SALT LAKE CITY — Religion shapes many aspects of many Americans' lives, affecting whom they marry, what they eat and how they'll celebrate the holidays.
And yet it ranks below things like family relationships, careers and even pets on recent studies of sources of meaning and identity in people's lives.
When asked an open-ended question about sources of meaning, just 1 in 5 U.S. adults mention something to do with spirituality or faith, compared to 69 percent who cite family members and 34 percent who mention their careers, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. The 2018 American Family Survey found that people are significantly more likely to say being a spouse or parent is an "extremely" or "very" important part of their identity than being a person of faith.
What explains religion's place on these lists? The answer isn't just that there are a rising number of nonbelievers in America, according to researchers.
Religion exerts a more subtle influence on our daily lives than other sources of meaning, said Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University. People may recognize that they derive meaning from family and friends, but not acknowledge that religion helped them develop those close relationships.
"I think religion helps shepherd people towards one another, and then those relationships stand out as most meaningful to them," he said.
Simply comparing the popularity of different sources of meaning means ignoring other findings that tell a more positive story about religion, said Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center.
"It's an 'on the one hand' and 'on the other hand' kind of story," he said. "Among those who say say they get a great deal of meaning from (religion), people tend to rank it among the most important sources of meaning in their lives. That's not true of things like caring for pets and listening to music."
Routledge was inspired to study sources of meaning, in part, by a personal fascination with the human condition. He likes reflecting on existential questions about purpose and the meaning of life.
This personal passion aligns with more practical concerns. Across the country and around the world, there's interest in studying meaning and identity because people's conceptions of themselves and their reasons for living affect health outcomes, Routledge said.
"How people approach questions about meaning and purpose has a whole host of implications for health and well-being," he said.
Being aware of this helps researchers persist through challenges associated with this area of study. It's difficult to research sources of meaning and identity because there are so many of them, Smith said.
"When you're designing survey questions, you ideally want to have a set of response options … that captures the whole breadth of opinions you could imagine existing in the population," he said. "But the potential number of sources from which Americans and others might find meaning is limitless."
For this reason, Pew asked about sources of meaning in two different ways: with a set of open-ended questions and a second set of traditional, close-ended questions.
Twenty percent of Americans mentioned faith or spirituality when asked an open-ended question about sources of meaning. That figure rises to 36 percent when survey respondents are asked directly whether their "religious faith" provides a great deal of meaning and fulfillment, Pew reported.
Another challenge of this area of research is that it's difficult to define "meaning" or "purpose" or "identity." Using the word "meaning" in the text of a survey question might prompt introspection, while "identity" could lead people to think about how they're seen by others.
"Different words cue different things. You won't get the same answer even though these ideas are closely connected," said Jeremy Pope, who is co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and co-wrote the American Family Survey report.
Issues related to question interpretation are common in the research field, Smith said, noting "no survey question is really immune from that."
But in the study of meaning and identity, interpretive issues don't end with word definitions, especially when it comes to faith.
Religion exerts a more subtle influence on people's lives than parenthood or professional work, as Routledge noted. People may not recognize how faith informs other aspects of their lives even when a religion researcher would argue it does.
"People may not think they're getting meaning from religion, but it likely contributes to things they do think they're getting meaning from," Routledge said.
Your religious identity often doesn't require as much attention as other personal identities, like being a parent or a pet owner, he added. It may not pop into your mind when you're asked about what defines your daily life. And some people who claim a religious identity don't participate in related rituals more than once a month or even once a year.
"If you ask people what makes their lives meaningful, most people don't say religion, except for the most devout people. That's because because if you're devoutly religious, you're praying every day and doing Bible studies. Religion is at the top of your mind," Routledge said.
That doesn't mean it's possible to design a survey revealing that religion is a source of meaning or identity for everyone. The number of religious "nones," or Americans who don't identify with a faith group, is growing, and this rise in nonreligious adults is reflected in research on identity and meaning, Smith said.
"The share of Americans who say they have no religion or aren't religious is growing very quickly," he said. "You wouldn't expect them to say they get a great deal of meaning from religion."
Even some people who claim a religious identity don't participate in many religious activities, Smith added. They may attend a worship service once a week or once a month or only on major holidays like Christmas.
"Identifying as Christian, Jewish, Muslim or a member of any number of faith groups doesn't necessarily mean religion is a key part of your life," he said.
In other words, surveys showing that religion is a source of meaning to only 1 in 5 U.S. adults and an important part of fewer than half of adults' personal identities shouldn't be surprising in light of other research on Americans' religious beliefs and practices.
As Smith noted, it's possible to tell more than one story about religion based on recent meaning-related research.
On one hand, it's a less popular source of meaning than being outdoors, caring for pets or listening to music. But on the other, it comes second only to "spending time with family" when people are asked to name the single most important source of meaning in their lives.
Recent research also confirms how valuable faith can be for people who crave meaning in their lives, Routledge noted. One of his studies showed that religious people find more meaning than nontheists in relationships, parenting and careers.
"Although people don't necessarily say religion gives their lives meaning, religious people report higher levels of meaning overall," he said.66 comments on this story
Similarly, the American Family Survey showed that people of faith have more sources of identity than atheists.
"People who are more religious reported more identities (were important to them), even when you controlled for religion," Pope said.
Religion will continue to be an important source of social connections, meaning and purpose, even if it doesn't appear very popular in research on these topics, Routledge said.
"Religion is one of those cultural forces with functions we don't always think about," he said.