Saturday, June 28, 2008

Praying In America

I mean, America really is different. It’s the land where everyone has a gun, where they have drive-in funeral parlors, where 64% of collage students can’t locate Washington DC on a map, where you can sue your dry-cleaner for $10 million for delaying the delivery of your suit and where, alone amongst industrial nations, nearly everyone believes in God. Or do they? The results of one of the most extensive survey ever conducted on the subject and just published in USA Today, show that the picture is not as simple as that. The overwhelming majority of Americans call themselves Christians and say they adhere to Bible teachings but facts show that this is far from true. Americans will argue vehemently for the truth of some Bible teachings but studiously ignore other bits they don’t like or which don’t suit them. The porn industry in this Christian nation rakes in $4.5 billion a year and as Larry Flint pointed out ‘Hell! Someone must be buying all that smut.’ A survey conducted a decade ago showed that 91% of Americans believed in God but that 39% of these also believed in astrology. It seems that the main difference between Americans and the rest of the industrialized world is that they think of themselves as Christian and yet do whatever they want while Europeans, Canadians, Australians, etc don’t think of themselves as Christians and do whatever they want. In this sense American religiosity is more like Buddhism in its traditional homeland – everyone thinks of themselves as practicing the Dhamma while in fact it only has an effect on limited areas of their lives. Read the report as and see what you think.

Religion today in the USA is a salad bar where people heap on upbeat beliefs they like and often leave the veggies - like strict doctrines - behind. There are so many ways of seeing God, public policy expert Barry Kosmin says, that "the highest authority is now the lowest common denominator." Such are the key findings in latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,000 Americans. Pew released demographic data in February from the survey, conducted May through August 2007. This new installment focuses on 60 questions about participants' religious beliefs and social and political views. The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study's authors say there's a "stunning" lack of alignment between people's beliefs or practices and their professed faiths. Likewise, the long-standing links between highly religious people, conservative ideology and the Republican Party are starting to fray, says a co-author of the study, John Green, a Pew Forum senior research fellow. "There are votes to be had for both Democrat and Republican candidates," Green says. "Evangelical Protestants' votes may be more in flux than in 2004…more open to persuasion." The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.6 percentage points for overall findings. The margin is a bit larger for subgroups such as "evangelicals" (26.3% of adults, who share strict ideas on salvation and common historic origins), mainline Protestants (18.1%, who share "a less exclusionary view of salvation and a strong emphasis on social reform") and historically black churches (6.9%, "shaped by experiences of slavery and segregation"). Among the highlights:
• 78% overall say there are "absolute standards of right and wrong," but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to "practical experience and common sense," with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.
• 74% say "there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," but far fewer (59%) say there's a "hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."
• 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say "many religions can lead to eternal life."

• 68% say "there's more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion."

• 44% want to preserve their religion's traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either "adjust to new circumstances" or "adopt modern beliefs and practices."

• 50% say "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society," but the most consistently traditional religious groups say society should discourage it — 76% of Jehovah's Witnesses, 68% of Mormons, 61% of Muslims and 64% of evangelicals.

• 51% have a certain belief in a personal God, but 27% are less certain of this, 14% call God "an impersonal force," and 5% reject any kind of God. "People say 'God,' and no one knows who they mean," says Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

• 14% of all surveyed, including 28% of evangelicals, say religion is the "main influence in their political thinking."

Many who label themselves "conservative" also turn up in agreement with liberals and moderates on issues such as the environment, the economy and the role of government. "Politics doesn't occur in a vacuum," says Green, pointing out a tendency by broadcast and print journalists to "focus on the most outspoken believers, who often tend to be the most conservative" and miss the tilt toward middle ground. Church attendance is the best predictor of political activity - whether people vote - but beliefs predict how they vote, he says. Pew Forum director Luis Lugo attributes the decline of dogmatism to living in a pluralistic society, in which friends, co-workers, even family members come from myriad faiths. The survey found 37% of couples with children were married to or living with someone from another religion or faith tradition, bringing diversity "right down to the kitchen table," Lugo says. "Americans believe in everything. It's a spiritual salad bar," says Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay. Rather than religious leaders setting the cultural agenda, today, it's Oprah Winfrey, he says. "After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the national memorial service was at Washington's National Cathedral, conducted by Episcopal clergy. After the 9/11 attack, Oprah organized the official memorial service at Yankee Stadium, and while clergy participated, she was the master of ceremonies. "The impact of Oprah is seen throughout this survey. She uses the language of Bible and Christian traditions and yet includes other traditions to create a hodgepodge personalized faith. Exclusivism (one religion has the absolute and exclusive truth) has gotten a bad name in America today," he says. Political science professor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for American and Public Life at Boston University, says many people, despite their religious claims, "have no command of theology, doctrine or history, so it's an empty religiosity." Still, he finds "a very forgiving quality" to this non-sectarian, no-mention-of-sin view. "No one wants to think their spouse, friends or co-workers are mad or bad." Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, like Lugo, attributes the shifts to long-term changes in family with rising divorce, increased cohabitation, smaller families and steady increases in religiously mixed marriages. "Don't look at the church, look at home," he says. Among couples (married or living together) with children, 63% say they read the Bible or pray with their children, and 60% say they send kids for religious education. The numbers drop significantly for the 37% in religiously mixed marriages: 48% say they pray or read Scripture with their children, and 44% say they send their children for religious education, says Greg Smith, a Pew research fellow and co-author of the survey. Adults under 30 are further from strict religious adherence than their parents. Although other studies show they cycle back to religion at key moments such as marriage or rearing children, those spirals are getting smaller and smaller, says Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at the University of Chicago, which has measured religion and society for decades through the General Social Survey. "Every religious group has a major challenge on its hands from all directions," says Lugo. When he factors in Pew's February findings that 44% of adults say they've switched to another religion or none at all, Lugo says, "You have to wonder: How do you guarantee the integrity of a religious tradition when so many people are coming or going or following ideas that don't match up?" Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sees in the numbers that Catholics, like everyone else, are shaped by an individualistic culture where "people are trained to trust only their own spiritual experience" rather than in the historic message of the church. "Religion is about conversion, self-surrender as opposed to self-righteousness," he says. "That's hard in any culture but particularly in our own." The Rev. Frank Page of Taylors, S.C., past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, is not surprised by the Pew findings. "The number (of churches that) teach a clear doctrinal Christianity are a minority today. How would people know it when they never hear about how to be saved?" Still, Page is undaunted. "Jesus predicted all this," he says, quoting from the Bible (Matthew 15:8): "People honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me" "We still work as hard as we can to share the good news," he says, "even though we know most will reject the way."


JD said...

It really is a strange country that I live in. I think that is why I enjoy listening to the Dhamma and taking heart that perhaps I'm one of the normal ones in such a weird and warped society that really has no morality, virtue or direction other then it's own ever changing and restless desires.

Robert said...

I don't think this is specific to the US. Do you have any surveys from other countries to compare to to support your hypothesis?

I can believe that this is more of an issue in the US due to the greater diversity we have here compared to other countries, but still I doubt that it differs as radically in Europe among people who haven't rejected spirituality outright anyway.

Generally speaking I can believe that more people in Europe have rejected spirituality due to the greater popularity of Marxist-like extreme socialist beliefs ("religion is the opiate of the masses" etc.). Fairly recently in history certain coutries have experienced very extremist socialism (such as Nazi Germany and "fascist" Itally.) These socialist movements didn't take on such an extreme character in the US. Still I don't believe that everyone in Europe has rejected all forms of "spirituality" as you imply.