Read more of Bob Abernethy's interview with Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow:
Q: When Americans talk to pollsters about their religious beliefs and practices, what they say can sometimes be exaggerated. Describe that phenomenon briefly and tell us how big you think it is and why it exists.
A: When you look at surveys that ask about church attendance (some of the most common ones are done by the Gallup poll, and others are done out of the University of Chicago and [by] a few other pollsters), they give varying numbers. Often you get numbers [that] around 40 percent of the public has been to a religious service in the past week, or something like 35 percent claim to go almost every week. People have looked more closely at communities. They've gone around and looked in church parking lots, and they've asked people to fill out time-use diaries during the past week and have talked to ministers. They have trouble making the numbers come up to that high a level. Nobody knows quite how exaggerated the numbers might be. I'm guessing, for example, from what I've seen, that if 40 percent say they've been there in the past week, it's probably closer to 28, 29, maybe 30 percent. Some of it is that people want to appear involved in something as respectable as religion, and some of it is they just want to be cooperative with the person asking the surveys. So if the answer seems to be, "Well, yes, we want you to say 'yes,'" well, then people cooperate and say "yes."
Q: Could it also be that people believe it's the truth when they're saying it?
A: Some people do. They may say, "Yes, I've been there in the last week," and they've forgotten that, well, last week they were sick, or last week they were on vacation. What they do remember is that they're active in their church. They go to church regularly. And so they give themselves a little bit of slippage, and that allows them to say what they want to say, which is, "Yes, church is important for me."
Q: Even discounting the exaggeration of poll data, what can be said about the prevalence of religion in America?
A: That we're a very religious country, certainly compared with Europe, where participation rates are much lower. We really are a quite remarkable country in that respect.
Q: And why is that?
A: There are a lot of reasons. Some of them are historical. We have a tradition of being a religiously pluralistic country -- competition, lots of churches, a tradition of voluntarism... The important thing is that churches have maintained themselves pretty well by providing programs that are of interest to people. I've always been surprised at how religious we are. You know, you hear stories about how we're not a very religious country, we're materialistic, we're secular -- but we're really very, very religious.
Q: You and others have suggested that traditional religious beliefs -- creeds and doctrines -- may not be quite as important for many people as they used to be. What's going on?
A: If we look back over a 50-year period, when we've been able to do research, it looks like religious beliefs just aren't as important as they used to be. Why is that? One thing may be that the churches are not emphasizing beliefs and doctrines as much as they did in the past. Another may be that we're a more skeptical society. We've had so many different beliefs -- not just religious beliefs, but scientific, philosophical, popular beliefs. We're not sure that those fine points of belief matter so much anymore. We're more convinced that it's practice, it's experience, it's having some kind of relationship with God that matters. I'm thinking in particular about a woman we interviewed a couple of years ago as part of a research project. We asked her to summarize her religious beliefs. And she mentioned a few standard things -- belief in God, belief in Jesus, belief in life after death, belief in the Bible. She said, "You know, what's really important to me is practice, not doctrine. It's what I pray about. It's what my religion does for me when I get up in the morning. It's what it does for me when I go to work and how it helps me with my family. That's what's important."
Q: What takes the place of the old, central importance of belief?
A: People are very interested in religious experience, whatever that may mean. They will talk about a time when they were sitting in church and just felt that God was with them, or a time at the bedside of someone who was dying and [they] felt that an angel or God was close to them, or being out in nature and feeling just awe-inspired by the beauty of nature. And somehow, that's what affirms to them both the existence of God and the fact that God cares for them personally.
Q: What would be your definition of "spirituality"?
A: My definition of "spirituality" comes from talking to a lot of people and asking them what their definition of "spirituality" is. Most people define it very simply, and they say it's their relationship to God. A few people will use some other word -- a "higher power," or "divine being" -- but [for] most people, it's that personal relationship with God. And then spirituality is everything that builds up around that -- their prayer life, their attempts to be of service, their attempts to be faithful. Spirituality is very personal, but it has that transcendent connection. That's the important thing.
