Is it necessary to believe in a higher power in order to be a moral person and have good values?

Wide-ranging responses to this question are visible between, and even within, nations, according to a Pew Research Center report published July 20.

The report reveals while nearly all respondents in several nations say such belief is essential, less than a quarter of citizens in other countries do so. Notable trends emerge when filtering responses by age, education, income level and political leaning.

“Across the 34 countries, which span six continents, a median of 45% say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values. But there are large regional variations in answer to this question,” the report said.

“People in the emerging economies included in this survey tend to be more religious and more likely to consider religion to be important in their lives, and they are also more likely than people in this survey who live in advanced economies to say that belief in God is necessary to be moral.”

Indonesia and the Philippines have the highest percentage of citizens who say belief in God is necessary “to be moral and have good values” (96% for both), followed closely by Kenya (95%) and Nigeria (93%).

Sweden (90%) and France (84%) have the highest percentage of people who say one does not need to believe in a higher power to be a moral person with good values, followed by the Czech Republic (80%) and Australia (79%).

Reaction in the U.S. was mixed, with 54% saying it isn’t necessary and 44% that it is. This is a 14-point drop in “it is necessary” responses since 2002 – the sharpest decline over that time period of any of the 34 nations surveyed.

Overall, 17 of the nations have a majority who do not think belief in God is needed to be moral and have good values, while 15 countries have a majority who thinks it is. Neither Slovakia (49% necessary; 45% not necessary) nor Israel (48% necessary; 48% not necessary) have a majority holding either position.

One trend revealed by the survey is a decrease in the number of citizens connecting belief in God to morality and values as the nation’s GDP increases. The same trend generally holds true within nations, as higher wage earners are less likely than lower wage earners to affirm the necessity of such belief.

A second trend is that a higher percentage of older adults than younger adults agree with the connection between God and morals / values.

South Korea has the most notable differences, with 64% of respondents aged 50-plus affirming that belief in God is necessary for morality and good values, compared to only 20% of those aged 18-29.

This gap in the U.S. was the fourth largest (behind South Korea, Greece and Argentina), with 55% of adults aged 50-plus affirming this relationship, compared to only 27% of those aged 18-29.

When it comes to education, a lower affirmation of the connection between God and morality / values correlates to higher levels of education and vice versa.

Regarding politics, in every nation (save for Slovakia), respondents whose political leanings are right of center are more likely than those whose views are center or left of center to affirm this connection.

This is most pronounced in the U.S. where 63% of respondents on the political right say belief in God is necessary for morals and values, compared to 37% of those in the middle and 24% of those on the left.

Affirmation of belief in, and prayers offered to, a higher power remains high in most countries.

A majority of respondents in 24 of the 34 nations surveyed affirms that God “plays an important part in their life,” while a majority in 20 of the countries say prayer “plays an important part in their life.”

Overall, a median of 61% of respondents across all 34 countries say God is important in their lives, while 53% say prayer is.

The full report is available here. The topline results are available here.

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