Pew study finds most Americans devout, tolerant

You couldn’t tell from the polarized screaming matches between America’s religious liberals and religious conservatives.

A Pew study involving phone interviews of 35,000 randomly selected Americans discovered that, when it comes to religion, what gets popular attention and media coverage is quite misleading. In fact, most Americans are religiously devout and tolerant of the beliefs and practices of others.

It is not that there are no dogmatic religious folk in America. It is just that they are in the minority. Nor is there any shortage of anti-religious or non-religious people. As in politics, the moderates are in the majority.

The graphic at right summarizes some of the main results of the survey, both for the United States as a whole and for Massachusetts, which is the home state of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion.

It is particularly interesting to see that the most prominent kinds of theology also distort the real situation. The religious media is utterly dominated by the theological picture of ultimate reality as a supernatural personal being, with awareness of human lives. This is a God with a plan for your life, one who will not hesitate to intervene in worldly affairs on your behalf to answer prayers and to make events conspire in the way God wants.

The Pew survey presents a very different picture. While the image of God as a personal being is dominant in the United States, other images of ultimate reality as a universal spirit or an impersonal force are also present. And these other images are quite common, even among actively religious people.

The survey also drives home what surveys on American religiousness have been showing for years. Religious and spiritual interest is not dramatically declining, as predicted by the prophets of secularization. In fact, religious and spiritual interest is holding steady.

The landscape of organized religion is constantly changing. People uncomfortable with, or opposed to, organized religion have better ways to articulate what they believe and more effective forms of institutional support. Such considerations may make it seem that religiousness is on the decline. But this survey and others like it over the last several decades show that interest in religion remains strong among Americans.

The survey confirms another point well known to researchers in the sociology of religion. There is a strong correlation between religiousness and conservative positions on cultural issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

The survey also reinforces the popular belief that liberal, toerant religious beliefs are more common on the coasts. The contrast between Massachusetts and the United States as a whole illustrates the point. But the difference is not as large as many might expect. In fact, across the country, all views co-exist. The relative stregnth of opposed religious and cultural viewpoints varies significantly but the moderates remain in the majority.

For more details, see the Boston Globe article, and visit the Pew website.

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