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Religious Diversity May Be Making America Less Religious

In the United States, diversity has generally been considered an asset. It is frequently cited by public figures as both a source of national pride and a worthy ambition. It is an oft-stated goal of Fortune 500 companies, private colleges and entire sectors of the U.S. economy. And even if Americans don’t claim much diversity in their own social networks, few believe that our differences are not something to be celebrated. At one point it was even argued that America’s religious vitality hinged on its diversity — greater competition between places of worship would contribute to a more vibrant religious culture. However, new evidence suggests that religious pluralism could work in the opposite direction — undermining the vitality of America’s religious communities.

This is not a new debate, but it’s more relevant than ever. The American religious landscape is transforming rapidly. At one time, religious diversity meant: Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian. Today, it encompasses a multiplicity of religious traditions such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as an increasing variety of noninstitutional belief systems such as humanism, skepticism, atheism and subjective spirituality. Racial and ethnic shifts have also changed the face of Christianity. The U.S. was once a predominantly white Christian country, but fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) identify as white Christian today.

We don’t know for sure that America’s religious pluralism is causing a drop in religious vitality — there are reasons to think the two might simply be related — but there are a number of different ways diversity might erode commitment. The practical effect of rising religious diversity is to expose Americans to ideas and views that could challenge their religious beliefs. A recent survey found that 77 percent of Americans are acquainted with someone who is nonreligious, 61 percent know someone who is Jewish and 38 percent know someone who is Muslim. The widening array of religious beliefs and identities also challenges long-held understandings of America’s Christian heritage and religious character that can reinforce a commitment to religion. This weakening of America’s religious consensus means there is far less social pressure to conform to religious norms. For young people coming of age today, America’s Christian heritage is no longer a given, and being Christian is not viewed as a critical component of national identity.1

Geographically, states with greater religious variety tend to exhibit lower levels of overall religiosity.2 No state is more religiously uniform than Mississippi. It is a place where, as my colleague and native Mississippian Robert Jones once said: “It’s hard to swing a dead cat without hitting a Baptist.” And this is not far from the truth. Half of the state’s population identifies as Baptist and 54 percent are evangelical Protestant. No other state is so singularly dominated by a single faith tradition. It’s probably no coincidence that Mississippi is also one of the few states with constitutions that prohibit atheists from serving in elected office. According to Gallup’s 2016 rankings of the most and least religious states, Mississippi has the honor of being the most religious state in the country.3 In contrast, Oregon ranks high in terms of religious diversity — no one religious tradition makes up more than 20 percent of the state’s population — and falls near the bottom in Gallup’s ranking. Only four states are less religious.

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Diversity within our immediate social networks may also serve to weaken our ties to a religious community or strengthen our resolve to remain unattached. Much of what we do, what we think, and how we understand the world is influenced by those around us. Americans who report greater religious diversity in their social networks demonstrate much less regular religious involvement.4 A new analysis based on a PRRI study of Americans’ social networks found that Americans who report greater religious diversity among their close friends and family are less likely to engage in religious activities. Sixty-three percent of Americans who have religiously diverse social networks say they seldom or never attend religious services, compared with only about one-third (32 percent) of those who count coreligionists as their closest friends and family members. This is true for religious Americans as well. In fact, even when controlling for different demographic attributes, including religious identity, Americans with more religiously diverse social networks demonstrate lower rates of religious participation and are less apt to say religion is important in their lives than other Americans.

SHARE THAT ATTEND RELIGIOUS SERVICES
ATTENDANCE HIGH RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY LOW RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
More than once a week 8%
13%
Once a week 10
25
Once or twice a month 7
10
A few times a year 13
18
Seldom 28
19
Never 35
13
People with more religiously diverse social networks attend religious services less often

From survey conducted Sept. 21 – Oct. 3, 2013 of 2,317 adults

Source: PRRI

Religious diversity could even subvert our initial exposure to religion. Religiously mixed marriages are more common than ever, and Americans raised by parents of different faiths report much lower levels of religious activity in childhood than those raised in religiously unified households.5 Nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) Americans raised by parents who shared the same religious background say they attended religious services weekly or more often. Only 40 percent of Americans raised in religiously mixed households report attending services regularly as children. Americans raised in mixed religious households are also less likely to have prayed regularly with their family and to have attended Sunday school.

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Of course, it is possible that religious diversity is not directly precipitating a decline in religious identity and engagement. Parents of different faith backgrounds might de-emphasize religious activities in an effort to reduce conflict in the home — a phenomenon supported by social network theory — but it might also be that people who marry outside their particular denomination or tradition care less about their religious identity in the first place. Similarly, Americans may cultivate religiously diverse social connections because their own religious beliefs are less important. Religiously diverse states might attract more secular residents because they offer a more accepting and tolerant religious climate. And yet, it is difficult to imagine that weakening social pressure and greater exposure to diverse religious perspectives, including those that are critical of religion, would have no effect on the decisions we make about our own religious lives.

Diversity is now simply a fact of American religious life. It does not signal the end of religion, but it may make it easier for Americans to abstain from religious involvement and encourage other types of spiritual and philosophical explorations. It may also make atheists more willing to “come out,” something that can be exceedingly difficult especially in very religious communities. Organized religion has never been in jeopardy of dying out due to a single traumatic event. Instead, it is a cumulative series of unanswered challenges that pose the greatest risk. Religious diversity might not represent a dramatic threat to religion, but it may represent another small hole in an already sinking ship.

Footnotes

  1. A 2015 PRRI study found that only 35 percent of young adults say that being Christian is an important part of being American, although this is the prevailing view among America’s seniors; 66 percent of seniors say Christian identity is critical to being American. And only about half (52 percent) said a belief in God was fundamental to American identity.
  2. The religious diversity for each state was calculated using the Herfindahl-Hirschman index, one of the most commonly used measures of diversity.
  3. A separate measure of religiosity computed by the Pew Research Center has Mississippi tied with Alabama as the most religious state in the U.S. See: Lipka, Michael and Benjamin Wormald. “How religious is your state?” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.: Feb. 29, 2016.
  4. Social networks were measured using an egocentric network design that asks respondents to identify up to seven people with whom they discussed “important matters” during the previous six months. Respondents were then asked to provide information about the characteristics of each social connection. The religious diversity of social networks was defined by calculating the average number of social contacts whose religious identity differed from the respondent and dividing that figure by the average size of their overall social network. Americans with networks characterized by high religious diversity are those for whom the majority of the members of their network have a dissimilar religious identity.
  5. In an effort to reduce possible confounding factors, this analysis included only Americans raised in two-parent households that included a mother and father.

Daniel Cox is the research director at PRRI.

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