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Do Americans Believe in God?
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, April 24, 2000

Do Americans believe in miracles? Is Heaven a real place? What about Hell? Is God a He or a She?

The answers: Yes, Yes, Maybe and None of the Above, according to a fascinating compilation of recent national surveys on God, religion, religious beliefs. It appears in the forthcoming issue of Public Perspective magazine, which is published by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

The special section titled "Beliefs" touches on issues both weighty—one article by Michael Shermer is titled "Why People Believe in God"—and findings that are, well, merely interesting. For example, more than eight in 10 Americans agree that "even today, miracles are performed by the power of God," according to a survey conducted last October by the Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Pew Research Center. Slightly more than one in three adults—36 percent—say they personally "experienced or witnessed" what they considered a miracle, according to a CBS News poll last year.

Heaven isn't just in your mind: It's a real place, say 88 percent of a national sample of adults interviewed in 1997 by Opinion Dynamics for Fox News. A more telling commentary on our beliefs is the finding that far fewer Americans—71 percent—believe in hell.

Americans are even less certain about God's sex. An ABC News survey in 1997 found that fewer than half of those interviewed—44 percent—believed that God was a man, while just as many—43 percent—said God didn't have a gender. Only 1 percent thought God was a woman, while the remainder weren't sure.

Overall, the center's survey of surveys confirms that America truly is one nation, under God—or at least Americans say it is. In survey after survey, overwhelming majorities say they believe in God. More than nine in 10 Americans—95 percent—told ABC News polltakers that they believe in God. A Gallup Organization survey for CNN and USA Today last December found much the same thing: Nearly nine in 10—86 percent—said they believed in God, while another 8 percent said they believe in some form of "Universal spirit or higher power."

What's more, nearly eight in 10 adults—78 percent—say they've always been believers, and another 6 percent say they hadn't believed but now do.

Most Americans firmly believe in God. Throughout the 1990s, the National Opinion Research Center's authoritative General Social Survey asked people about their belief in God. They found that nearly two in three—64 percent—said they "know that God really exists and I have no doubt about it." Another 17 percent acknowledged they were believers, but expressed some doubts, while 4 percent were deeply ambivalent, finding themselves "believing in God some of the time, but not at others."

Women are far more likely to be True Believers than men. An analysis of five separate GSS surveys between 1988 and 1998 found that believers were far more likely to be women (58 percent) than men (42 percent), while nonbelievers were more likely to be men (63 percent) than women (37 percent).

What's more, belief in God may be getting stronger. In 1987, a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of those interviewed "completely agreed" with the statement, "I never doubt the existence of God." Last October, the proportion expressing a similarly strong belief in God had grown to 69 percent, according to a poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research. (While nearly everyone believes in God, only 63 percent of all Americans believe there is a devil, according to the Opinion Dynamics survey.)

The Public Perspective retrospective is just one of several recent poll-driven analyses of Americans' religious attitudes. The latest issue of The American Sociological Review contains compelling evidence that belief in life after death is increasing—even among Americans who don't identify with any organized religion, writes the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a University of Chicago sociologist, best-selling novelist and a Catholic priest, and his research partner, Michael Hout of the University of California at Berkeley.

The big surprise is that Jews are leading the trend. (That's surprising, because the concept of an "afterlife is rarely discussed in Jewish life, be it among Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews," writes the Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his popular reference book "Jewish Literacy.")

But belief in life after death is growing among Jews, according to data collected in the General Social Survey conducted annually by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. In the 1970s, 19 percent of Jews said they believed in life after death.

Twenty years later, 56 percent said they believed in an afterlife. The percentage of Catholics who said there was life after death rose from 74 percent to 83 percent during the same time period.

Even Americans who say they have no religious preference are expressing greater belief in the hereafter—63 percent today, compared with 44 percent three decades ago. Overall, the proportion of Americans who believe in life after death rose from 77 percent in 1973 to 82 percent in 1998, reported Greeley and Hout. (There has been only a slight increase among Protestants in recent decades—but only because the overwhelming majority have always believed in heaven, hell and eternal life.)

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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