April 15, 2016

Many Americans don’t argue about religion – or even talk about it

Half of U.S. adults seldom or never discuss religion with non-familyAccording to Miss Manners, polite people do not bring up religion in social conversations. Of course, if Americans stayed away from all the topics the etiquette columnist deems taboo in polite company – including politics, money, sex, illness and what people are wearing – a lot of dinners would pass by in silence.

But, judging by the results of our recently released survey on religion in everyday life, religion does indeed seem to be a subject many people avoid. About half of U.S. adults tell us they seldom (33%) or never (16%) talk about religion with people outside their family. And roughly four-in-ten say they seldom (26%) or never (13%) discuss religion even with members of their immediate family.

Highly religious Americans discuss faith much more often

So who does talk about religion? Well, not surprisingly, religious people do. According to the new report, fully two-thirds of highly religious Americans – defined as those who say they pray daily and attend religious services weekly – report that they talk about religion with their immediate families at least once a week, and 43% say they talk about religion with people outside their families each week. Among less religious Americans, by contrast, just one-in-five (19%) say they talk about religion with members of their immediate family and only about one-in-ten (9%) discuss religion with people outside their family each week.

Evangelical Protestants and members of historically black Protestant churches are especially likely to have religious conversations. More than half of evangelicals say they talk about religion with people outside their family, either every week (33%) or once or twice a month (22%). But that may include a fair number of conversations with fellow evangelicals or, at least, with other Christians. Despite the common assumption that evangelicals are eager to persuade others to adopt their religious beliefs, that’s not what most say they do.

Across traditions and generations, most would not argue about religious disagreementsIn fact, in our survey, when we asked people what they do “when someone disagrees with you about religion,” just 10% of evangelicals say they “try to persuade the person to change their mind.” The vast majority of evangelical Protestants (70%) try to “understand the person’s beliefs and agree to disagree,” while about one-in-six (18%) say they “avoid discussing religion with the person” altogether.

In general, on this question, there are few differences across most major religious groups. For instance, like evangelicals, most atheists and agnostics have a live and let live attitude about religious disagreements. Indeed, the stereotype of an argumentative atheist constantly trying to persuade people to give up their religious beliefs does not fit with their self-described behavior. When atheists and agnostics encounter a person who disagrees with them about religion, only 4% say they try to persuade the person to change their mind. Fully two-thirds of people in this group say they try to understand the person’s beliefs and agree to disagree, while 30% say they avoid discussing religion with the person. Indeed, nearly three-quarters of atheists and agnostics say they either seldom (45%) or never (28%) discuss religion with people outside their family.

Millennials may be less attached to institutional religion than older Americans, but generally they are no more argumentative about religion than other generations. For example, roughly two-thirds of Baby Boomers (67%), Generation Xers (69%) and Millennials (68%) and 62% of the Silent Generation say the best thing to do when they encounter someone who disagrees with them about religion is to try to understand the other person’s views and agree to disagree. And just 7% of Boomers and Silents as well as 5% of Millennials and 4% of those in Generation X would try to change the person’s mind.

Topics: Religion and Society, Generations and Age, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. Photo of Alan Cooperman

    is director of religion research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    A friend of mine likes to bring religion up when she sees me. I don’t see her that much anymore, but the last few times I saw her she is always asking me if I still go to my Catholic Church and if I am happy there. I tell her Yes. The way she talks to me about religion I have the impression that she is only trying to convert me and yank me away from the Catholic Church. I find it interesting that with how religious she claims to be and always brings up church, she never once asked me about my religious beliefs. I think that a big part of why she doesn’t is because she does not want to hear what the Catholic Church teaches or why I joined after I stopped going to church with her. I have the impression that if we were to have a discussion about religion, she would just keep cutting me off and tell me that my beliefs are wrong. From what I have seen when I have gone to church with her in the past, she is more about the “Everything is okay speech”, and about clapping and cheering. That is not why I go to church. She was raised to belief that Catholics are NOT Christians even though they are.

    I am sure that in her job, she would not talk that way, or to other Catholic friends. A lot of the same people that she and I both know are Catholic, and I doubt that she approaches them about their beliefs. I sometimes wonder if she is trying to use church to have a reason to have contact with me. I don’t believe that I need to go to church with someone in order to be friends with them, but maybe she thinks differently. I remember when I used to go to church with her when we went to school together, she was more and more using church as a substitute for being friends. If I would ask if she would like to do something, she would say that she can’t but she will see me at church. To me that is like insult to injury.

