Over three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say religion is losing its influence on American life, according to a new Gallup survey. Researchers described that result as the "most negative [evaluation] of the impact of religion since 1970," although it continues a trend of a public perception of a declining role of religion recorded in previous Gallup surveys.
According to Gallup, Americans were more likely to say religion was increasing rather than decreasing its influence when the question was first asked in 1957, in 1962, at a few points in the 1980s during the Reagan administration, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in late 2001 and early 2002 and in 2005. The high point for Americans' belief that the influence of religion was on the rise, 71 percent, came in December 2001. Considering the timing—a few months after Islamic terrorist attacks New York, Pennsylvania and Washington—that's not exactly a datapoint which suggests that the influence was viewed as a positive one. The previous high for the loss of religious influence occurred in 1969-70 as the American troop buildup peaked in Vietnam and the conflict worsened.
What is notable about this latest figure is that it does not appear to correlate to a particular event as did previous measurements of religion's decline; it seems to follow a general trend of a growing perception of religion's wane beginning in 2004. This emerging trendline may not collect sharp spikes and declines in perception, but merely track the nation's expanding secularism. Last year, researchers from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported a startling rise in the number of "nones," or religiously unaffiliated in the United States. (Pew found that one-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in its polling. The unaffiliated iincreased from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults in just five years. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics—nearly 6 percent of the U.S. public—as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.)
These perceptions of religion's influence are not related to Americans' personal religiosity, as measured by church attendance or the self-reported importance of religion in one's life, according to Gallup researchers. "In general, highly religious Americans are neither more nor less likely to say religion is losing its influence than those who are not religious," reports Gallup. "There is, however, a modest relationship between Americans' ideology as well as partisanship and their views of the influence of religion, with liberals and Democrats more likely than conservatives and Republicans to say religion's influence is increasing in American society."
But even as the perception of religion's cultural influence wanes—and perhaps solace for new evangeilzers—Americans maintained favorable views of the potential for religion to have a beneficial impact on the country, with 75 percent of Americans saying they think it would be positive for U.S. society if more Americans were religious. This would seem to parallel the Pew report on "nones." Even though 88 percent of them reported that they were not actively seeking out an affiliation with a religious denomination, 78 percent of them said religion tended to "bring people together" and strengthen community bonds; 77 percent said religion played an important role in helping "the poor and needy"; and 52 percent said that religion helped "protect and strengthen morality."
According to the Gallup survey, Americans who attend church regularly and who say religion is important in their own lives are far more likely than others to say it would be positive for American society if more Americans were religious. "Even so, over half of those who seldom or never attend and close to one in three Americans who say religion is not important to them personally still say it would be positive for society if more Americans were religious."