Q: Describe and evaluate, if you can, the growth in recent years of interest in spirituality.
A: One of the surveys that I did about a year ago showed that 43 percent of the public said their interest in spirituality had been increasing in recent years. Only 7 percent said it had been decreasing. The rest said it had stayed about the same. That's one indicator that spirituality is just of much more interest now than it was maybe five or 10 years ago.
Q: Is it something that people pursue both within traditional religious institutions and outside them?
A: Yes, people experience spirituality and find ways to pursue it certainly within their religious traditions -- Catholics, Protestants, Jews. Organized religion continues to be very important to people's spirituality. Other people have found that it just doesn't quite work that way for them, so they're off on the road someplace. They're going to retreat centers, or they're reading books, or they're meditating on their own. Both of those are going on.
Q: In recent years, there's been a big increase in the number and the visibility of non-Christian religions in the U.S. -- Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and others. How do you sum up the reaction of American Christians to having more and more people of other religions in their midst?
A: I would sum up Christians' reactions to other religions in one word at this point: indifference. It really surprises me. You talk to people and you say, "Okay. Your son's best friend in school is Hindu, or Muslim. "Your neighbor is a Buddhist," or a Hindu. "The building right across the street from your church is a Hindu temple. What are you doing about it? How do you think about this?" People haven't thought about it. They just exist side by side with these people. They block out the religious identity and don't pay much attention to it.
Q: You couldn't call it "tolerance"?
A: You could call it tolerance and, of course, people use the language of tolerance, because when you press them, then they'll say, "Well, of course, a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist has every right to practice, just as we do." They flip into the language of rights -- civil rights, civil liberties, and so forth. Push people, though, and say, "Well, but theologically, what do you think? They really believe something different from you." And it's, "Well, that's okay. That may be true for them. What I believe is true for me."
Q: What does that mean? What does this indifference or tolerance mean about commitment to truth, or feeling that your religion is the truth, or at least more true than anyone else's? What does it mean about that?
A: As a culture we're only beginning to face up to the sense of doubt that we have -- within the Christian community, especially -- about "truth" as it's traditionally been defined. For many, many centuries, Christians have thought that they had the truth, and that other people didn't have the truth in the same way. And now, Christians are not quite so sure of that. They're more likely to say, "This is true for me. I know it from my experience, but I'm not willing to say anything about anybody else." And that radically changes the meaning of truth, when it's just true for you and not necessarily true for somebody else.
Q: What about white evangelical Protestants who feel that they have a mission from Jesus to spread the gospel, to preach it to everybody, to convert others out of love so that they can have eternal life? They feel a real obligation and duty to convert non-Christians. How do they put that on one side together with, on the other, the desire to be hospitable, or the desire to be tolerant? How does all this cut for somebody who feels a real duty to proselytize?
A: Evangelical Protestants I've talked to fall into two categories. There are those, often in leadership positions, who say, "Yes, as an organization, denomination, or church, we have that responsibility to proclaim the Christian gospel." And then there're the others at the grass-roots level -- the members -- who may be very firm in their beliefs, but they say, "That's not really my role to get out there. I can live as a good Christian. Hopefully, they'll see something in my lifestyle. Or perhaps, if they're really in need, they'll come to me. But I'm not going to go out of my way. That would be an intrusion on their rights. That would be a lack of respect. So all I can do is be an example and leave it at that."
Q: Do you feel that down the road there's going to be much more of a sense of these "new" religions being a challenge to the "true" Christianity?
A: Oh, I think so, yes. At this point, it's often easy, still, for churches to treat new religions with the "out of sight, out of mind" principle governing. They just may be able to ignore the fact that there are large numbers of other religious people in their community, but that's changing very, very rapidly. You know, we're not in a situation where we can only look to some other country and say, "Oh, well, there're Hindus," or Muslims, "living there." They are living in our own neighborhoods, and in increasing numbers.
