November 3, 2015

U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious

Chapter 3: Views of Religious Institutions

Whether religiously affiliated or not, large majorities of Americans say churches and other religious organizations perform important roles in contemporary American society by strengthening community bonds and helping the poor and needy. Most also say religious institutions protect and strengthen morality in society. Even most atheists say religious institutions bring people together and help the poor.

However, many Americans – including most religious “nones” – also express reservations about churches and other religious organizations, saying they are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved with politics. Even among those who are affiliated with a religious group, four-in-ten or more express these views about religious institutions in general.

This chapter looks at how Americans view religious institutions and their impact on society. These questions were not asked in the 2007 Religious Landscape Study, so the chapter does not include trend data.

Religious Institutions as Forces for Good

Large Numbers Say Religion Is Force for GoodAlmost nine-in-ten U.S. adults (89%) say religious institutions bring people together and strengthen community bonds. Nearly as many (87%) say they play an important role in helping the poor and needy. And three-quarters of adults say religious institutions protect and strengthen morality in society.

Christians give high marks to religious institutions for bringing people together and strengthening community bonds. Indeed, this view is expressed by roughly nine-in-ten or more members of most Christian traditions. Jehovah’s Witnesses are the exception; 57% say religious institutions help bring people together and strengthen community bonds.

Among members of non-Christian faiths, large majorities also see religious institutions as unifying forces in society; 88% of Muslims, Jews and Hindus agree with this assessment. And even most religiously unaffiliated Americans say religious institutions help strengthen community bonds, including 85% of self-described agnostics, 81% of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” and 75% of atheists.

Similarly, large majorities of Christians (90%), members of non-Christian faiths (82%) and religious “nones” (78%) say religious institutions play an important role in helping the poor and needy.

There are larger differences between Christians and non-Christians when it comes to views about the role of religious institutions in protecting morality in society. Fully 83% of Christians say religious institutions play an important role in protecting and strengthening morality, including 92% of Mormons and 87% of evangelical Protestants.

Far fewer members of non-Christian faiths (62%) say religious institutions help strengthen morality in society, though there is considerable variation on this question among Muslims (83%), Hindus (73%), Buddhists (65%) and Jews (63%).

A slim majority of religiously unaffiliated adults (54%) say religion helps protect morality in society, including just 31% of atheists.

Reservations about Religious Institutions

Two-Thirds of the Religiously Unaffiliated Express Reservations About Religious InstitutionsThough most Americans agree that religious institutions perform positive functions in society, about half of U.S. adults also express reservations about the conduct of religious institutions, saying they are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved with politics.

Religiously unaffiliated people are especially critical of religious institutions. Roughly two-thirds of religious “nones” say religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (66%), focus too much on rules (68%) and are too involved with politics (67%). Within the unaffiliated, self-described atheists are especially likely to voice these opinions: Fully 83% of atheists say religious institutions are too involved with politics, 79% say they focus too much on rules and 76% say they are too concerned with money and power.

Overall, Christians are less likely to express these reservations about religious institutions. But still,
four-in-ten or more U.S. Christians say religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (47%), focus too much on rules (44%) and are too involved with politics (40%). Among Catholics, about half criticize religious institutions for being too concerned with money and power (50%) and for focusing too much on rules (52%).

Jehovah’s Witnesses, meanwhile, are especially likely to express reservations regarding money and power (82%) and involvement in politics (80%). Jehovah’s Witnesses teach their members to remain politically neutral and avoid voting in elections or lobbying the government.

Criticism of religious institutions is more common among members of non-Christian faiths than it is among Christians. For example, 65% of adherents of non-Christian religions in the U.S. say religious institutions focus too much on rules, and 61% say they are too involved with politics.