The rise of the internet, high-speed connectivity, and cell phones has focused interest among scholars, journalists, and cultural observers on the status of Americans’ social lives, their ties to communities, and the vigor of the organizations to which they belong. There are those who have argued that these technologies are more likely to bind users even more closely and to enrich their social lives. There are others who worry that digital technologies are pulling people away from communities and richer social spheres and drawing them into virtual realms where communication is stunted and inferior and where social interactions are a pale shadow of the “real world.”
To assess the status of Americans’ social involvement, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project conducted a national phone survey between November 23 and December 21, 2010. Many of the overall findings are reported in The Social Side of the Internet.
That report notes that religious and spiritual organizations are by far the most popular groups among Americans, with 40% of American adults stating they are active in such groups. This is considerably higher than the next most popular organizational types, which are sports and recreation leagues (in which 24% of adults are active) and far outpaces other kinds of groups. That makes religiously active Americans a particularly interesting group to explore.
In all, respondents to the survey were asked about their possible membership in 28 different kinds of groups. Findings were:
- 40% of adults say they are active in church groups or other religious or spiritual organizations
- 24% are active in sports or recreation leagues for themselves or for their children
- 24% are active in consumer groups such as AAA or coupon-sharing groups
- 22% are active in charitable or volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity or the Humane Society
- 20% are active in professional or trade associations for people in their occupations
- 19% are active in community groups or neighborhood associations
- 18% are active in support groups for people with a particular illness or personal situation
- 17% are active in hobby groups or clubs
- 15% are active in national or local organizations for older adults such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
- 15% are active in political parties or organizations
- 14% are active in alumni associations
- 13% are active in parent groups or organizations such as the PTA or local parent support groups
- 11% are active in literary, discussion, or study groups such as book clubs
- 10% are active in performance or arts groups, such as a choir, dance group, or craft guild
- 9% are active in fan groups for a particular sports team or athlete
- 9% are active in youth groups such as the Scouts, YMCA, or 4-H club
- 8% are active in labor unions
- 8% are active in social or fraternal clubs, sororities or fraternities
- 7% are active in environmental groups
- 7% are active in sports fantasy leagues
- 7% are active in veterans organizations such as the American Legion or VFW
- 6% are active in gaming communities
- 6% are active in fan groups for a particular TV show, movie, celebrity, or musical performer
- 5% are active in ethnic or cultural groups
- 5% are active in travel clubs
- 4% are active in farm organizations
- 3% are active in fan groups for a particular brand, company, or product
- 3% say they are active in another kind of group that was not mentioned in the Pew Internet list
Given that religious groups drew by far the most members, we decided to explore more deeply the characteristics of those Americans active in religious organizations and spiritual groups, including their technology profile.
We were especially interested in these findings because there is a significant debate about the role of religious believers in public life. Some commentators have pointed to an increased polarization in America between religious conservatives and secular liberals at the edges of partisan divides, with a dwindling grouping of religious moderates in the middle. There are also concerns about how this might affect community cohesion and whether religious believers are so focused on their beliefs and spiritual lives that they might not have the inclination or energy to participate in other parts of community life. We wanted to shed some insights on these concerns.
It is important to note at the outset that this survey was conducted to take a broad reading on group activity in America and on the potential impact that technology has on group activities of all kinds – mainly secular. We were anxious to know about how those in religious groups act in their communities, but we did not probe in depth for people’s religious affiliations. Thus, we cannot produce findings comparing those connected to different faiths – for instance, how evangelical Protestants are similar to or different from Roman Catholics. We do look at the differences between those who are active in religious groups and those who aren’t; and we look at those who are serious practitioners of their faiths compared with those who are less-frequent church goers.
The results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International among a sample of 2,303 adults, age 18 and older. Telephone interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (1,555) and cell phone (748, including 310 without a landline phone). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. For results based on internet users (n=1,811), the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting telephone surveys may introduce some error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.