It's an age-old topic debate: Must you believe in God in order to hold strong moral values?

Most Americans now say "No," according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Fifty-six percent of adults surveyed say you can be a good person without divine faith, up from 49 percent in 2011.

Not surprisingly, 85 percent of adults who were not affiliated with a religion agreed. But so did 49 percent of Catholics and 41 percent of Protestants. In fact, nearly two-thirds of white mainline Protestants said that religion is not a requirement for personal morality.

Pew Research has tracked this figure since 2002. The figure has hovered around 50 percent since then. The new survey revealing an uptick was an attempt to learn what was behind the growth.

"We wanted to know whether this was just a function of people not identifying with a particular religion, or whether the attitudes of religious folks [were] changing," said Greg Smith, an associate director of research at the Pew Center. "We found that both were occurring."

The survey reflected the ever-growing number of "Nones," Americans who now label themselves as "with no religion" or "spiritual but not religious." It also reflects a growing recognition that not everyone with strong moral convictions is attending religious services on weekends.

Even the more conservative branches of Protestants are warming up to the concept. For example, the percentage of white evangelicals who agreed religion wasn't necessary jumped from 26 percent in 2011 to 32 percent today, the survey showed.

Joel Nelson, director of church expansion for Converge North Central, the St. Paul regional office for Baptist congregations, takes a nuanced view of the findings. He understands why people say religion isn't necessary, but argues that God is at work in them anyway.

"God is the author of morality," said Nelson. "Whether I acknowledge that or not, it doesn't mean the individual can't make the right decisions in day-to-day life."

But believing in God helps people facing ethical decisions, he said.

"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?' "

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511