What Does Being Religious Really Mean?

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As the president of a sectarian college and a former Theology professor, I am interested in observing how people define religiousness.  On a college campus, for example, it is fairly common for students to see “being religious” as a synonym for being involved in service or in helping others in the community.  They do not necessarily relate religion with formal worship or explicit moral/ethical positions.

Last week, a book entitled, God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America, was released.  Written by Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup, this book reflects the findings from a large public opinion survey.  Gallup has conducted an annual survey on the topic of religion since 2008.  This book reflects the analysis of over 1 million Gallup interviews over the past four years.

While I await the arrival of the book, I have read several excerpts and the results of the recently released 2012 Gallup poll on religion.  This past year’s poll reflects data from 326,761 telephone interviews with adults, 18 years or older, in every state.  The results are very interesting:

  •  69% of adults self-report that they are very (40%) or moderately (29%) religious
  • Being religious is defined as agreeing that religion is part of a person’s daily life and regular attendance at a church, synagogue or mosque
  •  Religiousness increases with age … least religious at age 23 and most religious at age 80
  • Women are significantly more religious than men regardless of age, race or ethnic group
  • Blacks are the most religious race or ethnic group
  • Mormons are the most religious group, Jews are the least
  • Religiousness is highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast
  • The higher the education level and income, the lower the religiousness
  • Republicans are more religious than Democrats or independents
  • 77% of Americans identify themselves as Christians

One of Newport’s contentions in his book is that the importance of religion will remain high or even increase in the future if only because of the rise in the population of people over 65.  But as I read these data and portions of Newport’s study, the question that remained for me was, what does being religious really mean?

One could argue that attending religious services regularly is a good sign of religiousness.  It is interesting to note, however, that the self-report of those interviewed every year by Gallup does not correlate with the church attendance figures released by almost every religious denomination and group.  Most religious groups report declining attendance in services and programs.

Does Gallup’s second criterion, “religion is involved in a person’s daily life,” mean that religion is more evident in the way people act and think?  Do you see evidence of this in the world today?  While we often see random acts of kindness and charity, we also see regular and ongoing evidence of illegal and immoral behavior.

Even more concerning is the way in which religion divides us more often than unites us.  Specific church teachings of any religion can be used as weapons against the common beliefs of all religions related to peace, justice and charity.  One would hope that the 69% of Americans who self-report the importance of religion would find common ground for advancing human rights and a moral/ethical society that serves the Common Good.

During this special time of the year for Christians and Jews, I will continue to look for signs of religiousness… in myself and in others.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Sunday, 20 April 2014