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Losing Faith: 21 Percent Say Religion 'Not That Important'

Image: A man prays during a service at St. Andrew's church in observance of Ash Wednesday in the Manhattan borough of New York

A man prays during a service at St. Andrew's church in observance of Ash Wednesday in the Manhattan borough of New York on March 5. CARLO ALLEGRI / Reuters

One in five Americans say religion does not play an important role in their lives, a new NBC/WSJ journal poll shows – the highest percentage since the poll began asking participants about their focus on faith in 1997.

Twenty one percent of respondents said that religion is “not that important” to their lives, compared to 16 percent who said the same in 1999. In 1997, 14 percent of Americans said religion did not play an important role in their lives.

The poll showed that these less religious Americans are more likely to be men, have an income over $75,000, to live in the Northeast or West and to be under the age of 35.

More than half of Americans still place a major emphasis on their faith. Thirteen percent of respondents in the new poll said that religion is the most important aspect of their lives, and 41 percent said it is “very important.”

The new numbers come as one of the world’s most famous faith leaders celebrates an important anniversary. Pope Francis now has a year under his belt at the Vatican, a Person of the Year title and even his own fan magazine. And the new data shows that he’s making American Catholics more committed to their faith.

According to the NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, six in ten Catholics agreed that the pope has “renewed and strengthened my religious faith and commitment to the Catholic Church.” Three in ten disagreed.

The poll also reinforced the pope’s sky-high popularity in the United States. Fifty-five percent of adults say they have a “somewhat positive” (22 percent) or “very positive” (33 percent) view of the man previously known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Only seven percent give him a negative rating, with another quarter of respondents saying they’re neutral.

Pope Francis, who has urged a focus on humility and service to the disadvantaged, fares much better in public polling than his predecessor, Benedict the Sixteenth.

In February 2013, the NBC/WSJ poll found that only 30 percent of respondents viewed Pope Benedict positively, while 17 percent said they held a negative view of him. That poll also found that more than a quarter of Americans gave poor ratings to the Catholic Church as a whole.

The new pontiff’s favorability in the United States is comparable to that of Pope John Paul the Second. The famous advocate for human rights, now set for canonization, received a rating of “very positive” from 42 percent of respondents in a January 1998 poll, with an additional 23 percent saying they had a “somewhat positive” view of him.