How People View Religion's Role

  • July 26, 2019
  • by David O'Reilly

A 27-country survey finds people think religion plays a less important role today than it did 20 years ago.

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After more than a decade surveying trends in the world’s religions, the Pew Research Center this year took the measure of religion in a novel way.

Pew researchers asked over 30,000 adults in 27 countries if religion plays a “more important role or a less important role” than it did 20 years ago. It then asked respondents who said religion played a “more important role,” “less important role,” or “no change” how they felt about its perceived waning or waxing status in their country. An additional question asked how important religion is in respondents’ own lives.

“This is the first time we asked it this way,” says Jacob Poushter, the center’s associate director for global attitudes research.

Overall, a median of 37 percent across the 27 nations polled sees religion playing a less important role than it did 20 years ago, while 27 percent say its role today is more important. At the same time, significantly more favor an increased role for religion in their countries (39 percent) than the 13 percent who oppose it. Twenty-two percent favored no change.

Medians never tell the whole story, of course. The survey, released in April, saw religion declining in stature in North America and Europe, popular in parts of Africa and Asia, and split elsewhere. Such omnidirectional findings “show just how difficult it is to draw global-level conclusions about religiosity,” says Stephen Schneck, recently retired director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America.

Likewise, says Schneck, the widely different perceptions of religion within certain regions and continents—even in neighboring countries such as Argentina and Brazil—reveal “just how much religion’s stature is culturally dependent.”

Titled “A Changing World,” the survey also asked respondents their views on diversity, gender equality, and the state of the family. “We wanted to track how people are responding to changes in their society,” Poushter explains. “Basically we were asking, ‘Is your country changing faster than you’re comfortable with?’”  

Responses to the first three questions were clear and relatively consistent. Around 7 in 10 respondents report their countries are becoming more diverse and say gender equality has increased over the past 20 years. Roughly 6 in 10 across the countries surveyed say that family ties have weakened.

Religion, on the other hand “was the most complex question of the four,” says Poushter.  

North American and European respondents were especially likely to see religion playing a diminished role. That’s the view of 58 percent of Americans, 64 percent of Canadians, and a median of 52 percent in Western Europe.

Broadly, older adults and those who describe themselves as religious are more likely to favor a greater role for religion. In the United States, 61 percent of adults over age 50 favor a greater role, while just 39 percent of those 18 to 29 agree.

Adults in the Asia-Pacific region are markedly split, meanwhile, on the role religion plays in their societies. Eighty-three percent of Indonesians—the highest response in the survey—say it plays a greater role today, and 58 percent of Filipinos and 54 percent of Indians agree. 

Those positive views don’t hold for other parts of the Pacific, however. Sixty-three percent of Australians say religion is less important nowadays, even as 56 percent of Japanese say they see no change in its status, while South Koreans are roughly divided. There, 37 percent of respondents report a diminished role, 25 percent see an increase, and 34 percent report no change in the role of religion. 

 “What we see [in some developed nations] is a polarized view of religion, with one side viewing it as a repository of moral values that ought to be tapped, and the other side seeing it as conservative and repressive,” observes David Voas, professor and chair of social science at University College, London, and a leading sociologist of religion.

Yet even as religion loses stature in developed nations, Voas notes that religious identity “is becoming very important as a social divide as a result of large-scale immigration” and as a code word, oftentimes, for ethnic “otherness.” This phenomenon, he says, makes some trends difficult to decipher. 

When half of Swedes say, for example, that they oppose any enhanced role for religion, “is it a populist reaction to the country’s very large number of Muslim refugees?” and fear of an enhanced role for Shariah, Voas asks. “Or is it that people in Sweden take a broad view of identity, and that one’s religion should not matter?”

(The survey saw a correlation between those unwelcoming of diversity and those who want less immigration, says Poushter, although this finding was not included in the report.) 

Religious identity and practice tends to run high, meanwhile, across the sub-Saharan African countries surveyed, where 60 percent of Kenyans see a growing role for religion. So do 65 percent of adults in Nigeria, with 88 percent of its Muslim population favoring a more important role for religion. Sixty-one percent of Nigerian Christians agree. Notably, 96 percent of Nigerians and 93 percent of Kenyans say religion is very important in their lives.

In South America, however, two of the continent’s largest nations diverge sharply. Fifty-one percent of Brazilian adults see religion playing a more important role today, whereas only 27 percent of their next-door neighbors in Argentina agree.

Voas and Schneck say they wished the survey question on religion’s importance had asked respondents to clarify if they were describing its place in their personal lives or in society’s.

It was “left up to the respondent” to decide what the question means, explains Poushter, but notes the survey separately asked respondents to rate religion’s importance in their own lives. When correlated, he says, the data show that respondents describing themselves as religious are much likelier to welcome a greater role for religion. 

In Australia, for instance, 69 percent of those who say religion is very important in their lives favor a larger role for religion in society, compared with just 25 percent of those who say religion is less important to them personally.  

Respondents were interviewed over telephone in more economically advanced countries, says Poushter, and the rest “face-to-face in their homes.” 

“In the past, even secular people saw religion at a minimum as a benign force, one that makes people honest and trustworthy and well behaved,” says Voas. “But now there’s a feeling around the world that religion might bring more conflict than peace. And closer to home it’s sometimes associated with policy positions we just don’t like. So it’s become more controversial.

“Then, as an overlay, there’s the fact that ethnically religious minority groups are moving into [formerly homogeneous] Western countries, and people are seeing religion as a highly salient social division.

“So you can take the view that religion and race should not be important—that it’s private, and everyone is equal and should be celebrated. No need to get exercised about our differences. Or you can take the view that our national identities are being undermined by ‘these people’ coming in, and that’s a bad thing. 

“So for all these reasons religion is not simple,” says Voas. “It has different aspects and ways it can be seen as a positive or negative force.”