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New findings about U.S. religious life

Practices do not always line up as theologians may expect, a Pew Forum survey finds.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 2008

SOURCE: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF


Religion is a vital force in the private and public lives of most Americans and helps mold the country's social and political attitudes, says the latest report from the US Religious Landscape Survey.

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Religious freedom has given that vitality free rein. And for most, convictions are matters of personal choice and not necessarily from the tradition in which one was raised. The pathbreaking survey of a representative sample of 35,000 adults has revealed an unprecedented shifting of people among religious affiliations in recent decades. It also shows a remarkable diversity of beliefs and practices – within as well as across faiths.

"While there are important differences between religious traditions, affiliation, belief, and practice do not line up the way theologians might want them to line up," says John Green, senior fellow at Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which carried out the survey.

Indeed, in a step that may unsettle orthodox believers but bodes well for American pluralism, large majorities in nearly every tradition reject religious exclusivity and say that "many religions can lead to eternal life." Only 16 percent of Roman Catholics and 36 percent of Evangelicals, for example, say that "my religion is the one true faith" leading to salvation. Similarly, more than two-thirds of adults with a religious affiliation believe there's more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own faith.

"Americans recognize that we do live in a much more complicated landscape than we used to," says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

The survey has been released in two stages. The first report, in February, documented the extraordinary switching among denominations, faiths, and a growing "unaffiliated" category. It also showed that Protestantism is close to losing its majority status in the United States. The second report, released Monday, details the beliefs and practices of people of all traditions – including world faiths and the unaffiliated – and analyzes their impact on social and political views.

"The unaffiliated have a diversity of belief that no one knew existed," says Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. For instance, 35 percent of them pray at least weekly, including 10 percent of atheists and 18 percent of agnostics.