The Pew Forum on Religion “& Public Life released the second part of their major study on the U.S. Religious Landscape this past week. I’ve been working my way through the reports this week in between house buying and selling, prepping a college course, and going to a Sox game.
This part of the report deals with Americans’ religious beliefs and practices and how those correlate to their opinions on political and social issues. Although Unitarian Universalists are too small a group to statistically figure into the report on their own, there are some interesting trends that bear on on UU life and practice in addition to issues of importance to any religious person, UU’s included.
Remember, this survey sampled 35,000 Americans and is the only survey of its scope and depth on these issues, yet it is still a survey. It leaves me asking how certain questions were framed. For example, a “strong majority in every religious tradition do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation.” Who says that religion is about “salvation?” What does “salvation” mean? Just asking the question puts the entire religious landscape in Christian framework where the task of the religious life is to save to your soul from the torments of hell in the afterlife. Another finding of the study is line with this one and poses similar problems – “most Americans agree that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life.” Again, who says that eternal life is the end of the religious life? Or even a goal at all? The study seem to posit this as a positive in the American religious landscape, but what about people who don’t believe in an afterlife?
Some things of which I took note:
Americans are NOT atheists. 92% of the adult population believes in God, 71% with absolute certainty (whatever that means). “Certainty and nature of believe in God, however, vary widely across religious groups.” Absolute certainty in God’s existence is highest among Jehovah’s Witnesses (93%), Mormons (90%), evangelicals (90%), and members of historically black denominations (90%). These majorities in similar, but not quite as high numbers view God as a person with whom they can have a personal relationship. Again, similar numbers of these groups view the Bible as the word of God, whereas the American average is only 63%. “By contrast Buddhists (67%), Jews (53%), and Hindus (47%) are more likely to view their scriptures as the work of men than as the word of God”
“Majorities of Jews (83%), Buddhists (75%), Hindus (92%) and unaffiliated (70%) express a belief in God, but these groups tend to be less certain in their belief.” The Buddhist number surprised me because technically Buddhists are atheists, but among the number of self identified Buddhists there must be Christian-Buddhists and Hindu-Buddhists and Jewish Buddhists.
Universalism could claim some modest gains in a sense as belief in hell “is less common than is belief in life after death or heaven, with about six-in-ten Americans (59%) expressing belief in hell.”
People who are religious are not necessarily traditionalists. Only a “44% plurality affiliated with a particular faith say their religion should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices while 35% say their religion should adjust to new circumstances.” If you think Unitarian Universalists automatically belong in that 35% group, you’ve been in a committee meeting or a board meeting and heard the words, “but that’s not the way we do it here.” Words that have been called the “Last words of a dying church” by more than one church growth consultant.
Belief in the supernatural is very high with 79% of adult Americans believing in miracles. This of course, makes me want to ask, “what is a miracle?” Seven-in-ten American believe angels and demons are active in the world. (Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” rattled and fell off my book shelf as if pushed by Dr. Sagan’s spirit). Belief along these lines is higher among Mormons and evangelicals and traditionally black Protestant groups. Belief in miracles, angels and demons is less among Jews, Buddhists and Hindus and unaffiliated people.
Six-in-ten Americans pray daily and four-in-ten meditate daily.
There’s no great surprise in the findings that Mormons and evangelicals tend to be more conservative politically and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus and atheists are more liberal than the general population.
“One of the realities of politics in the U.S. today is that people who regularly attend worship services and hold traditional religious view are much more likely to hold conservative political view while those who are less connected to the religious institutions and more secular in their outlook are more likely to hold liberal political views. The connection between religious intensity and political attitudes appears to be especially strong when it comes to issues such as abortion and homosexuality.”
This we know. What I find more interesting is the growing consensus across religious lines about he need for government involvement in providing need to the poor and doing something about the environmental crisis. The study bears this out.
“On the question of the government’s role in providing aid to the needy, for instance, large majorities of most religious traditions agree that the government should do more to help need Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt. “(I would have liked to see the answer to the question, even if it means redirecting the vast military budget). “A similar consensus exists across the board with respect to view on the environment, with majorities of most religious groups saying the stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. And majorities within most religious traditions say that diplomacy rather than military strength is the best way to ensure peace.”
54% of Americans who claim a religious tradition do not feel there is a conflict between their faith and living in modern society, yet “a substantial minority across nearly all religious traditions believe such a tension exists.”
78% of Americans believe there are absolute standards of right and wrong, yet only 9% report relying on philosophy and reason and science (5%) for guidance in determining their beliefs about what is right and wrong. I found this to be the scariest fact in the entire report.
The second scariest fact in the report was this: “Despite their overall feelings of satisfaction with their personal lives, and even higher levels of satisfaction with their family lives, only about a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country (as of the summer of 2007 when the survey was conducted). Members of historically black churches (17%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (10%) are among the least satisfied with the overall direction of the country.”
In the richest country in the world, in the most developed time in history, 3/4 of the population are unhappy. In country at war with a history of racism that unhappiness level is higher among people of color and a pacifist group. I really can’t say I’m too surprised. Yet, for all the religiosity, all the faith, where is our spirit? For all the religious values, what do we really value? For so many to feel unsatisfied and unhappy, what does that say about us?
The summary report is an 18 page pdf file and the full report is a 268 page pdf file and it is also available by intro, chapters and appendices in separate sections. You can get them all from the Pew Forum web site here.