Baylor Survey Finds New Perspectives On U.S. Religious Landscape

September 18, 2008

Survey Finds Intimate Community in America's Megachurches, Irreligious Simply 'Unchurched,' Religious and Mystical Experiences Intrinsic to Americans' Religious Life

Media contacts: Lori Fogleman, (254) 710-6275

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 18, 2008) - American religion is remarkably stable and quite surprising in its diverse beliefs, practices and realities, according to the latest findings from the Baylor Religion Survey, one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted on American religious attitudes.

In the follow-up to the landmark 2005 survey that revealed a majority of Americans believe in God or a higher power, the new Baylor findings - published in What Americans Really Believe by Dr. Rodney Stark (Baylor University Press, 2008) - highlight even more hot-button issues of religious life in America, such as:

  • ' the supersizing of faith at America's Megachurches
    ' the "scattered" church vs. the "gathered" church
    ' views on God, heaven and evil
    ' atheism and irreligion
    ' religious and paranormal beliefs and experiences

In releasing their findings at a news conference in the nation's capital, the authors of the Baylor Religion Survey - Dr. Rodney Stark, Dr. Byron Johnson, Dr. Christopher Bader and Dr. Carson Mencken - said their work offers a different perspective on the depth and complexity of America's religious landscape. A total of 1,648 adults chosen randomly from across the country answered more than 350 items in the survey, which was designed by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) and conducted by the Gallup organization in the fall of 2007.

"Our mission with the Baylor Religion Survey is to ask deeper questions than other surveys do," said Dr. Chris Bader, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor and one of the ISR researchers. "Lots of surveys ask do you pray and how often. Very few surveys ask what you pray about. A lot of surveys ask do you believe in God, but surveys have not asked who is God? Is God angry, is God judgmental, is God friendly, is God forgiving, is He engaged with the world? We actually had people do a personality profile of God in the survey, so we can tell you not only if that person believes in God, which almost any survey can tell you, but what they think about God, what is God like and how does that characterization influence other parts of their lives. The idea was to take every question you usually see on a religion survey and try to push it several levels."

During the spring, ISR researchers analyzed responses to the questions about Americans' religious beliefs and practices. Researchers focused Wave Two of the Baylor Religion Survey on these topic modules:

  • ' Religious strictness
    ' Religion and science
    ' Race and ethnicity
    ' Family and relationships

In addition, the survey authors asked questions on a host of other topics, such as mystical experiences, moral attitudes and conceptions of God. Here are some of their initial findings:

Megachurches are more than a mile wide and an inch deep.

"None of the things we all believe about the megachurch is true," said Dr. Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor and co-director of the ISR.

Even with congregations of more than 1,000 members, the Baylor Religion Survey found that megachurches surprisingly are more intimate communities than small congregations of less than 100 members (Ch. 5, "Megachurches: Supersizing the Faith"). Megachurch growth is mostly due to their members, who tend to witness to their friends, bringing them into the group, and witness to strangers, much more often than members of small churches.

When compared to small congregations, the survey found that megachurch members display a higher level of personal commitment by attending services and a Bible study group and tithing. They also are more likely to accept that heaven "absolutely" exists and that God rewards the faithful with major successes, are more convinced of the reality of evil, are far more given to having religious and mystical experiences, are significantly younger in age and are remarkably active in volunteer work (as much or more so than tiny churches).

"We think of them as these great, huge, cold religious gatherings with a symphony orchestra and a paid choir and a lot of hoopla and a lot of good tidings but no bad tidings," Stark said. "It's not true that it's all happy talk. These people are as interested in evil and sin as anybody in any of the churches. Their levels of satisfaction are high, their volunteerism in community service is very high and their outreach efforts are absolutely phenomenal."

"I've heard stories when you go to some of the megachurches that you have to get tickets and parking like it's a football game," said Dr. Carson Mencken, professor of sociology at Baylor. "You go to a football game, you sit next to people you don't know very well, and so I figured that's exactly what megachurches are going to be like. The survey reveals the megachurches are not like that at all. These people do know each other, and they're networked into the church through their friends and friends of friends."

Atheism and Irreligion

During the past 63 years, several polls show the percentage of atheists has not changed at all, holding steady at only 4 percent of Americans who say they do not believe in God. Not only is atheism not growing in the United States, the majority of Europeans are not atheists (Ch. 14, "Atheism: The Godless Revolution That Never Happened"). Russia now claims 96 percent of its population believes in God, while a recent poll of China showed that atheists are outnumbered by those who believe in God(s).

In both the 2005 and 2007 Baylor Religion Surveys, researchers found than 11 percent of the national sample reported they had "no religion." Although nearly a third of the "no religion" group are atheists who reject "anything beyond the physical world," the Baylor Religion Survey found that two-thirds of the "no religion" group expressed some belief in God and many of those are not "irreligious" but are merely "unchurched" (Ch. 17, "The Irreligious: Simply Unchurched-Not Atheists"). Delving into the actual religiousness of those who report having no religion, the Baylor Survey found that a majority of Americans who claim to be irreligious pray (and 32 percent pray often), around a third of them profess belief in Satan, hell and demons, and around half believe in angels and ghosts.

Religious and Mystical Experiences

If anything, these experiences are an overlooked aspect of America's national religious life. The Baylor Religion Survey asked respondents about: hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God to do something, being protected by a guardian angel, witnessing and/or receiving a miraculous physical healing, and speaking or praying in tongues. The ISR researchers found that such experiences are central to American religion.

