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Nov. 17, 2003

U-M study: U.S. among the most religious nations in the world

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—The United States remains among the most religious nations in the world, according to a worldwide study by the University of Michigan.

About 46 percent of American adults attend church at least once a week, not counting weddings, funerals and christenings, compared with 14 percent of adults in Great Britain, 8 percent in France, 7 percent in Sweden and 4 percent in Japan.

Moreover, 58 percent of Americans say that they often think about the meaning and purpose of life, compared with 25 percent of the British, 26 percent of the Japanese, and 31 percent of West Germans, the study says.

“While traditional religious belief and participation in organized religion have steadily declined in most advanced industrial nations, especially in Western Europe, this is not the case in the United States,” said Ronald F. Inglehart, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), and director of the ISR World Values Surveys, which were conducted in more than 80 nations between 1981 and 2001.

Some possible reasons cited for the results: Religious refugees set the tone long ago in America; religious people tend to have more children than non-religious groups; and the U.S. has a less comprehensive social welfare system, prompting people to look to religion for help.

Funded by a variety of public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation, the series of representative national surveys now contains data from nearly 250,000 respondents around the world. The latest U.S. findings are based on a sample of 1200, reported in “Sacred and Secular,” forthcoming in 2004 from Cambridge University Press.

In the book, Inglehart and co-author Pippa Norris put religion and spirituality in the U.S. in a global context by showing that while virtually all post-industrial societies have been moving toward more secular orientations for many decades, the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before.

“Though these two propositions may seem contradictory, they’re not,” Inglehart said. “Secularization has a powerful negative impact on human fertility rates, so the least religious countries have fertility rates far below the replacement level, while societies with traditional religious views have fertility rates two or three times the replacement level.” As a result, those with traditional religious views now constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population.

Inglehart and Norris, a political scientist at Harvard University, also examined the reasons that the U.S. remains an “outlier” in religiosity among postindustrial nations. “The U.S. was founded by religious refugees who attached so much importance to religion that they were willing to risk their lives in a dangerous new environment in order to practice their religion, and to some extent this outlook has been successfully transmitted to succeeding waves of immigrants,” they wrote.

Another possibility for the high degree of religiosity in the U.S. is that the nation has a less comprehensive social welfare safety net than most other economically developed countries, leading many Americans to experience the kind of existential insecurity and economic uncertainty characteristic of highly religious populations.

For more details, see the following tables and figures: Trends in religious participation, 1981-2001 (table 3.6); growth in spiritual values, 1981-2001 (table 3.7); religious participation in 76 societies (figure 3.3) at:

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world’s largest computerized social science data archive.

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