4 ways to tell if someone is highly religious

Posted April 18

Know someone who volunteers regularly, gathers at least once a month with in-laws, but who gets angry as often as others? He or she may be part of the 30 percent of Americans considered "highly religious," according to a new Pew Research Center report.

"Religion in Everyday Life," released Tuesday, explores the behaviors that make highly religious adults unique, going beyond traditional questions about attendance or prayer to query moral concerns, eating habits, social activities and other issues.

"What we tried to do was pick topics that would cover a wide range of issues," said Besheer Mohamed, a senior research at Pew. "We wanted to explore some other ways that people integrate religion into their lives."

By studying the habits and attitudes of the highly religious, Pew sheds light on how a serious faith commitment affects someone's outlook on life, said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University.

"Highly religious people have a social psychology and a set of social networks that tends to be pretty functional for them" and helps them lead happy, productive lives, she said.

Pew defines highly religious Americans as adults who say they pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week. Nearly half (49 percent) of the group's members were evangelical Protestant, 14 percent mainline Protestant, 17 percent Catholic, 2 percent non-Christian, and they were predominately white (64 percent) and female (62 percent).

Results are drawn from two different studies done in 2014, one with more than 35,000 respondents and the other with 3,278.

Here's Pew's snapshot of highly religious Americans:

1. They gather with family and volunteer more often than other Americans

Nearly half of all highly religious Americans (47 percent) gather with extended family at least monthly compared to 29 percent of others, according to the survey. Four-in-10 highly religious Americans are "very happy" with their life. Only 29 percent of the not highly religious say the same.

"These differences are found not only in the U.S. adult population as a whole, but also within a variety of religious traditions (such as between Catholics who are highly religious and those who are less religious), and they persist even when controlling for other factors," Pew reports.

Highly religious Americans are also more likely to volunteer. Forty-five percent of the members of this group who were surveyed told Pew they had volunteered in the past week, compared to 28 percent of not highly religious people.

Although Pew is not arguing that personal faith caused highly religious people to adopt these behaviors, the link between the two is often clear, said Ammerman, who consulted on the new report.

For example, people who participate in a faith community are likely presented with opportunities to volunteer more than people who don't, she noted.

"One of the most important factors in determining whether people volunteer is whether someone has asked them," Ammerman said. "If you're participating in a religious community, you're very likely to be in a setting where someone is saying, 'We need somebody to come help with the food pantry.'"

She added, "There's also a moral imperative piece. Religious communities tend to be places that reinforce the notion that it's a good thing to do things for other people."

2. They're just as likely to lose their temper and overeat

Highly religious Americans were less distinctive in their approach to interpersonal interactions, health and social consciousness. They're about as likely as other adults to lose their temper, eat too much and recycle.

Forty-five percent of highly religious Americans told Pew they'd lost their temper in the past week, and 39 percent said they told a white lie in the past week, compared to 43 percent and 45 percent, respectively, of the not highly religious.

These results may raise eyebrows, but because responses are subjective it's hard to know whether the highly religious were being more self-critical, Ammerman said.

"It's at least possible that very religious people hold themselves to a higher standard. They may be more attuned to examining their own consciences," she said, noting that many Christian services include a time for confession.

Similarly, Pew's findings related to purchasing decisions are hard to decipher, Ammerman added. Highly religious Americans appear less likely than others (26 percent versus 27 percent) to consider a company's environmental record when making purchases, but it could be that some faith groups care a lot about the environment, while others don't care at all.

"You've got multiple pushes and pulls on that measure," she said.

3. They rely on prayer, rather than religious leaders, for answers

In general, Americans trust their own research more than advice from professional experts or religious leaders when they're making major life decisions, Pew reports.

"That jumped out at me," Mohamed said. "Our two measures of looking for guidance from leaders — lay or religious — ranked so low on people's scales."

Only one-in-three highly religious Americans (33 percent) say they rely "a lot" on faith leaders, compared to 49 percent who turn to family members and 80 percent who trust their own research.

However, members of this group are much more likely than other adults to pray and reflect about a decision before making their choice. Almost nine-in-10 highly religious Americans (86 percent) pray about decisions, compared to 29 percent of others.

Pew's report doesn't explore why faith leaders might be an unpopular source of information, but earlier research has implied that some people fear being judged when they bring personal questions to a clergy member.

A 2015 Public Religion Research Institute survey on millennials and sexual health decisions showed that young adults would rather ask doctors, friends or even Google for advice before turning to a religious leader. Faith leaders must do a better job offering compassionate wisdom, rather than "rule-oriented responses," said Kate Ott, an assistant professor of sexual ethics at Drew University Theological School, to the Deseret News at the time.

4. They try to live up to their vision of a good Christian

Pew's survey also asked Christian participants to describe behaviors they view as an essential part of being Christian. The highly religious were more likely than Christians in general to cite honesty and forgiveness as key character traits.

More than eight-in-10 highly religious Christians (81 percent) say being honest is essential to what being Christian means to them, compared to two-thirds of all Christians (67 percent.) Eighty-six percent of the group say the same about forgiving those who have wronged you, compared to 69 percent of all Christians.

"Moral behaviors are right up there with religious ones," Ammerman said. "What we're seeing are people who are making a commitment to live their lives in a certain way. For the most part, they're really trying to do that."

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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