Bader was stunned by the percentage of Americans - 55 percent - who said they were protected from harm by a guardian angel. "That was something that was a complete surprise because this is not a question, do you believe in guardian angels or do you believe in angels. This is a very specific question: Do you believe you have been protected from harm by a guardian angel? Do you believe you avoided an accident through the agency of a guardian angel? To find out that more than half of the American public believes this was shocking to me. I did not expect that."

The survey found that 45 percent of Americans report having at least two religious encounters (Ch. 6, "Religious Experiences: God Told Me to Go to Church"). Denomination matters, too. Conservative Protestants are more likely than liberal Protestants, Catholics or Jews to report religious or mystical experiences. However, these experiences are not limited to conservative Protestants. They occur with considerable frequency in nearly all religious groups. The survey also showed that women, African Americans and Republicans are more apt to have religious and mystical experiences.

Christianity and Superstition

The Baylor Survey found that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology (Ch. 15, "Credulity: Who Believes in Bigfoot"). Still, it remains widely believed that religious people are especially credulous, particularly those who identify themselves as Evangelicals, born again, Bible believers and fundamentalists. However, the ISR researchers found that conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe. The researchers say this shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion.

"There's an old saying that a man who no longer believes in God is ready to believe in just about anything, and it turns out our data suggests it's true. That is to say, religious people don't believe this stuff, but there's no education effect," Stark said.

Among other interesting findings on paranormal or occult beliefs: People who have read The Purpose-Driven Life or any book in the Left Behind series are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, while those who have read any book on dianetics or The Da Vinci Code are more likely to believe.

"Scattered" and "Gathered" Religious Groups

No one has ever studied this growing debate over "scattered" vs. "gathered" churches. ISR researchers found that the "scattered" church - religious activities not affiliated with or sponsored by a congregation - is quite large, but they also found that the "scattered" activities are not a substitute for participation in the "gathered" church (Ch. 4, "The 'Scattered' Church: Traditional Congregations Are Not Going Away").

"One of the things that you hear a lot of is that people are growing dissatisfied with organized religion, and because of this dissatisfaction, they don't participate in religious activities," said Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology at Baylor and co-director of the ISR. "There's some concern that people are just staying in church and not getting out, but what we found that people who do these outreach ministries all operate from the base of some organized church that they're involved in. They're really not out there frustrated with the organized church doing these other kinds of ministries and outreach that they have no church home of their own because they're so dissatisfied. It's not true."

The survey found that 14 percent of American adults - or about 31 million people - take part in a community prayer group, 9 percent in a Bible study group and 12 percent in faith-based programs not affiliated with or sponsored by a congregation. Of those, 80 percent attend their regular church frequently. These "scattered" activities, such as prayer and Bible study groups, actually strengthen the "gathered" church.

For "gathered" churches, the primary issue is whether or not congregations tend to be open or closed social networks and whether this influences their capacity for outreach. As the researchers found with megachurches, belonging to a congregation that consists largely of close friendships does not turn members inward. In fact, members of the "gathered" church witness most often to strangers and are most likely to do volunteer work in their communities. The survey confirmed that "scattered" church activities benefit those receiving the outreach, while encouraging and strengthening the commitment of those providing the outreach in the "gathered" church.

Americans believe in heaven.

The 2005 survey found that 67 percent of Americans said they were "absolutely sure" heaven exists and 17 percent thought it "probably" does (Ch. 8, "Heaven: We Are All Going"). With similar results in 2007, researchers found that the certainty of a person's belief in heaven is related to religious affiliation, with 89 percent of conservative Protestants absolutely sure of heaven. In addition, more women than men (68 percent to 56 percent), more African-Americans than whites (86 percent to 60 percent), more people who live in the South than the East (76 percent to 50 percent) and more Republicans than Democrats (77 percent to 54 percent) are absolutely sure that heaven exists.

But how certain are Americans that they - and others - will get into heaven? ISR researchers found that 46 percent of Americans are at least "quite certain" they will go to heaven, while few think that heaven is exclusive. Only 29 percent believe that even the irreligious are prevented from entering heaven.

Americans believe in hell.

The survey found that 73 percent of Americans believe hell absolutely or probably exists (Ch. 8, "Heaven: We Are All Going"). Although Conservative Protestants lead in this category at 92 percent, the belief is not limited to conservative denominations: 79 percent of Roman Catholics and 69 percent of Liberal Protestants believe hell absolutely or probably exists.

The Next Wave

The Baylor Religion Survey was funded by the John M. Templeton Foundation, and will be repeated every two years. Additional reports will be released in the coming months as the researchers delve further into the data they collected.

"In the future we'll be able to see a trend of what religion is doing in this country over the course of 20 years in a very deep sense," Bader said.

About Baylor University

Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor University is the oldest, continually operating university in the state. A private Christian university and a nationally ranked liberal arts institution, Baylor is classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a research university with "high research activity." This blends with Baylor's international reputation for educational excellence built upon the faculty's commitment to teaching, scholarship and interdisciplinary research to produce outstanding graduates.

Baylor's 735-acre campus in Waco, Texas, is home to more than 14,500 students from all 50 states and 70 countries. Baylor offers 147 undergraduate, 76 master and 25 doctoral degree programs, plus the juris doctor degree, through its 11 academic units.

About ISR

Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion (Baylor ISR) exists to involve scholars having many different interests and approaches in creative efforts to grasp the complexities and interconnections of religion in the life of individuals and societies. The aim is to combine the highest standards of scholarship with a serious commitment to faith, resulting in studies that not only plumb basic questions, but produce results that are relevant to religious organizations, address moral controversies, and contribute to social health.