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New Survey Maps Shifts in the U.S. Religious Landscape

June 23, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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A new forum by the Pew foundation shows an America that is widely devout and diverse in its religious roots. It also reveals new shifts and trends in the way religion takes hold across the U.S. A senior fellow from the Pew forum discusses the group's findings.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, a new and surprising report on the scope of the nation’s religious diversity.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s survey revealed the country is devout and strongly tolerant: 9 in 10 Americans believe in the existence of God, and 3 out of 4 pray at least once a week; 7 out of 10 say they believe many religions, not just their faith, can lead to salvation.

And more than two-thirds are not dogmatic, saying there is more than one way to interpret belief.

The study is based on telephone interviews with over 35,000 Americans.

For more, we’re joined by John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum.

Welcome.

JOHN GREEN, Pew Forum: It’s good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: It’s good to see you. Are we to believe now that Americans are more or less observant than they always have been?

JOHN GREEN: Well, they’ve been a little bit less observant than they were a generation ago, but the levels of religious observance are very constant in the United States. And compared to other advanced, industrial societies, America is a really very religious place.

GWEN IFILL: So is it more about how people believe than that they believe?

JOHN GREEN: Yes, I think that’s the case. I mean, people often say when they compare the United States to Europe that Americans believe, Europeans doubt. But within that context of belief, Americans are extraordinarily diverse.

Not only are there differences between religious denominations and traditions, but there’s enormous differences within those traditions, as well.

Range and degrees of belief

GWEN IFILL: When you say "diverse," people take that to mean a million different things. What do you mean when you say it?

JOHN GREEN: I mean a lot of different things. Americans believe a lot of things about religion. They have a lot of beliefs, and there's a range of belief -- of certainty about those beliefs.

So most Americans, for instance, believe in God, but not all Americans have the same certainty about God, and not all people see the divine in exactly the same way.

GWEN IFILL: We've been led to believe that people of faith often believe that there's just one way to Heaven. In fact, I believe there's biblical reference to support that notion. But Americans aren't necessarily that hard and fast?

JOHN GREEN: Our survey found that they really aren't, that most Americans are open to the idea that there are many faiths that lead to eternal life, and they're not as committed to the idea that they're -- faith is the only appropriate one.

GWEN IFILL: Yet a couple of interesting things: 1 in 4 believers describe God as an impersonal force. What does that mean?

JOHN GREEN: Well, it's interesting. In many of the world's great religions, God is imagined as a person, many different kinds of people, but imagined as a person.

But a lot of Americans, a significant minority, see God a much more abstract term, as the first cause or as a force of nature, rather than as a person.

GWEN IFILL: And what about non-believers? When they say they don't believe or that they're atheists, do they mean that they believe this doesn't exist at all? Or is that they are -- have different definitions?

JOHN GREEN: Well, in our report, we looked at what we call the unaffiliated. Those are people that told us that they were not connected in any way to organized religion.

The unaffiliated are a large group. They make up about one-sixth of the adult population, but they're internally diverse. Some are atheists that are committed to the notion that there is no God. Others are agnostics. They believe you can't really know.

And some of them are what you might call the spiritual, but religious, people who may pray, may have religious beliefs, but are not involved in any kind of religious institution.

Role of charitable activities

GWEN IFILL: Explain to me. Your report found that there were fewer Catholics than there had been, at least people who were raised Catholic, now as adults, fewer Protestants, not as many, barely 51 percent of the country. Are we no longer a Judeo-Christian country?

JOHN GREEN: Well, I think we still are, but not as much as we used to be. For Protestants and Catholics of European dissent, there's been a significant decline in the numbers over the last generation.

And that's been replaced by some people who are not affiliated, by people from other religious, such as Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims, but also by a large number of Christians that have immigrated from Latin America, from Asia, and from Africa.

So the United States has not stopped being a nation with a lot of Christians, but the Christians have changed their character.

GWEN IFILL: So how do people act on their faith? Do they act on it through politics, which we spend a lot of time talking about? Or do they just act on it through church attendance or involvement in local -- in their churches?

JOHN GREEN: Well, that's a very diverse thing, as well. People act on their faith in many, many different ways.

There are lots of religious activities that are more spiritual in their focus. But a lot of charitable activities, a lot of volunteering, a lot of private organizations are motivated by faith.

And then, of course, there's politics. And it turns out that religion can have a big effect on the vote and on the way people view issues.

GWEN IFILL: But those people who view issues through the prism of religion, are they more likely still to be more conservatives?

JOHN GREEN: Well, it depends on the issue. On some issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, people who hold those views do tend to be religious conservatives.

But if you look at a range of other issues, the environment, the economy, many foreign policy questions, the relationship is not so clear. And some issues, there's something of a consensus across the different religious communities in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Which issues?

JOHN GREEN: A good example would be providing aid to the poor. Large majorities of all the major religious traditions think that's a good idea. They may disagree on exactly how to do it, but there's a consensus. So religion doesn't always divide us. Sometimes it brings us together.

Politics and American religion

GWEN IFILL: Did your survey show where there is really a religious left that exists? We've heard a lot about the religious right, but is there a religious left?

JOHN GREEN: Well, it depends on what you mean by the religious left. I mean, certainly there are people...

GWEN IFILL: You tell me.

JOHN GREEN: Yes, right. Certainly there are people that have less traditional religious beliefs and practices, and they certainly exist out there, and they exist in all of the different religious communities.

Now, some of those people connect those less traditional beliefs to liberal positions in politics. But, in fact, some people with very conservative traditional beliefs also have liberal views on economic and other social questions.

So there's a lot of diversity out there. And it may very well be that those people could be mobilized into an effective political force.

GWEN IFILL: So as we look at this campaign unfolding and we see both candidates clearly going to go after people of faith, since obviously that's still the majority of Americans, is there any one way to get to those voters?

JOHN GREEN: No, there isn't. There are many different ways, because people of faith in the United States are very diverse and they'll respond to different appeals.

GWEN IFILL: OK, John Green, University of Akron, as I know you, with the Pew Forum. Thank you very much.

JOHN GREEN: You're very welcome.