The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life recently released the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. This comprehensive look at the religious affiliation and attitudes of over 35,000 Americans contains several fascinating discoveries. The Summary of Key Findings, broken down into two parts, Religious Affiliation and Religious Beliefs and Practices is an interesting read. Both the full summaries and the entire report are available as PDF downloads from the given link.
As I was reading this it occurred to me that the prominent atheist voices of our day, the irascible Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and their brothers and sisters in arms would find a great deal of troubling data to peruse here. After all, a remarkable 92% of the respondents reported a belief in God, and nearly 83% reported an affiliation with a particular religion, while those identifying themselves as ‘atheist’ were represented by a miniscule 1.6% of respondents. It would appear that Dennett’s attempt to define the intellectual elites as ‘Brights’ is yet to sway the majority of Americans that secular humanism is the genuine path of righteousness.
Reading further reveals more interesting findings, however. The core argument presented by Dawkins and the others that I consider to have tremendous validity is their insistence that dogmatic religious beliefs can lead to unspeakable atrocities. Any sort of detached observation of human history does nothing but confirm this argument, and a few moments with CNN is a daily reminder of how little has changed. The corruption of Islam by radical extremists is just the most jarring current reminder of this, and the Brights should be appreciated for their efforts in regularly drawing attention to this.
The information culled from the respondents regarding dogmatism reflects some very interesting findings, however. Of those who had identified themselves as affiliated with a particular faith, 70% affirmed the statement that “many religions can lead to eternal life”, while 68% agreed with the statement, “There is more than one way to interpret the teachings of my religion”. Even more interesting is that these two questions were supported by more than half of those who identified themselves as Evangelicals. It appears that Americans as a whole are much more tolerant and accepting of other views than some may assume.
There are many other interesting findings sprinkled throughout the survey, including the responses to the questions that attempt to define God. While 60% accept the existence of a personal God, nearly 25% define the divine as an “impersonal force”. There are also the occasional anomalies, such as the fact that of those who defined themselves as “atheist”, a full 22% claimed to believe in God. (What does that mean?)
In many ways, I found the entire survey to be quite fascinating. It would appear that the majority of Americans anyway, do accept the idea of a spiritual aspect to existence, while a decided minority insists that their particular understanding is absolute. And while the United States remains primarily a Christian nation, there are tremendous variations of belief, even within the numerous denominations. There are also signs that many younger people, especially, are choosing to reject affiliation with any particular religion, yet still accept the idea of a spiritual aspect of existence. This may be a consequence of more people considering that the very existence of so many different interpretations of the divine is more of an indication that none of them have a monopoly on truth, rather than an indication that there is no validity to spirit itself.
All in all, I found it sort of encouraging, though that feeling isn’t shared by everyone. I recently had a conversation with a gentleman about these findings, and told him that I thought it was a good thing that so many Americans were willing to express tolerance for ideas other than their own. I went on to mention that there seems to be both an increase in individual reports of transformative experience in the mainstream media, as well as an interest in direct experience of the spiritual reality that is expressed by people of all faiths, as outlined in a Newsweek article from a few years ago. And I told him I thought this was all good.
He looked at me for a moment before commenting, at which point he said, “I don’t see it as encouraging at all.”
“You have to understand”, he said, “I’m an Evangelical . . . “