Religious Activities

As indicated by the results of a telephone survey of over 3,000 American adults conducted by the Gallup Organization in 1995, the United States is a very religious nation. Ninety-five percent of the respondents in that survey stated that they believe in God or a universal spirit, 88% described religion as "very important" or "fairly important" in their lives, and 70% said they belonged to a specific church or synagogue. Eighty-four percent reported affiliation with a Christian denomination, 2% were Jewish, 6% claimed other religions, and 8% claimed no religious preference. However, only 43% (50% of women and 36% of men) of all respondents reported that they attend church or synagogue every week or almost every week. Attendance at religious services increases with age: Thirty-six percent of those aged 18-29, 42% of those aged 30-49,44% of those aged 50-64, and 56% of those aged 65 and older reported attending their place of worship each week. Also of interest is that 38% of the respondents stated that they believe the influence of religion is increasing, whereas 57% said that they believe it is declining. Hardly surprising is the finding that Republicans and conservatives outnumbered Democrats and liberals among those saying that religion is very important and that they attend church every week. According to a combination of criteria, women are more religious than men and older adults are more religious than younger adults (Moore, 1995; Saad, 1996).

Americans are also strong in their beliefs in a life after death. Over 90% of all American adults indicate that they believe in God and that they pray (Koenig, Kvale, &Ferrel, 1988). The great majority also say that they believe in heaven and that they have a good chance of going there when they die (Woodward, 1989). Greater percentages of older than younger adults, of whites than blacks, of Southerners and Midwesterners than Easterners and Westerners, and of those who live in nonmetropolitan than metropolitan areas express beliefs in immortality and the hereafter (Bearon & Koenig, 1990; Gallup & Proctor, 1982).

As shown in Table 11-1, 94% of religiously affiliated persons in this country are Christians. The largest Christian family is Roman Catholic (36.6%), and the largest Protestant family is Baptist. Many of the Protestant families consist of several denominations. The largest non-Christian affiliation is Jewish, followed by Muslim.

Church attendance is higher for children and women than for adults and

Table 11-1 Religious Affiliations in the United States

Family/denomination

Total membership

Percent

Roman Catholic Church

59,858,042

36.6

Baptist churches

36,433,523

22.3

Methodist churches

14,285,851

8.7

Pentecostal churches

10,281,559

6.3

Lutheran churches

8,350,212

5.1

Latter-Day Saints churches

4,672,850

2.9

Presbyterian churches

4,273,721

2.6

Churches of Christ

3,679,736

2.2

Episcopal Church

2,504,682

1.5

Reformed churches

2,079,634

1.3

Orthodox (Eastern) churches

1,885,346

1.2

Jehovah's Witnesses

926,614

0.6

Adventist churches

794,859

0.5

Church of Christ, Scientist

700,000

0.4

Church of the Nazarene

591.134

0.4

International Council of Community Churches

500,000

0.3

Salvation Army

446.403

0.3

Christian and Missionary Alliance

302,414

0.2

Churches of God

267,676

0.1

Mennonite churches

249,798

0.1

Evangelical Free Church of America

226,391

0.1

Brethren churches

218,905

0.1

Christian Congregation

112,437

0.1

Friends (Quaker) churches

84,047

0.1

Other Christian churches (35 denominations)

753,550

0.5

Total Christian churches

154,470,621

94.4

Jews

5,981,000

3.7

Muslims

3,000,000

1.8

Buddhist Churches of America

19,441

<0.1

All religiously affiliated

163,471,391

100.0

SWce:Wright(1997).

men; it is also higher among people with higher incomes and educational levels, and for longtime than short-time residents of a community. Of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, the frequency of attendance at religious services is highest for Roman Catholics, next highest for Protestants, and lowest for Jews (Harris & Associates, 1975).

Religious beliefs and practices also vary with age. According to a Harris Poll conducted some years ago (Harris & Associates, 1975), membership in churches and synagogues reaches a low point in early adulthood (ages 1824), remains fairly constant from age 25 to 54, rises slightly from ages 54 to 80, and then declines somewhat. The decline in attendance during old age is caused to a large extent by problems of health and disability, lack of transportation, and financial difficulties. Despite the fact that they may no longer go to church as often as they did when younger, most people in their late seventies or over still listen to and watch religious programs on television and radio, as well as praying, reading the Bible, and meditating in the privacy of their own homes. For example, two-thirds or more of the older adults in Bearon and Koenig's (1992) study reported praying every day, As indicated by these findings, religious beliefs and commitment may actually increase rather than decrease during later life (Ainlay & Smith, 1984).

Worship is not the only reason why people participate in religious activities. Other reasons include fellowship or socialization, to establish and maintain a particular public image, and to cope with personal problems and stress. One study found, for example, that coping strategies associated with religion were employed by nearly 50% of the sample of adults who were surveyed (Koenig, George, & Siegler, 1988). African-Americans and older adults in particular are much more likely to consult a church minister than a mental health professional when they are under mental stress or are otherwise experiencing problems in their lives (Levin & Taylor, 1993; Veroff, Dou-von, & Kulka, 1981).

As a group, African-Americans, and especially women, are intensely involved in religious activities (Levin & Taylor, 1993). Second only to the family in its influence on the personal, social, religious, and political lives of its African-American membership is the church. Throughout this century, with perhaps their finest hour during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, African-American churches have served as centers for the advocacy of social justice in the black community (Roberts, 1980) and have helped cultivate many influential American leaders.

Religious observance does not always make people feel well adjusted and happy; both the threat of punishment and the promise of reward pervades religious teachings. However, reported life satisfaction is positively related to religious beliefs and practices. Correlation, of course, does not imply causation: It may be that people who are satisfied with their lives are also more religious, not because the practice of religion is satisfying, but because satisfaction leads to religion, or because both religion and satisfaction are products of a third variable. However, it is reasonable to suppose that attending religious services can provide people with feelings of social acceptance and community that contribute to their sense of well-being and life satisfaction (Markides, 1983; Ortega, Crutchfield, & Rushing, 1983). In contrast, feelings of self-worth are lowest of all for adults who have very little religious commitment (Krause, 1995). At the very least, religious beliefs and practices can reassure people that somebody else cares about them and is willing to be of assistance when they are in need. For most people, that is perhaps sufficient to enable them to weather and endure difficult times in their lives.

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