For the First Time, Majority of Americans Believe Faith Is Not Necessary for Morality

Questioning God

It's an age-old philosophical question: do morality and belief go hand in hand? For generations, most Americans would be inclined to answer that question in the affirmative. But those generations in the past held more firmly to religious faith than many Americans today. As the number of religiously unaffiliated individuals in this country increases, it stands to reason that the number of those who do not tie decency to faith in God would go up as well.

A new survey from Pew Research has shown that, for the first time, a majority of American surveyed believe that belief in God is not necessary for morality. Among the adults surveyed this year, 56 percent do not see religious faith as a prerequisite for virtue, up from 49 percent in 2011.

Naturally, Pew points out that the increase in the disconnect between morality and religion coincides with the number of "nones" — those with no affiliation to faith — in the United States:

Surveys have long shown that religious “nones” – those who describe themselves religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – are more likely than those who identify with a religion to say that belief in God is not a prerequisite for good values and morality. So the public’s increased rejection of the idea that belief in God is necessary for morality is due, in large part, to the spike in the share of Americans who are religious “nones.”

Indeed, the growth in the share of Americans who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality tracks closely with the growth in the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated. In the 2011 Pew Research Center survey that included the question about God and morality, religious “nones” constituted 18% of the sample. By 2017, the share of “nones” stood at 25%.

That data makes sense, but there's another, more surprising reason for the shift in the connection between morality and faith in America. An increasing number of those among the religiously affiliated are beginning to believe that morality can exist without faith — up from 42 percent in 2011 to 45 percent today. Breaking the shift down by denominational groups, the largest increase did not come from more liberal mainline Christians, but from white evangelicals and black Protestants.

But what's behind the change in attitudes? I'd argue that part of the blame goes to the lessening commitment among Christians these days. More people who consider themselves faithful Christians are at church sporadically, choosing to sleep in, enroll their kids in travel ball teams, and take weekend trips over connecting with the body of believers. Churches are placing more emphasis on programming and events than on discipleship and growth these days, cultivating nominal believers who are spiritually shallow.