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Pew Forum Survey on Religion in America

Greg Smith
Research Fellow, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
Monday, June 23, 2008 2:30 PM

Greg Smith, a research fellow for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, was online Monday, June 23 at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss the institute's extensive new survey of American religious beliefs.

More Than 90 Percent of Americans Believe in God, Study Finds (Post, June 23)

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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Washington, D.C.: The famous scientist Richard Dawkins (the author of "The God Delusion" and a huge figure in secularism/atheism debates) has always claimed that the number of atheists in America is very much underreported. He argues that many more Americans than one would think, particularly those who are well-educated, don't really believe in a higher power, even though they may be afraid to say this publicly. Does this study debunk Dawkins' claim? And does it imply something about the education level of most Americans?

Greg Smith: When asked about their religious affiliation, the survey finds that slightly less than 2% of the public describes themselves as atheists. By contrast, when asked whether or not they believe in God or a universal spirit, about twice as many (5%) say that they do not believe in God. So, technically, there are more atheists in the United States than there are people who call themselves atheists.

It's also worth keeping in mind, however, that the overwhelming majority of Americans (92%) says they do believe in God. To be sure, there is a considerable degree of diversity in the nature of these beliefs and the certainty with which these beliefs are held, which we document in our report.

As far as the link between education and belief in God, the survey does show that those people who have graduated from college are slightly less likely than those with a high school education or less to believe in God (89% vs. 94%). There is a bigger difference, though, when we look at certainty...people with a college education are 10 points less likely than those with a high school education or less to say they are absolutely certain that God exists.

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Linthicum, Md: Are evangelicals in America composed of those few evangelical denominations (e.g., PCA), or are they primarily made up of non-aligned community-type churches?

Thanks.

Greg Smith: The evangelical tradition consists of members of dozens of different religious denominations. The largest single denomination within the evangelical tradition is the Southern Baptist Convention, accounting for one-in-four of all evangelicals. Independent Baptists account for roughly one-in-ten evangelical Protestants. And members of nondenominational churches make up 13% of the evangelical population.

Appendix 3 to our report, which can be found at www.pewforum.org, includes all of the specific information as to which denominations fall into each religious tradition.

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Washington, DC: What was the most surprising finding in your survey?

Greg Smith: The most striking finding to me was the consistency with which members of a great variety of religious traditions express relatively non-dogmatic or flexible views about salvation and the interpretation of their faith. Overall, seven-in-ten religiously affiliated people told us that "many religions can lead to eternal life." And nearly as many indicated that "there is more than one true way" to interpret the teachings of their faith. These sentiments were expressed by majorities of nearly every religious tradition, including 57% of evangelicals, 79% of Catholics, and 83% of mainline Protestants who said that many religions can lead to eternal life.

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Washington, DC: The terms of the survey seem rather broad, and I wonder if they were that broad. If they were, I wonder how that broadness affects the findings of the survey.

For example, the "higher reality" people call "God" can be conceived as:

1. "a supernatural personal being who may intervene in the laws of nature," or as

2. something like a "divine force field that generally 'guides' the laws of nature," or as

3. "the synergistic whole that is greater than all the parts and laws of nature and then acts back to shape and shift those laws and parts."

People who hold these quite different ideas, all lumped together as "God," can think of each other as horribly naive or wrong-headedly wrong or even as quite dangerous. They can still get into spiritual food fights or nuclear threats.

So what are your further thoughts on this?

Greg Smith: The survey asked everyone if they believe "in God or a universal Spirit." We then followed up by asking people who indicated that they do believe in God or a universal spirit two follow-up questions -- about the level of certainty with which they hold this belief, and about whether they concieve of God as a person or as an impersonal force.

As with so many other questions, the survey finds considerable diversity once we put all of these elements together. In total, 51% of the public says they believe that God is a person with whom they can have a relationship and that they are absolutely certain that God exists. Another 14% think of God as an impersonal force and are absolutely certain that God exists. The remaining one-third or so of the public is less certain about whether God exists or believe that God does not exist at all.

To see a breakdown of how religious groups think of these topics, see page 28-29 of the PDF report, available for download from our website, www.pewforum.org.

