New findings about U.S. religious life

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

On some basics, the American faithful are much alike. Ninety-two percent believe in God, including 70 percent of those not connected with any religion. Three-quarters believe in life after death, and 79 percent believe in miracles.

Prayer is a widespread practice, in which 75 percent engage at least weekly and 58 percent daily. Thirty-four percent say they have experienced or witnessed a divine healing of an illness or injury.

Yet divergent perspectives coexist within many traditions. In regard to the conception of God, 60 percent of Americans believe in a personal God, while 25 percent believe in an impersonal force or universal spirit. Eastern Orthodox Christians split 49 to 34 percent on this question, while Muslims divide evenly, 41 to 42 percent. Among Jews, 25 percent believe in a personal God and 50 percent in an impersonal force.

An aspect of practice that often spurs critiques about the depth of American faith relates to sacred texts. While believers hold their scriptures in high esteem – 63 percent call them the word of God – nearly half (45 percent) say they seldom or never read them outside of worship services. That rises to 57 percent for Catholics and 70 percent for Jews. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are the most avid scripture readers, followed by black Protestants and Evangelicals.

"Since our major religions are religions of the book, that's notable," says Professor Wolfe. "The religious revival in America isn't what you could call the old-time religion that has serious theological content or biblical knowledge."

Views differ also on whether the texts should be taken literally. Sixty percent of Evangelicals take the Bible as the literal word of God, while 23 percent of mainline Christians and 22 percent of Catholics do. Fifty percent of Muslims take the Koran literally. On the other hand, 67 percent of Buddhists, 53 percent of Jews, and 47 percent of Hindus say their scriptures are written by men, not God.

While Americans take their religion seriously (more than half say it is very important in their lives), it's not the first place they say they go when making moral choices or deciding on political views.

The survey finds that significant majorities in every tradition and among the unaffiliated agree that there are "absolute standards of right and wrong." When asked where they look for guidance, 52 percent say they count on practical experience and common sense, 29 percent cite religious teachings, and 9 percent point to reason or philosophy.

Similarly, relatively few say they look to religion as the primary source of their views on social and political issues. The survey found links, however, suggesting that religion may play more of a role, perhaps indirectly, than many recognize.

This is most visible with regard to political ideology, where those who are very active religiously tend to be more politically conservative than other Americans. Religion plays an obvious role on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, yet it also shapes worldviews that affect attitudes on many issues.

The survey found widespread agreement across religious communities on the need for "more government support for the needy, even if it means going into debt."

Environmental protection also gains widespread backing. Majorities in most groups also said good diplomacy rather than military strength was "the best way to ensure peace."

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