How Americans stand out in surveys on what makes life meaningful

Family is a common source of meaning for people around the world. Faith? Not so much

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If you were to be asked what gives your life meaning, what would you say?

I’m going to guess you’d point to your family, since that was the most popular response in 14 of the 17 countries recently surveyed by Pew Research Center.

I feel safe assuming that faith didn’t immediately come to your mind, especially if you’re from outside the United States. Responses related to religion or spirituality beat out only pets when Pew ranked the popularity of commonly cited sources of meaning.

“Outside of the U.S., religion is never one of the top 10 sources of meaning cited — and no more than 5% of any non-American public mention it,” researchers wrote.

Inside the U.S., however, faith makes it into the top five. Fifteen percent of American respondents named God or religion as a source of meaning, putting faith behind only family, friends, material well-being and work on the country-specific ranking.

Faith is even more popular among U.S. Republicans. It’s the second-most common answer for members of this group. (Family and children came in first.)

“Around 1 in 5 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (22%) say spirituality, faith or religion gives them meaning in life, compared with only 8% of Democrats and those who lean to the party,” Pew reported.

All of this interesting new data reminds me of a story I worked on in 2018 after Pew released a similar report. Then, as now, researchers found that few folks think of faith as an important source of meaning, despite how common it is — at least in the U.S. — to believe in God and identify as religious.

One of the researchers I spoke to for that article posed a theory to explain this result that I still find compelling. Basically, he said that people only rarely think of religion when asked to name sources of meaning since it exerts a much more subtle influence on our daily lives than our loved ones, our jobs or even our pets.

In other words, faith typically bubbles along beneath the surface of people’s lives while other sources of meaning, like kids or co-workers, are more noticeable due to their constant demands.

“If you ask people what makes their lives meaningful, most people don’t say religion, except for the most devout people. That’s because because if you’re devoutly religious, you’re praying every day and doing Bible studies. Religion is at the top of your mind,” Clay Routledge, a professor at North Dakota State University, told me in 2018.

Faith is also unique in that it helps us draw closer to other potential sources of meaning, like our neighbors or service projects.

“I think religion helps shepherd people towards one another, and then those relationships stand out as most meaningful to them,” Routledge said.

Fresh off the press

Term of the week: Hanukkiah

No, that’s not a typo. A hanukkiah is something different than Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that started Sunday night. However, it is an essential part of the festivities.

A hanukkiah is a candelabra with room for nine candles (one for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah and then the “helper” candle that’s used to light them.) It’s commonly referred to as the menorah, or Hanukkah menorah, even though technically menorah refers to the seven-branched candelabra that’s used in Jewish temples.

To learn more about the hanukkiah and other Hanukkah traditions, check out my colleague Mya Jaradat’s great explainer on the holiday.

What I’m reading ...

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In addition to the study on sources of meaning, Pew Research Center released a report this month on suffering. More specifically, researchers explored Americans’ views on the reasons bad things happen in the world. People are more likely to blame their fellow human beings than to blame God, Pew found.

Unlike Brigham Young University’s football team, Stanford’s squad is not dominated by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the handful of Latter-day Saints who do play there are making a significant mark on the team. The Associated Press recently explored how these players’ mission experiences inform their relationships with their teammates and help unify the whole organization.

In the fall of 1977, Maria Rubio spotted the face of Jesus on a tortilla she’d just made. That moment changed her family’s life forever, according to Slate.

Odds and ends

In August, I was a panelist for a Georgetown University event about tension between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. A video of the discussion is now available online.

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