April 12, 2016

Religion in Everyday Life

3. Few Americans turn to religious leaders for advice when making major life decisions

When making major life decisions, most Americans in this internet age say they rely heavily on their own research. Fewer than half of U.S. adults overall say they rely on prayer and personal religious reflection. But highly religious Americans rely on prayer and personal reflection as often as on their own research, and those who are highly religious are roughly four times more likely than those who are not to turn to religious leaders for advice (33% vs. 8%).

This chapter explores the sources both highly religious and less religious people turn to when making major life decisions, as well as differences among members of various religious groups on this question. Additionally, it looks at where U.S. Catholics look for moral guidance: Most Catholics say they turn to their own conscience “a great deal” when seeking guidance on difficult moral questions, while far fewer say they look to the Catholic Church’s teachings, the Bible or the pope.

Large majority of highly religious people rely ‘a lot’ on prayer to make decisions

Eight-in-ten rely ‘a lot’ on their own research when making major life decisions; 45% turn to prayerMost U.S. adults (82%), including majorities within every major religious group, say they rely “a lot” on their own research when making a “major life decision.” By comparison, far fewer say they rely as heavily on prayer and personal religious reflection (45%) or advice from family (43%) to help make important decisions.15

There are, however, major differences based on religion in the role of prayer in making decisions. Most highly religious people (86%), as well as most members of the historically black Protestant tradition (78%) and evangelical Protestants (70%), say they rely a lot on prayer and personal religious reflection. Far fewer Catholics (39%), mainline Protestants (38%) and adherents of non-Christian faiths (38%) rely heavily on prayer when making major decisions. And just one-in-ten religious “nones” (9%) say they turn to prayer a lot to help make decisions.

Americans overall are much less likely to rely a lot on advice from professional experts (25%) or religious leaders (15%) than they are on prayer or advice from family members. Even among highly religious Americans, only a third say they rely heavily on advice from religious leaders to help make major life decisions. However, there are differences among religious groups. For example, 40% of highly religious evangelical Protestants say they turn to religious leaders a lot for advice when making major life decisions. (See detailed tables.)

Most Catholics look to own conscience for moral guidance

Catholics largely rely on own consciences when considering moral questionsAbout three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (73%) say they look to their own conscience “a great deal” for guidance on difficult moral questions. Far fewer Catholics say they rely a great deal on the Catholic Church’s teachings (21%), the Bible (15%) or the pope (11%) for such guidance.

Catholics who are highly religious are more likely than less religious Catholics to turn to church teachings, the Bible or the pope for guidance on difficult moral questions. Still, far fewer highly religious Catholics say they rely a great deal on any of these three sources for guidance on tough moral questions than say they rely on their own conscience.

This set of questions was designed specifically for Catholics and was asked only of adults who self-identified as Catholic.

  1. Respondents were not forced to choose among the sources of advice, but nearly all (95%) say they rely “a lot” on at least one of the sources named, and most (68%) rely heavily on more than one source of advice.