Expert Commentary

2012 General Social Survey: More Americans have no religious preference

2013 report from U.C. Berkeley and Duke University on the results of a long-running survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

From the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock to every football end-zone display of faith, religion is often seen an essential part of the American identity. Gallup polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans say they believe in God: 92% so did in 2011, down only slightly from the 96% who said yes in 1944.

This consistency is all the more remarkable given the changes that have roiled U.S. society over the last 20 years. In particular, a slight majority of Americans now favor gay marriage, and even the attitudes of evangelical leaders appear to have shifted over time. As the Millennial generation (born after 1980) continues to come of age, this trend seems likely to continue: 70% favor allowing gays to marry.

While Americans’ faith in a divine spirit has persisted, research has shown that their shifting views on social issues have been accompanied by a decline in an adherence to a specific religion. A 2013 report from scholars at the U.C. Berkeley and Duke University, “More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Key Finding from the 2012 General Social Survey,” analyzed data from the long-running project of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The GSS was first conducted in 1972, and asks a broad range of societal issues.

The U.C. Berkeley and Duke University scholars looked at the results of one specific question that the survey has asked for more than 40 years: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion or no religion?”

Key findings of the report include:

  • In 2012, 20% of American adults — one in five — said they had no religious preference. This compares to 5% in 1972 and 8% in 1990. The percentage began to increase sharply that year, reaching 14% in 2000 and 18% in 2010, and the upward trend continued in the most recent survey. “We find no evidence of a slowdown,” the researchers write. The overall rate of increase in the “no religion” preference is 0.6 percentage points per year.
  • “While 20% of adults currently have no religious preference, only 8% were raised without one.”
  • “The upward trend in the ‘no religion’ choice is very broad. While some types of Americans identify with an organized religion less than others, Americans in almost every demographic group increasingly claim ‘no religion’ since the trend began to accelerate in 1990.”
  • “Women in 2012 were less likely than men to prefer no religion — 16% compared to 24%. Both groups changed significantly compared to 1990. Women’s percentage preferring no religion was 10 percentage points higher than that of women in 1990; men’s was 14 percentage points higher than in 1990.”
  • “Whites are generally less religious than either African Americans or Mexican Americans. That generalization holds with respect to having a religious preference. In 2012, 21% of whites, 17% of African Americans, and 14% of Mexican Americans had no religious preference.”
  • “Younger Americans are much less likely to state a religious preference than are their elders. Among 18-to-24 year olds, 32% prefer no religion; among people 75 years old and over, only 7% prefer no religion. The biggest gap in the age pattern is the 10 percentage-point difference between 25-to-34 year olds, 29% of whom prefer no religion, and 35-to-44 year olds, 19% of whom prefer no religion.”
  • “The younger age groups are changing significantly faster than older groups, as we see when we compare the rate of change between 1990 and 2012. Having no religious preference increased 22 points among 18-24 year olds but less than 10 points among people 55 years old and over. We suspect that these age differences will not diminish as the people in them age.”
  • “The preference for no religion varies modestly across educational levels from 16% of high school dropouts to 24% of people with advanced degrees. The differences by education were larger in 2012 than in 1990 when there was no significant pattern by education.”
  • “People in the Mountain and Pacific regions as well as those in Northeastern states more often answered no religion than did people in the Midwest, while the southerners expressed the most religious attachment. The range was from 28% in the Mountain states to 15% in the South.”
  • “Forty percent of liberals expressed no religious preference — twice the national rate of 20% and 25 percentage points higher than in 1990. Political conservatives, on the other hand, have registered only the slightest drift away from organized religion, increasing from 5% to 9% preferring no religion.”
  • Atheism remains rare; in 2012, just 3% of Americans said they did not believe in God.
  • While the majority of Americans still unambiguously believe in God, the percentage is declining: In 2012, 59% agreed with the statement, “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it.” In 1991, the figure was 64%, a significant decrease.

“In short, the certainty of believing in God decreased more between 1965 and 1991 than since, while preference for no religion barely changed from 1965 to 1990, then almost tripled since 1991,” the researchers state. “This asymmetrical timing of changes indicates that the connection between faith in God and identifying with an organized faith, if there is one, is far from simple.”

Related research: A 2009 study from the University of Iowa, “’And Who Is My Neighbor?’: Religion and Immigration Policy Attitudes,” looks at the attitudes of religious voters on immigration policies and what role the moral convictions of religious leaders play. For more detailed information on the views of Americans, see the surveys done by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Keywords: religion, gay issues

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