Pew survey tracks effect of faith on Americans’ everyday lives

A new Pew Research Center study of Americans across the religious spectrum finds that faith plays a measurable role in how people live their everyday lives.

"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," said the introduction to the study, "Religion in Everyday Life," which was issued on April 12.

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"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," compared to three in 10 of less religious Americans. Also, 65 percent of highly religious adults say they have donated money, time or goods to help the poor in the past week, more than half again as many as the 41 percent who are less religious. "And 40 percent of highly religious U.S. adults describe themselves as 'very happy,' compared with 29 percent of those who are less religious," the report said.

Of course, such virtue does not extend into all areas of life. "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," the Pew report noted. "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."

As for Catholics, "three-quarters of Catholics say they look to their own conscience 'a great deal' for guidance on difficult moral questions. Far fewer Catholics say they look a great deal to the Catholic Church's teachings, the Bible or the pope for guidance on difficult moral questions," with 21, 15 and 11 percent, respectively, saying they do, according to the report.

Catholics are the single largest religious group in the United States at 21 percent of the survey population, according to Pew's Besheer Mohamed, the report's principal author. 

In an April 11 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, Mohamed said Catholics are so large within Christianity overall, "when we report 'x' percent of Christians say such-and-such, it's very hard to be one way and Catholics to be somewhere else."

He hastened to add, "That's not to say they're not distinctive," pointing to one response that showed 22 percent of Catholics say they believe Bible reading to be an essential part of their Christian identity, compared to 70 percent of highly religious Christians, 60 percent of evangelical Christians, 57 percent of Christians belonging to historically black denominations, 49 percent of all Protestants, 42 percent of all Christians, 27 percent of Christians in mainline denominations—and even 26 percent of Christians who are not highly religious.

Pew asked about 16 particular behaviors, in two groups of eight, as to whether they were considered by respondents to be essential to Christian identity. On none of them did more Catholics than Christians overall deem them essential; the closest they came was attending religious services—35 percent of all Christians, 34 percent of Catholics.

In descending order of importance, here is what Catholic respondents declared to be essential: believing in God; being grateful for what you have, being honest at all times; forgiving those who have wronged you; praying regularly; committing to spend time with your family; working to help the poor and needy; attending religious services; not losing your temper; reading the Bible or other religious materials; and—with a tie between them—helping in the congregation and dressing modestly.

Bringing up the rear were working to protect the environment; buying from companies that pay a fair wage; living a simple lifestyle; and resting on the Sabbath. There were not great differences between Catholics and other Christians on the order of the list from top to bottom.

Pew purposely did not ask about specifics relating to the Ten Commandments, Mohammad said, adding it would have been "a little double-barreled."

When making major life decisions, Catholics are slightly more likely than Americans overall to use their own research (84 percent-82 percent), seek advice from family (50 percent-43 percent) and to ask advice from experts (30 percent-25 percent). They are a bit less likely to conduct their own personal and religious reflection (39 percent-45 percent) or to seek advice from religious leaders (10 percent-15 percent). 

The report draws findings from Pew Research Center's U.S. Religious Landscape Study, which examined religious beliefs, practices and experiences of Americans, and from a supplemental survey designed to go beyond traditional measures of religious behavior—such as worship service attendance, prayer and belief in God.

In the survey, 2,437 Catholics were interviewed by phone from among 35,071 Americans.

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