Thursday, September 6, 2018

A New Religious Typology of the US

The Pew Research Center has just recently published The Religious typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans by Religion. It prints out at just under 100 pages and is well worth reading and studying. It an be found at

What is "new" about this study is that, instead of sorting Americans by conventional religious categories (e.g., denominations), it sorts us by "beliefs and behaviors that cut across many denominations." It classifies Americans into seven categories "based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share,how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives."

The typology identifies three groups it classifies as "highly religious" - Sunday Stalwarts, God and Country Believers, and the Diversely Devout. At the opposite end are two groups, the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular . And, in between, there are two other categories called Relaxed Religious and Spiritually Awake. To get a full appreciation of each category, it is obviously necessary to read the report. Here i shall touch on just a few areas of particular interest to me.

First of all, there is the composition of each group in terms of conventional religious affiliation. Of the Sunday Stalwarts (the most conventionally religious group, both in terms of belief and practice and involvement in both Church and other voluntary associations), 13% are Roman Catholics (compared to 46% who are Evangelicals). Of God and Country Believers (the most pro-Trump and anti-immigrant group), 24% are Catholic  (compared to 41% Evangelical). Of the Diversely Devout (the only group in which whites are not the majority), 29% are Catholic (compared to 15% Evangelical). The Relaxed Religious and Spiritually Awake are respectively 25% and 23% Catholic (compared to 25% and 16% Evangelical). Finally, of the the Religion Resisters and the Solidly Secular, only 9% of each are identified as Catholic (compared to only 1% and 2% Evangelical).

As already mentioned, the Sunday Stalwarts are the most conventionally religious group, both in terms of their beliefs and practice and their involvement in both Church and other voluntary associations, a correlation that conforms to what we would expect from other studies of trends in American society. They are also the ones most likely to vote, and (along with the other "highly religious" groups) tend to be older. These facts, of course, speak to the apparently greater influence of the "highly religious" in American society - and also to the demographic prospect of their declining influence compared with the younger and also more highly educated non-religious groups.

On the important issue of how religious organizations are viewed socially, somewhat unsurprisingly 78% of Sunday Stalwarts 66% of God and Country Believers, and 61 % of the Diversely Devout view religious organizations positively.  On the other hand only 51% of the Relaxed Religious and only 38% of the Spiritually Awake, and only 9% of the Religion Resisters and 13% of the Solidly Secular see religious organizations positively - an ominous measure for religious freedom in a society more likely to be dominated by some of those groups. In fact, even now, only 45% of American adults overall say they have a predominantly positive view of religious organizations!

In terms of serving as a significant source of meaning in life, religious faith ranked on top only for the Sunday Stalwarts, came in second for the God and Country Believers, and fourth for the Diversely Devout. Somewhat unsurprisingly "spending time with Family" came in either first or second for every group. That it topped the list for two of the supposedly "highly religious" groups and second for the most religious groups evidence of what i like to call the "familialism" that de facto dominates much of American religious practice and pervades many of our American religious institutions.

For me the most striking thing about the study was how widespread "New Age" beliefs are even among the "highly religious." These include belief in psychics, reincarnation, and astrology - and, new at least to me, the belief that spiritual energy can be located in spiritual objects, such as mountains, trees, and crystals. Thus 29% of the Sunday Stalwarts hold that latter belief, along with  95% of the Diversely Devout, 99% of the Spiritually Awake and 98% of the Religion Resisters.

There is, of course, no substitute for reading the entire report. Even so, that data mentioned here are enough to highlight how the religious landscape of the United States cannot be completely captured either in the traditional terms of its denomination divisions or by the modern trajectory of progressive religious decline. 

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