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The new year is a good time to take stock. With that in mind, let’s look at the state of religious belief in the United States. In particular, let’s draw upon studies from the Pew Research Center, the leading nonpartisan think tank that looks at public issues and demographics.

What gives meaning in life

Last year Pew did two polls on what provides meaning in life for Americans. Here’s some of the findings:

  • Most named family as their most important source of fulfillment and meaning in life.
  • Those with higher income and more education said being in good health, the ability to travel, and a sense of security gave them a sense of well-being.
  • Not surprisingly, most evangelicals said they find their meaning in life through faith. Liberals, as you might guess, tend to find more purpose in life through social and political causes along with arts and activities. Atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated found purpose in finances, hobbies, and travel.

Why people attend church (or not)

Here are results from another recent Pew study. The top reasons people attend church, synagogue, or mosque are:

  • They want to become closer to God.
  • They want their children to have a moral foundation.
  • They want to become a better person.
  • They are seeking comfort in times of trouble or sorrow.

And, if they don’t attend, why not?

  • They practice their faith in other ways.
  • They are not believers.
  • They haven’t found a church or place of worship they like.

Most and least religious states

Alabama wins (just like their football team will probably win the national championship Monday). Mississippi was a close second. What state brought up the rear? New Hampshire edged out Massachusetts for last place. Where did Montana fall? Montana is 39th, just three percentage points ahead of near-bottom dwellers Oregon and Washington. Some 48 percent of Montanans are highly religious. Thirty-one percent attend worship every week. Just over half reported that they pray daily. And 64 percent of Montanans believe in God with absolute certainty.

The stalwarts and the relaxed

Maybe we should stop describing ourselves as Episcopal, Baptist, Latter-day Saint, or some other denomination. Here’s a different way of categorizing religious participation.

Pew describes 39 percent of Americans as “Highly Religious.” They break down into three main groups (numbers are rounded):

  • ”Sunday Stalwarts,” who are traditional in their faith and highly involved in their congregations (17 percent).
  • ”God-and-Country,” who are socially and politically conservative (12 percent).
  • ”Diversely Devout,” who are traditionally religious but have a wide range of theological points of view (10 percent).

About 32 percent are the “Somewhat Religious.” There are two basic groupings:

  • ”Relaxed Religion,” who say it’s not necessary to believe in God to be a good person but are somewhat traditional in their own faith practices (17 percent).
  • ”Spiritually Awake,” who are alert to spiritual matters and tend toward New Age expressions (15 percent).
  • Then there’s the “Non-Religious” segment of the population. There are two major groups:
  • ”Religious Resisters,” who are politically liberal and think religion does more harm than good (12 percent).
  • ”Solidly Secular,” who hold no religious belief and reject New Age spirituality (17 Percent).

 Participation makes a big difference

An active faith life makes a significant different. A 2014 Pew study found that adults who attend church weekly and pray daily are more likely to have a stronger family life, more apt to volunteer, and are generally happier than other groups. Forty percent of the highly religious said that they were “very happy” with the way things were going in their lives as compared to 29 percent of those who are not highly religious. Sixty-five percent of the highly religious donated food, money or time to the poor in the week of the study. That compared to 41 percent of the not highly religious.

What does it mean?

For church leaders, we have a lot of work ahead of us. But there’s hope if we engage our faith and live it. We need to get the word out that being religious is a big positive. The secret to a good life turns out to being religious. A believing and participating Roman Catholic or Methodist or Lutheran or other faith family member has a significantly higher chance of being a happy person with a strong family. An appropriate New Year’s resolution might be “get thee and thy family to church and get involved.”

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The Very Rev. Stephen Brehe is the retired Dean of St. Peter’s Cathedral of Helena. To read about these studies and others, go to www.pewresearch.org and click on religion.

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