WASHINGTON — American religion is on the ropes, but it has a prayer.
A record-low share of Americans attend church regularly, affiliate with a religious faith and see themselves as religious, according to a major survey released this week.
The findings from mark a continuation of a decades-long departure from the pews along with a growing share who profess loyalty to no religion at all. But whatever Americans’ hang-ups with weekend services and denominational ties, they haven’t stopped praying on their own.
Fully 57 percent of respondents said they pray at least once a day, little different from 54 percent in 1983, when the question was first asked on the survey. Three-quarters of respondents said they pray at least once a week, while 1 in 4 pray less often or never.
The national survey is the broadest study of attitudes in the United States. It has been conducted at least every two years since 1972 by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.
The stability of prayer contrasts sharply with erosion on other measures of religious commitment. Since 2006, the percentage of people describing themselves as “very” or “moderately” religious has declined eight percentage points, from 62 percent to 54 percent. The share affiliating with a particular faith has fallen from over 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s to 79 percent in 2014. Just over 4 in 10 report attending worship services at least once a month, down roughly 10 points from three decades ago. All are record lows.
The resilience of prayer reflects a broader shift in Americans’ understanding of religion, according to Christian Smith, a professor of sociology who leads the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.
“Religion is gradually becoming more personal, private, subjective in practice” and “less public, institutional and shared,” Smith said. “People still believe religious things and practice religion ‘in their heads,’ as in prayer, but are less institutionally connected and engage in fewer public, institution-centered observations.”
Jesuit priest James Martin, author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” said prayer’s durability owes to a more basic need. “It’s intensely human. Even if you don’t like your local parish, you can’t get away from that human instinct to pray.”
Many who have shed affiliations or seldom attend services continue to pray regularly, according to the survey. Roughly 1 in 4 Americans who report no religious preference say they pray at least once a day, as do about 3 in 10 of those who never attend religious services.
Those who regularly attend religious services pray at far higher rates, however. Almost 9 in 10 Americans who report attending religious services nearly once a week or more often also pray at least once a day. This drops to 54 percent among those who attend more sporadically.
Millennials have led the shift away from religious affiliation, but their low levels of prayer are similar to their parents. People tend to pray more as they get older, and roughly 30 years later daily prayer has risen up to 62 percent among that same generational group.
But with their looser ties to religious groups, it is unclear whether millennials will follow the same path. The share of younger adults who affiliated with a faith in 2014 is 19 percentage points below that of young adults three decades ago, suggesting a generational shift in religious identity.
“At some point, it becomes problematic,” Martin said. “If it’s just me and God, anything I do can be seen as divinely ordained. When you exempt yourself from the community, you’re also exempting yourself from the community’s wisdom.”
The General Social Survey was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and conducted through in-person interviews with a random national sample of 2,538 adults from March 31 to Oct. 13. Overall results carry a margin of sampling error of 2.5 percentage points. Data analysis was conducted by The Washington Post.