-described conservatives prevail among the two most religious groups, while, by comparison, the two nonreligious groups lean left.

Can you be moral without believing in God? For more than 2,000 years, that question has sparked an energetic debate among religious thinkers.

And just as the question has divided scholars and philosophers, it is a key determinant of the seven typology groups, marking the border separating the highly religious from the other groups. For the three highly religious groups (Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers and the Diversely Devout), the answer is clear: Belief in God is a prerequisite for being a good person. By contrast, overwhelming majorities in the somewhat religious and nonreligious groups are united in the opposite view: It is not necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral and have good values.

Why a religious typology? And how were the groups defined?

In most surveys about religion, including those conducted by Pew Research Center, researchers analyze the data by dividing the respondents into commonly understood categories, such as Catholics, Jews and Muslims.

The survey was conducted online Dec. 4 to 18, 2017, among 4,729 members of the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults (18 and older) recruited from landline and cellphone random-digit-dial surveys.