Americans May Be More Religious Than They Realize

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A survey released yesterday posits the idea that the United States -- already one of the most religious nations in the developed world -- may be even less secular than previously suspected.

The Baylor University survey looked carefully at people who checked "none" when asked their religion in polls. Sociologists have watched this group closely since 1990, when their numbers doubled, from 7 percent of the population to 14 percent. Some sociologists said the jump reflects increasing secularization at the same time that American society is becoming more religious.

But the Baylor survey, considered one of the most detailed ever conducted about religion in the United States, found that one in 10 people who picked "no religion" out of 40 choices did something interesting when asked later where they worship: They named a place.

Considering that, Baylor researchers say, the percentage of people who are truly unaffiliated is more like 10.8 percent. The difference between 10.8 percent and 14 percent is about 10 million Americans.

"People might not have a denomination, but they have a congregation. They have a sense of religious connection that is formative to who they are," said Kevin D. Dougherty, a sociologist at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion and one of the survey's authors. Baylor is a leading Baptist university, located in Waco, Tex.

The finding reflects the new challenges involved in trying to categorize religiosity in the United States, where people increasingly blend religions, shop for churches and worship in independent communities. Classic labels such as mainline, evangelical and unaffiliated no longer have the same meaning.

For example, 33 percent of Americans worship at evangelical congregations, which sociologists say are places that espouse an inerrant Bible, the importance of evangelizing and the requirement of having a personal relationship with Jesus. But only 15 percent of respondents to the Baylor survey said the term "evangelical" describes their religious identity.

Scholars have been saying for some time that the relevance of denomination is decreasing. But the Baylor survey, which asks about such subjects as God's "personality" and what people pray about, adds to a debate about what that means. It reveals the complex ways Americans describe their religiosity, and the minefield for today's scholars in trying to measure it. Is someone religious if they attend church? If they believe in God? If they identify with a particular religious group? What if they do one but not the others? Which gets more weight?

Academics who study religious demographics disagree about the "nones," and the Baylor study won't end that debate. Some say they are mostly secular -- those who aren't atheist but don't consider religion important. Some say they are in interfaith families and have mixed identities.

Some say they are new immigrants, including many from China, and second-generation Hispanics.

One thing the experts agree on: "Nones" tend to vote liberal but tend not to identify with a political party.

"What is most associated with 'no religion' from a political point of view is independence," said Barry Kosmin, principal investigator of a telephone survey that queried tens of thousands of respondents. His American Religious Identification Survey found that the number of "no religion" Americans jumped from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001. "If you don't belong religiously, you don't belong politically," he said.

Among the most innovative aspects of the Baylor survey, say scholars who know about it, are questions about how Americans describe God's personality. Respondents were offered 26 attributes ranging from "absolute" to "wrathful," and were asked whether God is directly involved in and angered by their lives and what happens in the world.

The researchers separated God's attributes into four categories: wrathful, involved, benevolent and uninvolved. They found that the largest category of people -- 31 percent -- was made up of those who said they believe God is both wrathful and highly involved in human affairs.

Beliefs about God's personality are powerful predictors, according to the survey. Those who considered God engaged and punishing were likely to have lower incomes and less education, to come from the South and to be white evangelicals or black Protestants. Those who believed God to be distant and nonjudgmental were more likely to support increased business regulation, environmental protection and the even distribution of wealth.

The changing demographics of the United States demand different polls as well, religion pollsters say. For example, approximately 3 percent of Americans observe faiths other than Christianity and Judaism. While still small, this group is growing rapidly, and scholars say that if current trends continue, that number could reach 10 percent in coming decades.

According to Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who focuses on religion, that is already the figure for Americans younger than 25.

Questions about the frequency of attending religious services aren't as relevant to Hindus and Buddhists, who often have worship spaces in their homes. Questions about weekly prayer services aren't as relevant to Muslims, who pray five times a day, she said.

John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life focusing on religion and politics, said: "The broader point is that this country that's always been religiously diverse is becoming religiously diverse in a new way."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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