Hidden identity: When Americans decide to keep their religious background to themselves

Daniel A. Cox January 7, 2020

For many Americans, religion is a fundamental part of who they are. It is a key facet of their identity; informing their interactions, relationships, and opinions. But for many other Americans, including a significant number of those who belong to minority religious groups, sharing religious beliefs with others is not as easy. The latest American Perspectives Survey finds that 27 percent of Americans report that they have not shared their religious beliefs or views about religion because they feared the disapproval of friends or family members. Americans who are most likely to shield their religious beliefs or views about religion from those around them are disproportionately members of religious minority groups. Atheists, agnostics, and people who belong to non-Christian religious traditions are more likely than Christians to keep their religious identities and beliefs to themselves. 42 percent of Americans who belong to a major non-Christian religious tradition say they have at one time chosen not to share their beliefs because they thought their friends or family members might disapprove. 43 percent of atheists and 40 percent of self-identified agnostics say they have done the same. In contrast, less than one-quarter of Catholics (24 percent), white mainline Protestants (22 percent), white evangelical Protestants (21 percent), and black Protestants (18 percent) have reported doing this.

There is a significant age division among white evangelical Christians in the likelihood of hiding their religious beliefs from those they know. One third (33 percent) of younger white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 39) report having not shared their religious beliefs with friends or family members, more than twice the number of white evangelical Christians age 60 or older who give that response (16 percent).

Americans who have more religiously diverse social networks are more likely to keep their views on religion to themselves. Thirty-eight percent of Americans who have a religiously diverse social network have ever kept their religious beliefs to themselves because they thought their friends or family might disapprove, compared to 26 percent of those who have less religiously diverse networks.[i]

Sharing Religion in a Diverse Social Context

Americans whose current religious identity differs from how they were raised are more likely to avoid discussing their beliefs with friends or family than those whose religious identity has remained the same (37 percent to 23 percent). This is particularly prevalent among atheists who were raised religiously, 52 percent of whom report that they have chosen not to share their beliefs or views on religion at some point. 

Americans who have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian are also more likely to keep their religious beliefs from their friends and family members than those who do not (30 percent vs. 22 percent). This is even more true of younger Americans. More than four in 10 (42 percent) younger Americans (age 18 to 34) with gay or lesbian friends report having not shared their religious beliefs with others.

Religious Doubting & Sharing Religious Beliefs

In general, Americans who express more certainty in their religious beliefs are less inclined to hide them from others. Only 21 percent of Americans who believe in God and feel certain in their belief report that they have ever not shared their religious beliefs with friends or family members. Uncertain believers are more likely to hide their religious views. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Americans who sometimes doubt their belief in God have chosen not to share their views with friends or family members at some point. Uncertain nonbelievers are the most likely to shy away from openly discussing their religious beliefs. Of those who report that they do not believe in God but entertain doubts about their views, 42 percent say they have at times refused to share their religious beliefs with friends or family members. In comparison, 32 percent of people who do not believe in God and never doubt their disbelief report having chosen not to share their views on religion at some point.

Survey Reports

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