Gallup research indicates that over almost the last quarter-century, the U.S. adult population has tended to drift away from organized religion, with the decline most pronounced among younger people and males. However, basic religious beliefs (in God, heaven, hell, etc.) remain intact.
The latest figures, based on a Gallup survey conducted in December 2001*, show roughly equal proportions of the population falling into the categories of "churched" and "unchurched" (53% to 47%, respectively).
The survey was first conducted in 1978 and 30 religious groups and denominations sponsored it. It was one of the first major investigations ever conducted into the values, interests and backgrounds of the unchurched in America. In "The Unchurched American,"a 1978 report published by the Princeton Religion Research Center on the results of this study, the "unchurched" were defined as those who answered "no" to either one or both of the following questions: "Do you happen to be a member of a church or synagogue?" or "Apart from weddings, funerals, or special holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, or Yom Kippur, have you attended the church or synagogue of your choice in the past six months, or not?"
In 1978, 41% fit the definition of "unchurched."** This proportion grew slightly to 44% in 1988,*** where it remained in a subsequent survey taken 10 years later, in 1998.^ The most recent survey shows a slightly higher figure, 47%.
In each of the four studies of the unchurched, people in this category are found most likely to be male, between 18 and 29 years old, living in the western part of the country, single, or married to a spouse with a different religious background.
There is considerable movement between the "churched" and "unchurched" categories. One-fourth of the churched and a similar percentage of the unchurched say there was a period of two years in their lives when they were not active in their churches. It is estimated that three-fourths of the U.S. adult population are presently churched, have been in the past, or will be in the future.
In view of these findings, it is perhaps not too surprising that levels of religious belief among the unchurched -- while lower than among the churched -- still tend to be fairly high. Many of those who leave -- and return -- to church do so not for theological reasons but practical ones: they move to a new community; change work schedules; experience health problems; get involved in other activities, and so on.
Six in 10 of those who indicate that they had at one time been active in their churches say they could see a situation that would bring them back to church. Such situations include: a change in family situation; finding a clergy person with whom they can openly discuss their religious doubts and spiritual needs; finding a church with good youth programs; and finding a church that can provide a supportive and life-changing experience.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,019 national adults, age 18 and older, conducted Dec. 14-16, 2001. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
**Findings are based on in-person interviews with 3,062 U.S. adults, age 18 and older, conducted in more than 300 scientifically selected localities across the nation April 14 through May 1, 1978.
***Findings are based on in-person interviews with 2,556 U.S. adults, age 18 and older, conducted in more than 300 scientifically selected localities across the nation March 11-20, 1988.
^Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,016 national adults, age 18 and older, conducted June 22-23, 1998. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.