    Not to sound long winded, but on another subject, a Facebook friend writes a post that said “I understand why people would talk about their religion or religious beliefs, but why would an Atheist talk about being Atheist? I get it-you’re an Atheist”. Surprising or not a lot of people commented on why it is not much different than a Christian needing to talk about being a Christian. One of the commenters who is Atheist said that she doesn’t have a problem to talk about when someone asks, but she doesn’t make a point to do it. Another commenter said that it can become pointless if it causes a big debate or argument. I wonder how many people have ended friendships over religious differences. Since I got on Facebook, I found that a lot of people I have known for some time are Atheists. In looking at how people carry their lives, would any of us be able to tell who the Christians, non-Christian (faiths) and Atheists are if religion were not brought up? Probably not.

  2. Craig Gosling1 year ago

    Next to Catholics, non believers are the next largest group, ambiguous as they may be. Among secular humanists, in my experience, we talk about, think about and write about religion very often. Organizations like FFRF and CFI, are very involved in social and political activities. We (they) spend considerable time discussing and acting upon their beliefs, defending the Constitution and minority rights including ours. Why is it that this activity is not mentioned in the Pew survey?

  3. sinnathamby sundaralingam1 year ago

    Religion is a way of life. Language and religion are the two main foundation of today’s many culture groups. What is more important in today’s life existence is good health, education and jobs . Modern world humanss are more concern about theses impotant issues and less concern about religion. only super rich few people in the world are today more concern about their religion.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      I am certainly not superrich. I am actually considered quite poor, however, my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life. If you think about it, this life is quite short if there is an eternal afterlife after we die. If . . . no one can know for sure , but that is a big if. Personally , I’m not willing to take the risk of not at least taking time to search for an answer to this most important question. I would encourage you to take the time to pray and ask God to lead you to the Truth. I have found Him to be really quite amazing and wonderful and I can’t imagine my life without Jesus in it

  4. Anonymous1 year ago

    I think it is interesting that only atheists or non-believers have commented on this article. I also think it is interesting that atheists and non-believers are searching out websites of faith in order to comment or find out what is happening. That is a good thing!

    God told us to go spread the gospel to all nations and all people so that all can accept Jesus as Savior and be saved to eternal life with Him. To do that we have to talk about our faith. The painful part of this article is knowing we are more disobedient than obedient in following God’s command.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      How because we don’t talk about God to others that are not in our faith ?

  5. Anonymous1 year ago

    What is there to argue about? What care I what my neighbor thinks or believes so long as he or she does not interfer in any material way with my own life or the lives of my family and friends? Be they Christians, Jews, Pantheists, Agnostics, or even devout & practicing Atheists; they are free to believe and practice what they will. As long as they do not threaten me or persecute my fellow citizens in the name of their creed, they do me no harm nor do they offend me in any way.

  6. IslandAtheist1 year ago

    How can people not talk about religion, when religion the cause of so much strife in the world?

    1. Radhika Doraisingam1 year ago

      Cause thats exactly what humankind has perfected. The art of looking away. We dont want to talk about it because we know how polarizing and contentious it is and we would just rather not put in the effort to understand it. Too much arguing and fighting over something so conceptual and debatable seems like a waste of time and is supremely tedious to the average person. Its like walking in a circles if you were shouting and arguing while doing it.

      1. Charles Randall Paul1 year ago

        Thanks for this clear post. I have observed over many years of work on this issue that it is possible to for sincere (not arrogant) people to respectfully and honestly attempt to persuade others to alter a religious or philosophical allegiance–IF they do so with mutual openness to at least the possibility of change.

        Supremely tedious arguing and fighting have no persuasive power and result in wasteful chasing in circles as you describe. However, when the contest over ultimate purpose and destiny is engaged by sincere hearts and minds new ways and belief systems change the world, lasting centuries with their persuasive influence.
        Best wishes,

    2. Anonymous1 year ago

      Religion itself isn’t the problem. It’s people who misuse religion or have active antipathy towards it.