In the US, Americans seem to get more spiritual, but signs show they become less religious

Photo: REUTERS / Chris Keane
Signs in support of atheism are seen during the "Rock Beyond Belief" festival at Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina March 31, 2012. The atheist-themed festival drew hundreds of people to Fort Bragg on Saturday for what was believed to be the first-ever event held on a U.S. military base for service members who do not have religious beliefs. Organizers said they hoped the "Rock Beyond Belief" event at Fort Bragg would spur equal treatment toward nonbelievers in the armed forces and help lift the stigma for approximately 295,000 active duty personnel who consider themselves atheist, agnostic or without a religious preference.

Most Americans are spiritual or religious in a way and many also say their spirituality and level of religiosity have changed over time, but is this growing or declining?

Americans are far more likely to say they have become more spiritual than to say they have become more religious, a new analysis of a 2023 Pew Research Center survey shows.

It says Americans are more likely to say their spirituality has grown than declined.

Some 41 percent of U.S. adults said they had grown more spiritual over their lifetimes, compared with 24% who said they had become more religious.

In contrast, 13 percent of U.S. adults said they had become less spiritual over time, while 33 percent said they became less religious.

The rest said their spirituality and level of religiosity either stayed the same or fluctuated – sometimes increasing and at other times decreasing.

Pew asked respondents how their spirituality and religiosity changed as part of a wider U.S. study that explored the concept of spirituality and how it differs from religion.

It did not define the words "spiritual" or "religious" in the survey, nor did it ask whether any changes in spirituality or religiosity were part of a gradual long-term shift, a sudden dramatic one or something else.

However, Pew's broader study did ask respondents to describe, in their own words, what the word "spirituality" means to them.

Roughly a 25 percent described being tied to organized religion – for example, citing a belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or other elements of Christian theology.

About a third of respondents offered responses that Pew categorized as "beliefs in something else," such as belief in a higher power or belief in the unseen or otherworldly.

Evangelical Protestants (55 percent) and members of the historically Black Protestant tradition (53 percent) are especially likely to say they have become more spiritual their lifetimes. Few in those groups said they have become less spiritual.

Conversely, among religiously unaffiliated Americans, 28 percent said their spirituality has grown over time, while 25 percent said it has declined.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are those who say they are atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular."

Atheists in particular stood out: Just 9 percent say they have become more spiritual over time, while 49 percent said they have become less spiritual.

Pew showed that U.S. atheists are more likely than other groups to say they've become less spiritual.

In all age groups Pew analyzed, respondents were more likely to say they had become more spiritual, than to say something to counter this.

However, the differences are starker among older Americans. For example, among those who are 65 and older, 45 percent said they had become more spiritual over time.

Conversely only 8 percent said they had become less spiritual.

Among U.S. adults under 30, by comparison, 30 percent had become more spiritual and 20 percent, less so.

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