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(RNS) Religious institutions may be waning in the U.S, but private religious practices like prayer are actually on the rise, a new University of Chicago report reveals.
While weekly attendees of religious services dropped from 32 to 26 percent of the population between 1983 and 2006, people praying daily rose from 54 to 59 percent in the same time period.
“There’s some weakening of traditional religious affiliation and practices such as attending religious services, but there’s a slight increase in belief in the afterlife and a slight increase in the frequency of … prayer,” said Tom Smith, author of “Religious Change around the World,” which was released Friday (Oct. 23).
“It’s partly a transformation, or kind of a recalibration, of what it means to be religious in America, rather than a simple decline.”
In 1973, 69 percent of respondents said they believed in the afterlife. By 2006, 73 percent believed in the hereafter.
Belief in God remains strong, according to a range of surveys, said Smith, the director of the General Social Survey at the university’s National Opinion Research Center.
“If we were just having what secularization theory predicted, then we would be seeing everything going down across the board,” he said.
Instead, while some Americans continue to attend services and be involved in other spiritual practices, others have “redefined” what it means to be religious.
“They no longer think that means they need to go to Mass or services every week, but they still have some type of religious belief and practice, more often personal than organized,” said Smith.
The percentage of people who never have attended a religious service was 22 percent in 2006, a sharp increase from 9 percent in 1972.
Amid changes about how Americans view their own religious life, there has been growing tolerance of those who shun or question religion.
Asked if someone who is “against all churches and religion” should be permitted to speak in their community, 76 percent of respondents agreed in 2008. Just 37 percent agreed with allowing such a speaker in 1954. The percentage who thought such a person should be permitted to teach in a college increased even more dramatically, from 12 percent to 60 percent.
Smith attributes these changes less to any waning of religion and more to “the general growth of tolerance” in the country.
He also drew comparisons between the United States and other parts of the world, finding that, overall, Americans differ with Western Europeans, who tended to have a declining sense of the importance of God.
“Americans aren’t there,” said Smith. “Americans are much more, `I feel close to God.’ `God is important.”‘
The report’s General Social Survey statistics include random samples of adults ranging from 1,500 to 4,500 with a margin of error ranging from plus or minus 2 percentage points to plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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