A woman relaxes in her house, eyes closed in prayer, deep thought or meditation. (RyanJLane via Getty Images)
(RyanJLane via Getty Images)

The share of Black Americans who do not identify with any religion is increasing, as is true among Americans overall. Still, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Black Americans believe in God and about half pray regularly, although few attend religious services, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

And in guided, small-group discussions, unaffiliated Black adults expressed a distinction between believing in a higher power and engaging in practices common among religiously affiliated Black Americans.

Pew Research Center conducted this study to explore the breadth and diversity of Black Americans’ religious experiences. This survey represents the Center’s most comprehensive, in-depth study of the subject, drawing on a nationally representative sample of 8,660 Black adults (ages 18 and older). The sample consists of a wide range of adults who identify as Black or African American, including some who identify as both Black and Hispanic or Black and another race (such as Black and White, or Black and Asian).

Survey respondents were recruited from four nationally representative sources: Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (conducted online), NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel (conducted online or by phone), Ipsos’ KnowledgePanel (conducted online) and a national cross-sectional survey by Pew Research Center (conducted online and by mail). Responses were collected from Nov. 19, 2019, to June 3, 2020, but most respondents completed the survey between Jan. 21 and Feb. 10, 2020.

The survey was complemented by guided, small-group discussions (focus groups). These gave Black Americans the opportunity to describe their religious experiences in their own words.  

Here are the questions used for the survey, along with responses, and its methodology. Here is the methodology for the focus groups.

Nine-in-ten religiously unaffiliated Black Americans believe in some kind of higher power

Nine-in-ten Black “nones” – people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – believe in God or another higher power, according to the survey. Among religiously affiliated Black Americans – those who adhere to Christian and non-Christian faiths – 99% believe in God.

Overall, “nones” make up 21% of Black U.S. adults. Most in that category say their religion is “nothing in particular” (18%), while far fewer describe themselves as agnostic (2%) or atheist (1%).  Since so few Black Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, the two groups are analyzed together in this post.

The widespread belief in God among Black “nones” is driven primarily by those who say their religion is nothing in particular, rather than those who identify as atheist or agnostic. Among those who say their religion is nothing in particular, 94% believe in God or some other higher power.

Among Americans overall, about seven-in-ten “nones” believe in God or a higher power. That includes 86% of adults who describe their religion as nothing in particular and 46% of atheists and agnostics.

About half of Black ‘nones’ believe in higher powers outside of those defined in religious texts

Although nearly all Black “nones” believe in God or a higher power, the nature of that belief is different from that of Black Americans who identify with a religion. Only 36% of Black “nones” believe in the God of the Bible or other scripture, compared with 85% of religiously affiliated Black Americans.

Among Black Americans who say their religion is nothing in particular, 41% believe in the God of the Bible, but a larger share (52%) believe in some other kind of higher power or spiritual force in the universe. Among Black atheists and agnostics, 3% believe in the God of the Bible or other scripture, while 60% believe in another higher force.

Majority of religiously unaffiliated Black Americans believe that God controls what happens in the world

Many Black “nones” also believe in a God or higher power who is involved in human affairs. For example, six-in-ten Black “nones” believe that God has the power to control what happens in the world, a view shared by nearly nine-in-ten religiously affiliated Black adults. Likewise, nearly half of Black “nones” (48%) believe that God will judge people for their actions, and sizable minorities also say that God determines what happens in their personal lives (39%) and speaks to them directly (27%). On all of these questions, those who say their religion is nothing in particular are more likely than those who identify as atheist or agnostic to believe in an engaged God, but less likely to do so than religiously affiliated Black adults.

Morality is another area that clearly separates the beliefs of religiously unaffiliated and affiliated Black Americans. Only 28% of all Black “nones” report that it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. Twice as many religiously affiliated Black Americans believe this (61%). Once again, those who say their religion is nothing in particular (31%) are far more likely than those who are atheist or agnostic (4%) to say this.

