The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Ohio State researcher believes four shifts may factor into the trend.


Fewer Americans than ever may be thanking God as they sit down to dinner tonight.

Religious participation is declining among Americans, even though religion remains very popular. According to the latest Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Forum, the percentage of Americans who believe in God, attend religious services and pray daily has declined significantly during the last eight years, especially among adolescents. The drop in religious participation is larger among whites and less among blacks. One group bucking the trend is political conservatives, who show no decline.

The Pew surveys document the rise in secularism but don’t attempt to explain it.

As a researcher at The Ohio State University who has spent 30 years studying human motivation, I believe we embrace or reject religion based on our values. I see four possible psychological reasons for the recent rise in secularism in America based on decades of studying what makes people tick.

Decades ago, my colleagues and I began by creating a list of every possible goal or motive we could think of. We then asked people to rate the extent to which each goal motivated them.

The respondents indicated how much they love to learn, for example, play sports or do things their way. We have surveyed about 100,000 people from many cultures in North America, Europe and Asia.

As described in my book Who Am I?: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Behavior and Define Our Personality, we discovered that humans share 16 basic desires:

Acceptance, curiosity, eating, family, honor, idealism, independence, order, physical activity, power, romance, saving, social contact, status, tranquility and vengeance.

My colleagues and I now believe that everything that moves us — all human motives — expresses one or more of these 16 basic desires.

For the past 10 years, we have been learning how these desires play out in religion and spirituality. In my latest book, The 16 Strivings for God: The New Psychology of Religious Experience, I suggest that virtually all religious beliefs and practices express one of the 16 basic desires, or two or more of them acting together. Your most important desires may be curiosity and social contact, for example, but your partner’s most important needs may be acceptance and order.

We have a choice of satisfying our desires through religion and spirituality or through secular institutions. Religion rises and falls in popularity depending on how well it satisfies our needs versus the secular alternatives. Viewed in this light, four major shifts in secular culture may be behind the decline in religious affiliation.

Organized religion versus spirituality

Historically, mysticism — or what some call “spirituality” — has been associated with disinterest in organized religion. More Americans than ever are saying that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” In the 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated. That number has increased to 23 percent in the latest study.

Tribalism versus humanitarianism

A common way of honoring one’s ancestors is to embrace their moral code and religion. Historically, loyalty to the tribe and clan has motivated participation in organized religion. The global economy may have significantly increased social contact among people from different cultures and religions. As we learn the similarities of people everywhere, I suggest that many of us may be less inclined to think of people as Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, and more inclined to think of people of faith as similar regardless of religious affiliation.

Share your views

Interested in sharing your thoughts on this trend and your personal experiences with religion and spirituality? Email us at and include “religion” in the subject line. We’ll publish a selection in a future issue of the alumni magazine.

Traditional versus nontraditional families

Historically, organized religions have relied heavily on the family to raise religious children and recruit new church members. Today, we have a major restructuring of the family, with fewer than half of U.S. kids living in a traditional family. This change in family structure may be responsible for less successful religious training and recruitment of young people.

Trust vs. loss of confidence in institutions

The Internet has given us unprecedented access to information about our institutions, many times exposing their darker sides. Confidence in religion, in particular, is at an all-time low, partly because of religious scandals in the Catholic Church and elsewhere. Such scandals encourage cynicism among many observers regardless of their religious affiliation.

I believe these four factors have played a role in making organized religion less adept at meeting people’s basic desires. That doesn’t mean this will always be so. Religion may change and adapt — as it has before — to better meet our basic human needs.

Whether it will remains an open question.

A longer version of this article was published in The Conversation. Click here to read to the full article.