Heathens still can be honorable, most Americans say

November 1, 2017

There goes another “sacred cow.” Most U.S. adults (56%) now say it is not necessary to believe in a creator or a higher power to be moral and have good values—up from about half (49%) who expressed this view in 2011, according to results of a Pew Survey released on October 16.

The increase reflects the continued growth in the share of the population that has no religious affiliation, but it also is the result of changing attitudes among those who do identify with a religion, including white evangelical Protestants.

Indeed, Pew reports, although the United States remains home to more Christians (70% nationwide) than any other country worldwide, the percentage of adults who identify as Christian has dropped. The pollster said that, according to its research findings, the numbers went from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014.

Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – that is, who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” –jumped by more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.

And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.

Surveys have long shown that respondents who do not believe in an organized religion are more likely than those who identify with a religion to say that belief in God is not a prerequisite for good values and morality.

“So the public’s increased rejection of the idea that belief in God is necessary for morality is due, in large part, to the spike in the share of Americans who are religious ‘nones,’” Pew states.

Indeed, the growth in the share of Americans who say belief in a creator is unnecessary for morality tracks closely with the growth in the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated. In the 2011 Pew Research Center survey that included the question about God and morality, religious “nones” constituted 18% of the sample. By 2017, the share of “nones” stood at 25%.

However, the pollsters note, that is just part of the story. Attitudes about the necessity of belief in God for morality also have changed among those who do identify with a religion. Among all religiously affiliated adults, the share who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality ticked up modestly, from 42% in 2011 to 45% in 2017.

Among white evangelical Protestants, 32% now say belief in God is not necessary to have good values and be a moral person, up from 26% who said this in 2011. To be sure, most white evangelicals still say belief in God is necessary for morality. But the share who say belief in God is a necessary underpinning of being moral has declined from 72% to 65% in just six years.

Religious “nones” themselves, in addition to growing as a share of the population, have simultaneously become more likely to reject the idea that believing in God is necessary for morality. In 2017, 85% of religious “nones” say belief in God is unnecessary for morality, up from 78% who said this in 2011.

The trends in opinion on this question also point in the same direction among white mainline Protestants, black Protestants and white Catholics. Recent changes among these groups, however, have not been statistically significant.

Pew research contact: info@pewresearch.org