Black ‘nones’ more likely than religiously affiliated Black Americans to believe in reincarnation

A similar pattern can be seen on a variety of other beliefs that were asked about in the survey, but not all of them. For example, Black “nones” are more likely than religiously affiliated Black Americans to believe in reincarnation (47% vs. 37%), but they are significantly less likely to believe that prayer can heal illness (51% vs. 86%) or that evil spirits can cause problems in a person’s life (57% vs. 78%). And Black “nones” are about as likely as those affiliated with a religion to believe that prayers to ancestors prevent harmful events (36% vs. 32%). Among  “nones,” Black atheists and agnostics are much less likely than those who say their religion is nothing in particular to report that they believe in any of these things.

About half of unaffiliated Black Americans pray at least monthly, but few attend religious services

Although many Black “nones” believe in God, they are much less likely to engage in most religious practices asked about in the survey.

About eight-in-ten Black “nones” seldom or never attend religious services (81%), triple the share of religiously affiliated Black adults who do so (27%). Large majorities of people in the “nothing in particular” category (79%) seldom or never attend services, as is the case for  atheists and agnostics (93%).

When it comes to prayer, there is more variation. The share of Black “nones” who say they rarely or never pray (45%) is nearly identical to the share who pray multiple times a week (43%). However, regular prayer is much more common among those who say their religion is nothing in particular (48%) than among those who identify as atheist or agnostic (11%). Among religiously affiliated Black Americans, 91% say they pray multiple times a week.

Nearly one-in-five religiously unaffiliated Black Americans burn candles, incense or sage for spiritual or religious reasons

The engagement of Black “nones” in other spiritual practices also shows significant variation. About four-in-ten Black “nones” say they meditate at least monthly, compared with half of religiously affiliated Black adults. And 12% of Black “nones” say they pray at altars or shrines in their homes at least monthly, compared with 22% of affiliated Black adults. But there is little difference between unaffiliated and affiliated Black adults on the burning of incense or sage for spiritual reasons (17% vs. 13% among affiliated) or on consulting a diviner for spiritual guidance (8% vs. 13%) at least monthly. Even though these practices are generally not widespread, Black adults who say their religion is nothing in particular engage in virtually all of them more than atheists and agnostics.

Black ‘nones’ and their beliefs: In their own words

As part of the recent study, Pew Research Center asked a focus group composed exclusively of Black American “nones” what they think about religion and spirituality. Some common themes were reflected in these responses.

Much like in our survey results, most group participants were “nones” who believed in some kind of higher power. Many of them talked about how their spiritual practices do not require a house of worship to maintain. For example, one woman said, “You could believe in God without going to church.” Another woman added: “You don’t need the building. The church is in you.”

Another woman suggested that many Black people go to church because it is the only spiritual path they are familiar with: “I just think that we don’t know another way of doing it. Because there’s other forms of guidance and comfort and inspiration and things like that … there’s another form of being close to God which is kind of like meditation. We don’t always have to run to a place because I always believe that you are a temple. Your body is a temple.”

When reflecting on a personal struggle, a participant talked about how she relied on her inner strength to progress: “If I’m going through something, the only way I’m going to get through it … is by talking to myself, sitting by myself, thinking with myself. What do I want, where do I want to be, what am I doing that’s wrong, what am I doing that’s right? … At the end of the day, it’s your feelings, so you have to get to the root of your own problems, and I do that by myself, alone. I don’t need anything else.”

On the subject of personal spiritual practices, one man said: “I just feel like I have a relationship with God. I don’t need to burn nothing to say, I love you, Father. Thank you, Father. I don’t need to wear an article of clothing or sit in a quiet place, because my world isn’t quiet.”

Members of the group generally felt that houses of worship were not a necessary component of their spiritual lives. Instead, group participants talked about personal spiritual practices including self-reflection, meditation, and consulting friends and family for spiritual support.

Note: Here are the questions used for the survey, along with responses, and its methodology. Here is the methodology for the focus groups.

Kiana Cox  is a research associate focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.