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Many Americans don't believe in organized religion. But they believe in a "higher power," poll finds

A third of Americans say they are "spiritual" but not religious, according to a poll released Thursday by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago. 

As the number of adults who belong to a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped — in 2021, membership fell below half for the first time in eight decades  — another form of religiosity has emerged: spirituality. And there are many different forms spirituality can take. 

"If 'religion' for many has become a toxic brand, 'spirituality' has become the term to describe all those good things one wants to retain from religion: a sense of the transcendent, first and foremost, but more generally a vocabulary to talk about what one experiences in love, in art, in nature, in meditation or introspection. The need for these things hasn't gone away," Matthew Hedstrom, an associate professor in religion at the University of Virginia, told CBS News.

Hedstrom added that "spirituality is often about finding practices or beliefs that work" for the individual. 

According to the poll, almost 80% believe in God or a "higher power," and around 70% believe in angels, heaven, or the power of prayer. 

However, 88% said they had little or no confidence in religious or spiritual leaders or organized religion.

The survey found that belief in karma — the idea that people's actions come back to them in this lifetime or the next — was high, at 63%.

Somewhat fewer, but still a majority, said they believed in hell (58%) or the devil (56%).

Smaller numbers cited yoga, a sense of "spiritual energy" in physical objects, astrology and reincarnation as ways to experience religious spirituality. Americans who reported no or limited ties to religion said they found fulfillment in the outdoors, spending time with family, and hobbies, the poll found.

Belief in spirituality or religion can result in positive effects for many people, regardless of the approach. Spirituality gives humans "a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves," says the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and "incorporates healthy practices for the mind and body," which can positively influence mental health.

Religion, the organization notes, "provides a sense of structure" and allows people to connect over similar beliefs. 

However, since 2016, confidence in organized religion in the U.S. has dropped by half. Just 10% of the respondents in the AP-NORC survey said they still possess a "great deal of confidence" in organized religion. Sexual abuse scandals and social and political stances were cited as factors that have driven many away from organized religion, the poll found. 

Penny Edgell, a professor of sociology who studies religion and non-religion at the University of Minnesota, told CBS station WCCO in 2021 that people had increasingly begun to associate religion "with political stances they don't favor."

Around half of U.S. adults, according to the poll, do not consider themselves religious, and 68% percent of those say they made this choice because they don't like organized religion. 

The poll, which was conducted from May 11-15, surveyed 1,680 adults nationwide on their feelings about religion. 

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