"It's that foundation to build from," Nelson said. "It's having a starting point for what is truth, what is morality."
The Rev. Janne Eller Isaacs, of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, said she finds a wide mix of religious affiliations, and no affiliations, in her sanctuary and youth programs on Sundays. Her message to them reflects the survey's findings, that regardless of faith, folks should develop their moral centers.
"Compassion, kindness, love, respect ... these are core for all humankind," Eller Isaacs said.
But the findings shouldn't imply religious community isn't important, she stressed.
"As humans, we can lose track of our best selves," said Eller Isaacs. "I think we need religious services to align with our best selves."
The two religious groups most leery of goodness without God were black Protestants, with just one in four agreeing religion wasn't necessary. Likewise only 38 percent of Hispanic Catholics believed religion was not needed.
Pew Research will continue monitoring these numbers, said Smith.
"We know some significant religious changes are underway in the United States," he said. "We want to know, 'What are the implications?'"
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