Faith, religion and spirituality are not cited as a leading source of meaning in life by many adults around the world, according to a Pew Research Center report published Nov. 18.
Pew surveyed 19,000 adults from 17 nations in early 2021, asking them an open-ended question about what gives their life meaning.
Respondents from Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan were presented the question: “We’re interested in exploring what it means to live a satisfying life. What aspects of your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying?”
U.S. respondents were presented a slightly different question: “We’re interested in exploring what it means to live a satisfying life. Please take a moment to reflect on your life and what makes it feel worthwhile – then answer the question below as thoughtfully as you can. What about your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying? What keeps you going and why?”
Only 2% of respondents from all the nations surveyed said that faith, religion and/or spirituality gives meaning to their life – the same percentage who said retirement. This is the second lowest total out of 16 answer groups, ahead of only pets (1%).
In the U.S., faith, religion and/or spirituality was the fifth most common response, with 15% of all respondents citing it as a source of meaning.
“Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. are much more likely than mainline Protestants to mention faith as a source of meaning – 34% vs. 13%, respectively,” the report said. “Across all U.S. religious groups, those who attend religious services more often are much more likely to cite their religion in their answer than those who are less frequent attendees.”
In all other nations, faith, religion and/or spirituality did not make the top 10 responses, ranging from the 11th most common response (New Zealand and South Korea) to the least common response (Japan).
New Zealand (5%) had the second highest number of respondents cite faith, religion and/or spirituality as giving life meaning, followed by Australia (4%), Canada and the Netherlands (both at 3%), Germany, Greece, Italy, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan and the U.K. (all at 2%), Belgium, France, South Korea and Sweden (all at 1%) and Japan (0%).
Family and children – cited by 38% of all respondents – was the most common response.
This was followed by occupation and career (25%), material well-being (19%), friends and community (18%), physical and mental health (17%), society and institutions (14%), freedom and independence (12%), hobbies and recreation (10%), education and learning (5%), nature and the outdoors (5%), romantic partner (4%), service and engagement (3%), and travel and new experiences (3%).
Family/children was the most common response in 13 of the 17 nations surveyed, while in Italy it tied with occupation as the most common response.
Only in South Korea (where family ranked third), Spain (ranked fourth) and Taiwan (ranked third) was something other than family the most common response.
Good Faith Media reached out to several faith leaders for their reaction and response to these findings. Here is what they said:
“In a world that emphasizes the individual, it is not surprising to discover that most people find meaning in things that provide them tangible benefits – love, income, opportunity,” said Jack Moline, a Conservative rabbi from Alexandria, Virginia, and a member of Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board. “There is a lesson for religious traditions that deemphasize personal gratification, but I don’t know if it is ‘resist’ or ‘change.’”
“For those of us who believe religious faith does have something meaningful to offer, these results suggest the time has come to let old ways of doing religion die and to embrace a revolution of religious faith that helps people make meaning of their lives and live as kind, compassionate, loving and just people,” said Susan M. Shaw, professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.
“The unfortunate truth is that traditional forms of religion are not meeting people’s needs, and, in fact, among U.S. Christians, the scandals of clergy abuse, exclusionary practices toward women and LGBTQ people, and alignments with white nationalism and the Republican party have all underscored how the Christian church is failing to live up to its calling,” she said. “To paraphrase Jesus, we need new wineskins for new wine (Mark 2:22).”
“The love of God and love of God’s creation and the promise of an everlasting life in the presence of God in the hereafter is what gives me meaning in life,” said Imad Enchassi, imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City and chair of Islamic Studies at Wimberly School of Religion at Oklahoma City University. “The fact that God brought us from nonexistence to existence is a form of unconditional love. And the fact that we sin and wrong ourselves and God still accepts us is a sense of fulfillment and the fact that he will redeem us and admit us into an everlasting life in paradise is the ultimate bliss. A mother gives birth to us, and her love is maternal; God’s love is eternal.”
“The findings of Pew Research Center’s survey confirm what Christian leaders around the world have seen trending for decades: the shift of the center of the church away from developed countries to the global South,” said Jennifer Lau, executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries.
“From these statistics, we can no longer ignore how the individualistic and consumer-driven cultures of affluent countries are directly correlated to the erosion of faith and spirituality,” she said. “As the church seeks to reach the next generation, it is critical that we understand the majority of Western society will very soon be comprised not just of unchurched people, but of completely unreached people who likely have little interest in seeking faith or finding meaning through religion.”
“It’s no surprise that faith ranks low,” said Rod Benson, an ordained minister who is research support officer at the Donald Robinson Library, Moore Theological College, in Sydney, Australia. “In the past, religion and spirituality were profound drivers of personal identity and social cohesion, but the pleasures of materialism and consumerism prove enticing for many. Relatively high salaries and wages, provision of quality health and education services, and unprecedented access to sports and entertainment all compete with religion in the search for meaning.”
“What I find hopeful is that Australia and New Zealand recorded some of the highest number of respondents citing faith as giving life meaning. The hunger is still there,” he said. “Australians don’t despise genuine spirituality and religious culture, but we are wary of institutional power. In the quest for faith and meaning our challenge is, as Simon Carey Holt observes in his book Heaven All Around Us, ‘Not to come away to some other place, but to press more deeply into the places in front of us.’”
“The challenge with a question of this type is navigating cultural and linguistic issues in relation to the question. This is very true of the nuanced differences between U.S. and British English, and is even greater when translating into other languages,” observed Margot Hodson, director of theology and education for the John Ray Initiative and an Anglican pastor in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.
“From my experience of the US, I would feel the results there would fairly accurately mirror the value different groups of people place on religious faith,” she said. “With the other nations, I am not sure that it would be as accurate a measure, simply because the question might tap into a different bit of peoples cultural thinking (people might really value their faith and yet not see it as ‘an aspect of their life’ or something that goes towards living ‘a satisfying life’ – both those could be more consumerist interpretations of faith that might not occur to people in many cultures).”
“I think for the survey to have any meaning, it would need to have a control survey with a much more head on question,” Hodson said. “For example, ‘How much do you value religious faith?’ My hunch is that the U.S. results would mirror this more oblique question, but it would not be such a strong correlation with the survey in other countries – especially where the language was not English and the type of religion is very different, in Japan for example.”