PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans have become increasingly less tied to formal religion in recent decades, with the percentage saying they do not have a specific religious identity growing from near zero in the 1950s to 16% this year and last.
This upward trend in the percentage having no religious identity has been evident for a number of years in Gallup and other surveys.
Gallup began systematically tracking religion using this measure in 1948, asking Americans to name the major religion with which they personally identified. At that point, 2% of Americans volunteered "no religion" and another 3% had an otherwise undesignated religious identity. In 1949 and in the 1950s and 1960s, these percentages stayed low. The number of Americans with no formal religious identity began to increase in the 1970s, reaching 11% by 1990. After some fluctuations over the last two decades, 16% of Americans now say they have no religious identity or have an otherwise undesignated response.
Gallup's 53-year trend on this measure represents nearly a quarter of the history of the United States as an independent country. There is no systematic way of comparing this trend with what may have been the case stretching back to the earliest post-Revolutionary War days. The best conclusion therefore is that Americans are more likely now than at previous times since World War II to say "no religion" when queried in traditional fashion about their religious identity.
Religion Old-Fashioned and Out of Date?
An additional measure Gallup has tracked over time asks Americans if they believe that religion can answer all or most of today's problems, or if they believe religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date.
The percentage of Americans who believe religion can answer all or most of today's problems has fluctuated since the mid-1970s, as has the number who believe religion is old-fashioned and out of date. When Gallup first asked this question in 1957, 7% of Americans said religion was old-fashioned. That percentage was generally at or around 20% during much of the 1980s and 1990s, but has risen to 29% last year and 28% this year.
Thus, although clearly still a minority, the segment of Americans who believe "religion is largely old-fashioned" is now modestly higher than it was a decade or two ago.
Gallup surveys confirm a downward drift in religious identity among Americans, as well as a slight increase in the number of Americans who view religion as old-fashioned and out of date.
Lack of identification with a formal religious group does not necessarily mean religion is irrelevant in a broad sense in a person's life. One can remain quite religious, or at least spiritual, while at the same time eschewing attachment to or identity with a formal religion or denomination.
Still, trends on an additional Gallup question indicate that there has in fact been a slight uptick in the percentage of Americans who say religion is not very important in their daily lives -- from a range of 11% to 14% through most of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to 19% over the past two years. This suggests that there may be some diminution of "inner" religion accompanying the reduction in explicit religious identity and the increased perception that religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,029 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted xMay 3-6, 2010. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.