SALT LAKE CITY — What does it mean to be Catholic, Jewish or a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? These labels call to mind certain religious texts and symbols, but they don't tell the whole story about the people who use them, according to Becka A. Alper at Pew Research Center.
"There's diversity within any identity. There are Catholics who attend Mass quite often and Catholics who attend less often," she said.
There are also Catholics who have more in common with evangelical Christians than they do with other Catholics, which isn't easy to show in traditional surveys.
And so Pew's researchers designed a nontraditional one, sorting Americans by their religious beliefs and behaviors instead of their self-identified affiliation. The new survey presents seven types of personal faith, enabling new kinds of comparisons.
"We thought, 'What if we try to take a new look? To use a different lens to see what's going on and get a fresh perspective,'" said Alper, who is a research associate.
Pew found that many old, religion-related assumptions hold up. Members of the new groupings often had the same political interests and educational backgrounds, just as most evangelicals are Republicans or most atheists are Democrats. For example, 58 percent of "God-and-country believers" approve of President Donald Trump's performance as president, compared to just 12 percent of "religion resisters."
The analysis also unveiled some unexpected connections, Alper said. It linked people who affiliate with different faith groups but believe or behave the same.
"Some Americans have a lot of views in common with people who, when we compare by religious affiliation, seem very different," she noted.
Survey participants were asked about various aspects of their life and worldview. They described their relationship to the God of the Bible, offered their thoughts on religious institutions and answered whether they believed spiritual energy was contained in mountains, crystals or trees.
Researchers then picked 16 of the survey questions to guide the creation of a new classification system. They "used a technique called cluster analysis," which involves having a computer algorithm sort people based on their answers, Alper said.
The survey was conducted from Dec. 4-18, 2017, among 4,729 members of Pew's nationally representative American Trends Panel. The margin of error for the full sample is 2.3 percentage points.
The cluster analysis produced seven groups, which each contain between 11 and 17 percent of U.S. adults. Knowing if someone is Catholic, Protestant, non-Christian or none of the above would help researchers make an educated guess about where he or she falls in the new system, but all seven groups include all of the above.
Here's an overview of the new belief and behavior types. You can guess where you might fit and then take Pew's quiz to see your results.
• Sunday stalwarts
This group contains highly religious Americans who regularly attend worship services and study their religious texts. Around two-thirds of "Sunday stalwarts" say their faith is the single most important source of meaning in their lives, Pew reported.
It's the only category in the new analysis in which a majority of members (57 percent) are married. Nearly 60 percent identify as Republican.
Members of this group are deeply involved in their faith group and their community, researchers noted. They're "twice as likely as any other group to say they are active in a charitable or volunteer organization."
Nearly half of "Sunday stalwarts" are evangelical Protestants (46 percent), 14 percent are mainline Protestants and 13 percent are Catholic, Pew found. Five percent are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
• God-and-country believers
"God-and-country believers" hold many traditional beliefs, but they're less likely than "Sunday stalwarts" to attend worship services or derive a great deal of fulfillment from their faith.
More than 9 in 10 "God-and-country believers" say it's necessary to believe in God to be moral and they're much more likely to be an evangelical Christian (41 percent) than a mainline Protestant (9 percent), Pew reported.
"They are the only group that leans more toward approval than disapproval of Donald Trump's performance as president," researchers noted. Fifty-nine percent of "God-and-country believers" identify as Republican.
• Diversely devout
Like members of the first two groups, people who are "diversely devout" self-identify as both spiritual and religious, and they hold many traditional beliefs, such as that heaven and hell exist.
However, the "diversely devout" are much more likely than other highly religious Americans to embrace "New Age beliefs," recognizing, for example, spiritual power in physical things, Pew reported.
This category is more politically balanced than most, with 49 percent of members identifying as Democrats and 43 percent as Republicans. Fifty-seven percent of the "diversely devout" are non-white and the majority are under 50, according to the survey.
• Relaxed religious
Members of this group generally believe in God as described in the Bible, as well as heaven and hell. But they're less likely to derive personal meaning from religious or spiritual practices than members of the first three groups.
Fifty-eight percent of the "relaxed religious" say religious organizations do more good than harm in society, but only 17 percent attend worship services weekly, Pew reported.
Evangelicals and Catholics each comprise a quarter of the group. Around 1 in 5 members are mainline Protestant or religiously unaffiliated and 4 percent belong to a non-Christian faith, according to the survey.
• Spiritually awake
"Spiritually awake" Americans are quite similar to the "relaxed religious," except for their interest in spiritual practices, like meditating or spending time in nature.
Nearly all members of this group (99 percent) say there's spiritual power in physical things and around 6 in 10 derive a great deal of meaning from being outdoors, Pew reported.
The religious makeup of the group is nearly the same as the makeup of the "relaxed religious." However, a higher share of this group (30 percent) are religiously unaffiliated.
Additionally, 62 percent of the "spiritually awake" are women, compared to 47 percent of the "relaxed religious."
• Religion resisters
"Religion resisters" is the first of the two mostly nonreligious groups. Its members rarely attend church or pray, but nearly all are interested in spiritual energy and nature.
"Fully two-thirds describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious,' a much larger proportion than in any other group," Pew reported.
Nearly 8 in 10 "religion resisters" identify as Democrat and around two-thirds are younger than 50 years old, according to the survey. Zero percent of "religion resisters" believe the Bible should be taken literally.
• The solidly secular
Members of this group do few of the activities and hold few of the beliefs featured in the survey. "About three-quarters say they are neither religious nor spiritual, more than double the next-largest proportion in any other group," researchers noted.
Seventy-six percent of the "solidly secular" are religiously unaffiliated, including 31 percent who identify as atheist.
"Solidly secular" is the only majority male group. It's also the whitest (79 percent) and most highly educated (45 percent have a college degree) group, Pew reported. One percent of the "solidly secular" believe in the biblical God.
Entangled identities, new connections
Pew's new sorting system exposes some of the weaknesses of the traditional survey methods used to study American religion. For example, it shows that some religious "nones" are far from nonreligious. Eleven percent fall into one of the three highly religious groups.
It also adds weight to the argument that religiosity and spirituality are complementary, not opposed, supporting the work of researchers like Nancy Ammerman at Boston University. She's long argued that we often overlook the role of spiritual practices, like meditation, in traditional religious communities and fail to recognize how many people who don't attend church still believe in God and pray.
"When we start drawing the lines starkly between religion and spirituality, we miss a lot of what's going on inside religious communities. And we mischaracterize a lot of the people who aren't in communities," Ammerman told the Deseret News in 2013.
Pew found that highly religious Americans are more likely than others to derive a great deal of meaning from spiritual practices.
The new survey supports the idea that religious practices and beliefs are tied to other personal characteristics, Alper said. Researchers did not use participants' race, ethnicity, age, education level or political leanings to sort them, and yet group members often had these things in common.
"It shows how deeply bound up religion is with other identities, like race, gender, politics or education level," she said, noting that the strength of these links was one of the report's biggest surprises.
"That was really illuminating for us," she added.54 comments on this story
The survey offers new ways to describe and discuss personal faith in the future, which some religious Americans have been craving. Richard Clark, an evangelical Christian who hosts a podcast for pastors, told the Deseret News last year that he sometimes struggles with the assumptions people make when he shares his religious affiliation.
"I'm aware that I have to provide disclaimers every time I talk about my religion or spiritual life," he said.
Alper hopes the survey will inspire researchers to find what people who associate with different religious denominations have in common.
"It alerts us to look for those commonalities," she said.