Q: What effect do you think these new religions will have down the road on this country?
A: It's hard to tell at this point. One scenario, at least, that makes a lot of sense is that we will have a kind of leavening of the religious spirit in this country -- meaning that there will be, on the one hand, more tolerance and acceptance; but, on the other hand, more attempts to look back within our own religious traditions and say, "Well, what does it really teach? What do I really believe?" Because once you start comparing it with another one, then you have to look at some of those questions.
Q: In the survey you did about mainline Protestants, you got two clearly opposing answers on this question of "my truth" versus somebody else's truth. Christians thought Christianity was, indeed, true. But then a couple of questions later, it turned out that they also thought that there was truth in other religions -- and by about the same proportion. That seems to reflect a good deal of confusion.
A: We did a national survey in April 2000 of about 5,000 people. And one of the statements we asked people to agree or disagree with was, "Christianity is the best way to know God." About two thirds of the public said, "Yes, we agree with that." But then just a little bit later in the survey, we asked them to respond to another statement that said, "All religions are equally true." And about two thirds agreed with that statement, too. These were two seemingly contradictory statements. Lots of people were agreeing with both.
Q: And what did you make of it? How do you explain that?
A: What that left me with was just a huge question mark about how much are people thinking deeply about the truth of their own religion, their belief in Christianity, and what they mean by other religions being true. I don't think a lot of people have really sorted that out, and I think that's going to be a big issue for people in churches, pastors, people in seminaries -- to start sorting out or providing some clear guidance.
Q: What do you think that sorting-out process will cause?
A: It will cause people to be much more concerned about what's true and what's not true, both in their own tradition and in other traditions. I don't think it's likely to lead to a kind of religious universalism or people saying, "Oh, we all believe in the same thing, and we just do it in different ways." When you talk to people who have thought seriously about these questions, they begin to say, "Oh, these religions really are pretty different when you get right down to it." And then they continue to struggle with, "Well, there might be some truth," and "How is that possible?" and "Does Christianity really teach that it's the only true religion, or have we just misinterpreted it?" Lots of questions come out of that.
Q: Overall, how do you think the battle is going between religion, in general, in this country and, on the other hand, the power of science, secularism, popular culture's overwhelming emphasis on the material, and the importance of individual rights?
A: I tend to vacillate between being a cautious optimist and a cautious pessimist. On my good days, I look at religion and say, "Well, the trends seem pretty good, mostly." Around most neighborhoods there are vibrant churches doing important things in their community. You figure there's truth being taught, preached in those churches. So that leads me to be optimistic. At the same time, though, maybe on my bad days, I look at some of the trends that suggest things aren't going so well -- surveys of teenagers, for example. You find that there really is not much serious commitment to religion among teenagers. Some studies suggest that the depth of activity in churches has been diminishing. And then if we look at it strictly from the standpoint of the secular society -- marketing, advertising, higher education, government, science, tremendously powerful institutions that command billions and even trillions of dollars -- they have an enormous impact on shaping the culture, compared to what the churches can do. I will say that I've been surprised that religion is doing as well as it is. And the reason I'm surprised is that there are so many trends working against it. For example, some of the trends going on in the family -- just something as simple as the rising divorce rate over the last 30 or 40 years. Divorced people go to religious services much less often than married people do. Separated people do, too; and single people do, too. One would think that trend, that change in the family, would work against church participation, and [it] probably is. And yet, there are other things that seem to be making up the difference, so that church participation is continuing. Other factors have the same effects. That's just one example.
It appears to me that religious commitment in our society -- however you think of that -- is holding its own against enormous odds. So many things are working against it, and yet it's doing fairly well.
Q: Could you tick off the most important of those things that are working against it?
A: The rising divorce rate. And, as it turns out, the inclusion of women in the paid labor force has worked against it, because women used to do all the volunteer work around their congregations. Another factor has been the change in neighborhoods. People don't participate in their neighborhoods or know their neighbors as much anymore.