Clay Routledge Ph.D.

More Than Mortal

Are Americans Really Becoming Less Religious?

The need to find meaning drives spiritual interests even among nonbelievers

Posted Oct 23, 2016

Many argue the public polls on the religious views of Americans paint a clear picture: The American public is becoming increasingly secular. It is certainly true that by many established metrics people are turning their backs on the church and traditional religious views. Belief in God, church membership, church attendance, and religious identification have all been steadily declining for years.

However, a little further digging suggests that though traditional religious beliefs and practices are waning in the Western world, the religious minds of many so-called nonbelievers appear to be quite active. Fewer people are going to church, but New Age spirituality books, seminars, and healing practices proliferate. Belief in God is on the decline, but belief in UFOs, ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena appears to be on the rise.

According to Pew Research Center data, being a “none” or an atheist does not necessarily equate to a rejection of all things supernatural; 60% of “nones” and 8% of self-reported atheists reported belief in a God or a universal spirit, and 31% of atheists indicated frequently feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being. Some atheists fall under the category of skeptic, and as a result are extremely resistant to many spiritual ideas. But this is a very small group, perhaps even smaller than what many polls suggest.

In my own research, I am particularly interested in the psychological motives that influence religiosity and whether these motives are driving interest in more nontraditional spiritual and paranormal beliefs. Religion has long been empirically linked to the need to perceive life as meaningful. Indeed, higher religiosity is reliably associated with a greater sense of meaning in life and higher psychological wellbeing more generally.

So are atheists and religious “nones” turning to nontraditional and spiritual pursuits to find meaning in life? Data coming out of our lab supports this possibility. For example, we find that experimental manipulations that threaten a sense of meaning increase attraction to a range of nontraditional supernatural and paranormal beliefs (e.g., belief in ghosts, psychic powers, the efficacy of superstitions).

The next question is whether these nontraditional interests and beliefs can effectively serve as substitutes for religion. To the extent that they help people feel like they are part of something bigger and more transcendent, they may bolster some sense of existential meaning. This might explain the broad interest in spiritual healing practices that are not supported by scientific research as well as the increasing popularity of spiritual self-help books.

However, the more subjective a belief is, the more people rely on social consensus to maintain it. This is one reason why traditional religious identity and church membership have been so vital for the maintenance of specific religious beliefs. Science cannot prove there is a God but people feel emboldened by the fact that millions of others share the same faith. Less traditional beliefs lack the existential infrastructure of broad institutional social consensus. Thus, though people may be turning to more fringe spiritual concepts to seek meaning, the extent to which these ideas and beliefs actually provide a secure sense of meaning remains unclear. More research is needed. This is an exciting future direction. As people turn away from the religion of their parents, are they struggling to find meaning or are they successfully meeting existential needs in new ways?

Another reason religion provides meaning and positively contributes to mental and physical health is because church has historically been a social gathering, a place where people come together as a community. Belongingness is a fundamental human need and religion has long served as a social glue. In the modern global religious marketplace, people can mix and match different beliefs and practices, allowing them to form a very individualized spiritual identity. Is this making them miss out on the social benefits that come with being part of a religious organization? Of course, people are forming new types of spiritual and religious organizations and creating environments for people to gather and share rituals and practices. An important question is whether these newer approaches to existential questions are successfully meeting people’s need to belong.

This is an exciting time to be studying the psychology of religion and spirituality. Some have argued that scientific advancements will eventually wipe out religion. People no longer need God to answer basic questions about how the world works. I would argue, however, that as long as humans are existential animals, organisms focused not only on living but also on living a life full of meaning, they will remain spiritually curious, seeking experiences that involve ideas and beliefs outside of a scientific understanding of the world.

*The ongoing research discussed in this post is funded by a grant (#47996) from the John Templeton Foundation.


Routledge, C. (2016, May). Beyond religion: Finding meaning in nontraditional magical beliefs. Paper presented at the annual American Psychological Society Conference at Chicago, 

About the Author

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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