How Being Religious Affects Us
September 5, 2018 - September 6, 2022
A new Pew Research Center study of the ways religion influences the daily lives of Americans finds that people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives.
Highly religious adults not distinctive in interpersonal interactions, health, social consciousnessFor example, nearly half of highly religious Americans – defined as those who say they pray every day and attend religious services each week – gather with extended family at least once or twice a month.1 By comparison, just three-in-ten Americans who are less religious gather as frequently with their extended families. Roughly two-thirds of highly religious adults (65%) say they have donated money, time or goods to help the poor in the past week, compared with 41% who are less religious. And 40% of highly religious U.S. adults describe themselves as “very happy,” compared with 29% of those who are less religious.
These differences are found not only in the U.S. adult population as a whole but also within a variety of religious traditions (such as between Catholics who are highly religious and those who are less religious), and they persist even when controlling for other factors, including age, income, education, geographic region of residence, marital status and parental status.
However, in several other areas of day-to-day life – including interpersonal interactions, attention to health and fitness, and social and environmental consciousness – Pew Research Center surveys find that people who pray every day and regularly attend religious services appear to be very similar to those who are not as religious.2
For instance, highly religious people are about as likely as other Americans to say they lost their temper recently, and they are only marginally less likely to say they told a white lie in the past week. When it comes to diet and exercise, highly religious Americans are no less likely to have overeaten in the past week, and they are no more likely to say they exercise regularly. Highly religious people also are no more likely than other Americans to recycle their household waste. And when making decisions about what goods and services to buy, they are no more inclined to consider the manufacturers’ environmental records or whether companies pay employees a fair wage.
These are among the latest findings of Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Study. The study and this report were made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support for the project from Lilly Endowment Inc.
Two previous reports on the Landscape Study, based on a 2014 telephone survey of more than 35,000 adults, examined the changing religious composition of the U.S. public and described the religious beliefs, practices and experiences of Americans. This new report also draws on the national telephone survey but is based primarily on a supplemental survey among 3,278 participants in the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative group of randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online and by mail. The supplemental survey was designed to go beyond traditional measures of religious behavior – such as worship service attendance, prayer and belief in God – to examine the ways people exhibit (or do not exhibit) their religious beliefs, values and connections in their day-to-day lives.3
Belief in God, gratitude, forgiveness and honesty top ‘essentials’ of what it means to be a ChristianTo help explore this question, the survey asked U.S. adults whether each of a series of 16 beliefs and behaviors is “essential,” “important but not essential,” or “not important” to what their religion means to them, personally.
Among Christians, believing in God tops the list, with fully 86% saying belief in God is “essential” to their Christian identity. In addition, roughly seven-in-ten Christians say being grateful for what they have (71%), forgiving those who have wronged them (69%) and always being honest (67%) are essential to being Christian. Far fewer say that attending religious services (35%), dressing modestly (26%), working to protect the environment (22%) or resting on the Sabbath (18%) are essential to what being Christian means to them, personally.
The survey posed similar questions to members of non-Christian faiths and religiously unaffiliated Americans (sometimes called religious “nones”), asking whether various behaviors are essential to “what being a moral person means to you.”4 Among the unaffiliated, honesty (58%) and gratitude (53%) are the attributes most commonly seen as essential to being a moral person. (Findings about non-Christians are discussed in more detail at the end of Chapter 2.)
The survey shows a clear link between what people see as essential to their faith and their self-reported day-to-day behavior. Simply put, those who believe that behaving in a particular way or performing certain actions are key elements of their faith are much more likely to say they actually perform those actions on a regular basis.
For example, among Christians who say that working to help the poor is essential to what being Christian means to them, about six-in-ten say they donated time, money or goods to help the poor in the past week. By comparison, fewer Christians who do not see helping the poor as central to their religious identity say they worked to help the poor during the previous week (42%).
The same pattern is seen in the survey’s questions about interpersonal interactions, health and social consciousness. Relatively few Christians see living a healthy lifestyle, buying from companies that pay fair wages or protecting the environment as key elements of their faith. But those who do see these things as essential to what it means to be a Christian are more likely than others to say they live a healthy lifestyle (by exercising, for example), consider how a company treats its employees and the environment when making purchasing decisions, or attempt to recycle or reduce waste as much as possible.
Of course, survey data like these cannot prove that believing certain actions are obligatory for Christians actually causes Christians to behave in particular ways. The causal arrow could point in the other direction: It may be easier for those who regularly engage in particular behaviors to cite those behaviors as essential to their faith. Conversely, it may be harder for those who do not regularly engage in particular activities (such as helping the poor) to describe those activities as essential to their faith. Nevertheless, the survey data suggest that Christians are more likely to live healthy lives, work on behalf of the poor and behave in environmentally conscious ways if they consider these things essential to what it means to be a Christian.