Survey finds overlap of religious, other beliefs

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By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Can you believe in Jesus and in astrology? The answer is a resounding yes, according to a study that shows Americans' beliefs to be more complex than might be expected.

The survey -- one of the first by a major polling group to tackle Americans' belief in such things as "the evil eye" and "spiritual energy in trees" -- was conducted in August by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The goal was to explore the complexity of faith in the modern world and the overlap between religions and other supernatural beliefs.

According to results released Wednesday, the overlap is considerable. Researchers found that 24 percent of U.S. adults sometimes attend services of a faith different from their own. (That figure doesn't include people who go for special events such as weddings and funerals or attend services while traveling.)

The study also found Americans' personal beliefs often combine aspects of major religions such as Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation and astrology.

For example, 25 percent of about 4,000 U.S. adults surveyed believe in reincarnation, the rebirth of the soul in another body. Among Christians, the number drops only slightly, to 22 percent.

"We know that religion in U.S. society is quite complex and diverse. What's interesting is this data shows that even at the individual level, a single person holds that same diversity and range of beliefs," said senior researcher Gregory Smith.

Researchers asked specifically whether people believed in or had experience with the following: reincarnation, spiritual energy located in physical things, yoga as a spiritual practice, the evil eye, astrology, being in touch with the dead, consulting a psychic, encountering a ghost. About 65 percent expressed belief in at least one of them.

For most of the questions, researchers had little previous data for purposes of comparison. But two questions -- "have you ever had a religious or mystical experience" and "have you seen or been in the presence of a ghost" -- have been asked before, and in both cases, there was a significant increase in the number of people saying yes.

Nearly half of those surveyed in August said they had had a mystical or religious experience, compared with 22 percent in a 1962 survey. The percentage who said they had interacted with a ghost doubled from 9 percent in 1996 to 18 percent this year.

"We don't have hard data to explain what's behind this," Smith said. "But you look at popular culture -- the TV shows and things that are popping up nowadays -- and it could be that expressing this kind of belief is just somehow more socially acceptable today."

Clement Akoto, 52, a D.C. resident who participated in the study, said he does not see a conflict in his wide-ranging beliefs. Akoto, a Catholic who attends Mass every week, said he believes in astrology and communication with the dead and ghosts.

People have complex backgrounds, which translates into complex beliefs, Akoto said. Born in Ghana, he was taught to believe in drums and spirits but became Catholic while attending a missionary school.

"I can swing with both sides. I believe in God and in what my parents taught me," he said. "And why not? Even in the Bible, you have ghosts, you know the Holy Ghost. And with astrology, didn't Daniel mention astrologists? Didn't the Three Kings follow a star to Jesus?"


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