With an American penchant for polling regularly on almost every issue, insights from national or global surveys can present the startling or just the obvious - especially when it comes to religion.
A recent Gallup World Poll offers what some might consider surprising results about attitudes within predominantly Muslim countries toward women in government. In all but one of eight nations surveyed, a clear majority supports women holding leadership positions.
The results ranged from 54 percent support in Egypt to 78 percent in Iran to 91 percent in Lebanon. Only in Saudi Arabia was there less than majority backing (40 percent). The findings point up the fact that women have been elected to top posts in Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
In US polling, Gallup has been checking up on attendance at houses of worship. An analysis of thousands of interviews over the past two years shows that 42 percent of Americans say they attend church regularly (similar to past years). About the same percentage say they "seldom" or "never attend."
Not surprisingly, perhaps, attendance remains highest in the South and in Utah, and lowest in New England and western states, ranging from about 58 percent in Alabama down to 24 percent in Vermont and New Hampshire. The Church of Christ, Mormons, and Pentecostals have the highest attendance rate - about two-thirds; only 15 percent of Jews regularly go to synagogue.
Controversy has long surrounded the Roman Catholic Church's refusal to support condom use in the fight against AIDS, consistent with its opposition to contraception. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, recently made headlines by suggesting that exceptions might be called for. Now John Allen, Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, reports that a draft study is being prepared at the Vatican that would accept the use of condoms, but only within the narrow context of marriage, where one partner has HIV/AIDS. The study still faces review before going to the pope.
How crucial are prayer and spiritual support to survivors of crime, violence, or natural disaster? Witness Justice, a grass-roots, nonreligious organization created by survivors, has launched a National Prayer Group to meet a need it says is too often neglected after traumatic experiences. Without spiritual help, it says, victims can experience further isolation or alienation.
"Spiritual struggles are not uncommon among survivors," says Helga West, president of Witness Justice. "This program will serve not only to help survivors heal and grow spiritually, but ... stay connected with their faith communities." The prayer group is multifaith and multi-denominational, so individuals can request help from those of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other faiths (www.witnessjustice.org).
As many Americans celebrate National Prayer Day on May 4, a new national survey finds music to be a favored source of spiritual inspiration. Some 68 percent of those who attend houses of worship at least once a week say music is "the most enjoyable" aspect of the service. For people who attend Christian services either in person or via TV or radio, 50 percent say music aids their spiritual growth.
The poll was commissioned by "Voices of Joy," a new reality TV program that is seeking the country's "most exciting" church choir. More than $1.3 million in educational scholarships will be awarded to choirs in the competition. The winning group will receive $500,000. A broadcast partner for the show has yet to be determined.
Religion's role in history has often been absent from school textbooks. Efforts to include it can stir emotions. But a recent survey shows that 79 percent of Americans favor teaching religious history in public schools. They say textbooks should cover both history and religious traditions. Yet many worry their own religion could be misrepresented. According to Sacred Heart University Polling Institute, some 58 percent support a process by which religious groups could review, but not edit, textbooks to ensure their accuracy.