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Laurel: Did your survey collect data that would help answer how many voters inform their political opinions via a belief in the End Times? There's been a lot of interest in recent years in things like Rapture and Left Behind. But do we know how many people interpret this belief as a reason that long-range issues like environmental degradation and sustainable energy are unimportant; or that support military aggression in the Middle East as a way to accelerate Millenium?

Greg Smith: The survey did not ask about people's beliefs about the end times, but it did ask them about the biggest influences on their political thinking. Overall, relatively few people (14%) cite their religious beliefs as the biggest influence on their political thinking -- compared with 19% who cite the media (19%) and only about one-third as many who cite their own personal experience (34%).

But many analyses have shown that there is a very strong correlation between people's religious characteristics (i.e., their religious affiliation and their level of religious commitment) and their political views and voting decisions. In fact, religion may be playing a more powerful, albeit indirect, role in shaping people's thinking than most Americans recognize.

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Vienna, Va.: I find it astonishing that most Americans believe in angels and demons. Does that include Christian and non-Christian faiths, like Jews and Muslims and Hindus?

Greg Smith: Two-thirds of U.S. adults say that they believe angels and demons are active in the world. Significant majorities of members of Christian traditions agree with this statement, including about nine-in-ten members of historically black and evangelical Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons. By comparison, less than half of Buddhists and Hindus, and less than a quarter of Jews, say angels and demons are active in the world.

It's also interesting to note that 40% of those who are unaffiliated with any religion believe in the existence of angels and demons.

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Washington, D.C.: How is it possible that "one in five atheists" proclaim a belief in God, according to your article? Doesn't that contradict the definition of the word "atheist"?

Greg Smith: The thing to remember is that this survey sorts people into religious groups based solely on their self-described religious affiliation. Overall, we found slightly less than two percent of adults describing their religion as "atheist."

As you correctly note, however, some of these people later told us that they believe in God. This could indicate that some people identify with the term atheist without fully understanding the definition of that term. It could also mean that they identify culturally with atheists, or that they have a negative view of organized religion, even though they themselves believe in God.

This point also illustrates the great diversity that exists within every religious tradition in the United States. Just as there are some self-identified atheists who say they believe in God, the "converse," so to speak, is also true -- there are members of many religious traditions who say that they do not believe in God.

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Concord, N.H.: Interesting numbers, though there are parts of the presentation I have questions on. The article states that "For example, along with 21 percent of the people who describe themselves as atheists but express a belief in God or a universal spirit".

That seems disengenuous to include atheists and agnostics who express a belief in a "universal spirit" with the people who are devout followers of organized religion. That subset would probably bristle at having their belief in something greater than themselves equated with more traditional followers.

It is clear that the vast majority of the country believes in God, but I'd be shying away from the veracity of your conclusions if that numerator in the 90% percentil range includes those atheists/agnostics who expressed a far more vague belief in another power, not the specific and capitalized "God".

Is there a link to methodology of the survey construction or a breakdown of the various subsets?

Greg Smith: I think this question deals with many of the same issues as another that was answered previously. But I would like to point out that full details about the survey methodology, including the definition and size of the various religoius groups, are provided in the report. See http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2religious-landscape-study-appendix4.pdf and

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Arlington, VA: I read the AP article about the survey. As a former Catholic who is now an atheist I am always interested in these sorts of things. I am somewhat encouraged that people seem to be more receptive to the idea that other religions can be just as "good" as their own. I hope that means they are equally tolerant of those of us who are not religious. Did you ask any questions related to "legacy"? By that I mean how many people identify themselves as Roman Catholic, for example, merely because their parents were RC? And is there any evidence that such people are any more or less invested in the beliefs of that religion than perhaps people who chose that religion on their own? Are non-Christian religions seeing any sort of growth?

Greg Smith: It's hard to know exactly how many people currently describe themselves as belonging to a particular religion simply because they were raised in that faith, even though they no longer hold the beliefs or engage in the practices in which they were raised. Our survey does show, however, that religious switching is very common in the United States. In fact, in the first report based on this survey (released in late February), we showed that more than four-in-ten American adults currently have a religious affiliation that is different from that in which they were raised.

Thanks to everyone for your very insightful questions. Please visit our website, www.pewforum.org, for more details and interesting findings from the study.

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