Since the 1950s, Gallup has been asking Americans about the importance of religion in their lives -- and about their perception of religion's influence on society as a whole. Answers to these questions provide some interesting insight into the contrast between Americans' personal experience and their perceptions of broader social conditions.
In 1952, the first year Americans were asked about the importance of religion in their lives, a record-high 75% said that religion was "very important" in their lives. When the question was asked again in 1978 (after a 70% reading in 1965), the "very important" percentage had dropped to 52% -- which has proven to be the lowest Gallup has measured. The question has been asked regularly since the 1980s, with the percentage saying religion is very important remaining above the majority level. In the 1980s, the percentage saying religion is very important to them hovered in the mid-50s, and edged only slightly higher in 1990s and 2000s, remaining in the upper 50s and 60% range. In 2005, 57% of Americans, on average, said religion is very important in their lives.
While religion plays an important role in Americans' lives, they are less sure about religion's influence on American life in general. Over the last 50 years, Gallup has also asked Americans to assess whether religion is increasing or losing its influence on American life. Overall, Americans have typically been more likely to feel religion is losing its influence than that its influence is increasing. However, responses to this question have moved around a lot, coinciding in some cases with major news events. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, the proportion who felt the influence of religion was rising spiked 32 percentage points.
Since 2004, however, the public has been evenly split on the question. In 2005, on average, 49% said religion is gaining influence, while the 46% said it is losing influence.
These data show that Americans have been fairly consistent when it comes to religion's importance in their personal lives: a solid majority find their religious faith to be "very important" to them. But their opinions of religion's broader influence on society appears to hinge on events, underscoring a central paradox of contemporary American life: Americans view themselves as essentially spiritual and/or religious, but are acutely aware that they are living in a secular society -- albeit a society that appears to be more secular at some times than at others.