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    What America Thinks
    Can We Believe In
    Polls About God?

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, June 1, 1998

    Here's a tough question: Where did humankind come from? Here's another: Is there a God? And here's a tougher one, still: Can we believe the polls that ask about the origins of man and belief in God?

    The answer to the last question is: maybe – but be careful, says political scientist George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati.

    Bishop has analyzed trend data on what Americans believe about evolution and religion. He finds strong evidence that most Americans continue to reject Darwinian evolution and support what might be called a divinely directed view of man's origins, despite rising levels of education.

    But he also suggests that some widely publicized measures of belief in God may be significantly overstating belief in a higher being, particularly questions asked for more than 50 years by the Gallup Organization, the source for many of the commonly cited estimates of America's religiosity.

    The first conclusion drawn by Bishop is an obvious one: America says it is a God-fearing (and God-believing) nation. "Americans are among the most religious people in the developed world," Bishop concluded in a paper he presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research in St. Louis. "Whether measured by beliefs in God and life after death, church attendance and a host of other indicated, we appear to be a remarkably religious society."

    America's commitment to religion is even more striking when measured against other nations. Nine out of 10 Americans say they believe in a personal God; in Denmark and Sweden, the figure is only one in five. More than six in 10 Americans express unequivocal faith that there is a God, agreeing that "I know God exists and I have no doubts about it." When that same question was asked in the 1991 International Social Survey, fewer than a third of those surveyed in Great Britain, what was then West Germany, New Zealand and Austria, for example, expressed similarly unshakable faith.

    Even scientists believe in God, and in roughly the same proportions that expressed their faith more than 80 years ago, according to a 1996 survey of scientists that attempted to replicate a classic 1916 study. These contemporary researchers found that about four in 10 randomly selected scientists two years ago professed belief "in a personal God," almost exactly the same proportion as in 1916, Bishop reported.

    One key result from the current study to a question that wasn't asked in 1916: More than half – 55 percent – endorsed the Darwinian view that "humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process."

    Bishop notes, however, that "a surprisingly large percentage (40 percent) subscribed to the 'theistic evolutionist' idea that 'humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including humankind's creation.'" Only 5 percent endorsed a creationist view that God created humans "pretty much in their present form at one time within the past 10,000 years."

    Creationism is far more widespread among the general public, though polling on evolution and creationism is relatively recent.

    Gallup asked the first question about humankind's origins in November 1978, for a survey sponsored by Christianity Today. That poll found half the country believed in the literal, creationist account that "God created Adam and Eve, which was the start of human life"; one in five believed that God began the evolutionary process and then "personally intervened to create life in his own image"; one in 10 said God started the evolutionary cycle but didn't "personally create human beings" and one in five said they didn't know where humans came from.

    But Bishop notes the obvious problem: The question is heavily skewed to a supernatural creation or divine intervention. Poor Charles Darwin was ignored. But other questions asked in the early 1980s by Gallup, including a strictly Darwinian explanation, elicited a more believable response, which has remained largely unchanged in repeated askings.

    "Presently," Bishop wrote, "the percentage of Americans who identify themselves with the biblical creationist world view is about 44 percent; about four in 10 subscribe to the theistic evolutionist view; and only one out of 10 endorse the Darwinist position of natural science – this despite the rising percentage of college graduates in the population, a trend which might be expected to have at least reduced significantly the proportion of adults believing in biblical creationism."

    In fact, only one in six college graduates in recent Gallup polls expressed support for Darwinian evolution, while 53 percent favored a "God-directed" evolutionary model and 30 percent were creationists. Men, younger people and blacks were more likely to be creationists than women, those 60 or older, or whites, according to Gallup data.

    Bishop urges more caution when examining poll questions that measure belief in God. The standard Gallup question that produces estimates that 95 percent of Americans believe in God asks respondents, "Do you believe in God, or a universal spirit," the latter phrase added in 1976 to a question that had been asked by Gallup since 1944.

    That's a problem, Bishop argues, because it "lumps together two types of believers. As we can see in another 1992 Gallup poll, when the question was worded in a way that gave respondents an explicit opportunity to choose another category, 12 percent said they believed in a 'life force or spirit', which reduces the percentage believing in a personal God per se to 83 percent – about 13 percent lower than the usual Gallup question would indicate." For the record, only a tiny percentage – 2 percent – did not believe in any kind of spirit, God, or life force.

    And when he examined those who believed in a "life force or spirit," he found a dazzling array of New Age spiritualists who were "significantly more likely than those who believed in God . . . to say they believe in such things as astrology, ESP, psychic or spiritual healing, deja vu, ghosts, visits to earth by extraterrestrial beings and reincarnation."

    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 1998 The Washington Post Company

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