If American religion were traded at a stock exchange, your broker might be advising you to sell. The trend lines don’t look great and haven’t for quite some time.
A new Pew Research Center study offers something different: a survey of 4,729 Americans telling precisely why they do (or don’t) attend religious services.
Some of their answers are unsurprising. Americans who don’t believe in religion don’t often attend church. Because duh.
But the survey complicates other stereotypes about Americans who rarely, if ever, attend religious services.
As it turns out, they’re all not atheists, or even members of the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Many say religion is important in their lives, and lean conservative, politically.
“The people who attend religious services less often are not a monolithic group,” said Becka Alper, a research associate at Pew.
First, here are the top 10 reasons given by Americans who attend religious services at least once a month, according to Pew.
To become closer to God. (81%)
So their children will have a moral foundation. (69%)
To become a better person. (68%)
For comfort in times of trouble or sorrow. (66%)
They find the sermons valuable. (59%)
To be part of a faith community. (57%)
To continue their family’s religious traditions. (37%)
They feel obligated to go. (31%)
To meet new people or socialize. (19%)
To please their family, spouse or partner. (16%)
More women say there are a variety of reasons for going to religious services, while men more commonly say they sit in the pew to please their spouse.
A healthy slice of adults younger than 30 say they visit the sanctuary mainly to socialize. Perhaps coincidentally, they are also less likely than older churchgoers to say they feel God’s presence at services.
Why are older people more likely to feel God at church? Is there something in our makeup that opens us to religious experiences as we age? Or maybe more Americans are searching outside of sanctuaries for the divine.
According to Pew, that was the top reason survey respondents gave for skipping regular religious services. Here’s the whole list:
They practice their faith in “other ways.” (37%)
They are not believers. (28%)
No reason is “very important.” (26%)
They haven’t found a house of worship they like. (23%)
They don’t like the sermons. (18%)
They don’t feel welcome. (14%)
They don’t have the time. (12%)
Poor health or mobility. (9%)
No house of worship in their area. (7%)