Wave III of the Baylor Religion Survey Examines How Religion Affects Individuals' Outlook and Well-Being in Tumultuous Times

September 20, 2011

Survey Explores Links Between Religion and Mental Health, Religion's Role in Work and Differing Views of Liberals and Conservatives about Life's Meaning

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WACO, Texas (Sept. 20, 2011) - Entrepreneurs pray more, worriers are less likely to attend religious services, Southerners are more likely to see their work as a mission from God, and liberals are less likely to believe in an afterlife -- particularly one in which they will be reunited with loved ones, according to some of the latest findings from the Baylor Religion Survey, one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted on American religious attitudes.

The findings about people's religious beliefs and practices are significant as the nation struggles amid financial crises and political change, Baylor University researchers said.

"These are unsettling times," said F. Carson Mencken, Ph.D., director of the Baylor Religion Survey and professor of sociology. "In the last three years, Americans have experienced the financial and real estate crises, recession, unemployment, the shooting of a Congresswoman, political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere, rapid political change at home and a rekindling of the 'Culture Wars' over issues of immigration, gun control and same-sex marriage.

"The mission of this analysis is to assess how Americans feel about their lives in these tumultuous times," he said. "Do they still believe in the American Dream? Do they feel they have control over their lives? Are they experiencing mental and physical health issues? Do they still have the entrepreneurial spirit? We're interested in how people's religious beliefs and practices affect how they respond to these questions. We want to understand how religion can mediate the uncertainty to the times and affect people's mental and physical well-being, outlook on life and future plans."

A total of 1,714 adults chosen randomly from across the country answered more than 300 items in the Baylor Religion Survey, designed by Baylor University scholars and conducted by The Gallup Organization in the fall of 2010. The latest analyses were funded by Baylor University, the National Science Foundation and the John M. Templeton Foundation. Additional reports will be released in coming months. For the latest research report, camera-ready graphics, photos and more, visit baylorreligionsurvey.research.baylor.edu.

The new Baylor findings, a follow-up of survey analyses released in 2006 and 2008, highlight these themes:

  • • How God sustains the American dream
    • Differences in how liberals and conservatives view the ultimate meaning of life
    • The link between religion and physical and mental health, including being a "chronic worrier"
    • Religion's impact on work and entrepreneurship
    • Beliefs about Heaven and Hell
    • Beliefs about the rights of gays and lesbians and the cause of homosexuality

Below are some of the latest findings from The Baylor Religion Survey: The Values and Beliefs of the American Public that were presented at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference Sept. 17 in Durham, N.C. The results were embargoed for release until Sept. 20. The survey instrument was designed by researchers at Baylor's department of sociology and Hankamer School of Business.

The American Dream. Most Americans believe that God has a plan for them. Still, Americans who believe strongly that God has something wonderful in store for them look very different from the rest of Americans. Although they tend to have lower levels of education and income, these respondents are the most likely to believe that the United States' economic system is fair, that the government is too intrusive, that healthy people should not receive unemployment benefits and that anything is possible through hard work. And, despite believing that success is based on hard work and ability, they are the strongest believers that some are meant to be rich and some to be poor.
"Perhaps the idea is that the American Dream is possible for those who work hard and have ability, but only some people are meant to possess those qualities," Mencken said. (p. 4, Figure 6)

Liberals are idealists? Conservatives are realists? Think again. Liberals have been historically and popularly thought of as idealists - individuals who have high ideals and believe they can be realized - while conservatives are often depicted as common-sense realists. But the latest Baylor Religion Survey analysis finds liberals are less likely than conservatives to believe in an ultimate meaning to life, that it is important to have a life philosophy, that "Ultimate Truth" exists or to seek eternal wisdom. Liberals also are more cynical about American society. They are more likely to report that some people are born lucky, that the world is controlled by a few wealthy, powerful elites, and that it is useless to try to find life's purpose. In contrast, conservatives tend to be less pessimistic about life and its options and more confident that there is "Truth" and that is it known to them. (p. 6, Figure 9)

Religion and Mental Health. For the first time in the survey's history, a significant portion of it was devoted to understanding the link between religion and physical and mental health. It identified 13 indicators of poor mental health and asked respondents to report how many they had experienced in the previous month. Findings in the Baylor Religion Survey showed that 40 percent reported having none; 25 percent reported having one or two mental health issues; and approximately 15 percent reported having had six or more mental health issues. Prayer, religious attendance and religious affiliation do not affect the number of reported mental health issues. The aspect of religion that matters most to mental health is the nature of one's relationship with God. Americans who believe that they have a strong relationship with an active God who loves them and is responsive to their needs report significantly fewer mental health issues. (pp. 13-14, Figures 18 and 19)

God's Worriers. Respondents were asked to report on their general level of worrying, anxiety and depression. The survey showed that 17 percent of Americans are chronic worriers. Those who did not attend religious service as often, nor read religious texts, are more prone to be chronic worriers. Chronic worriers also are less likely to consider themselves religious or to have a religious affiliation. According to the Baylor Religion Survey, 11 percent of Americans reported they had been sad/depressed for more than 10 days in the previous month. They are less likely to attend worship services, pray, read religious texts, consider themselves religious or have a religious affiliation. While religious practices do not affect the volume of reported mental health issues, they are associated with less worrying and depression. (p. 16, Figure 21)

Religion and Work. Secular business and profit-seeking are points of tension in many religions. In Christianity, believers are warned against the "love of money." Yet, work is an essential part of life for American adults, even the most devout. For a sizable minority, work and worship are tightly intertwined. A quarter of working Americans reports that they often or always view their work as a mission from God. More than a third (36 percent) routinely pursues excellence in work because of their faith. Individuals who attend religious services regularly and those who take a literal view of the Bible are among the most likely to attribute religious significance to their work. Women, African-Americans, older workers and people in the southern United States are also more likely to attach religious meaning to work. But few Americans (15 percent) perceive their congregations as encouraging them to start a business, while 18 percent report that their place of worship encourages them to make a profit. Emphasis on business activity is most prominent in African-American churches and megachurches of 2,000 or more worshippers.
"It's intriguing that our findings suggest faith beliefs can shape motivations and attitudes toward work, and yet so few churches promote discussions of work issues," said Mitchell J. Neubert, Ph.D., an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. "When churches do speak about those issues, few seem to speak positively about profit and starting a business, both of which are critical for vibrant local economies."

American Entrepreneurs Pray More. Starting a business is not for the faint of heart. Days, months and years may be spent toiling in financial uncertainty and meeting the demands of running a business, leaving little time for other endeavors, including religious involvement. But the survey found that religion does not impede starting a new business. The Baylor Religion Survey found that entrepreneurs are as likely as non-entrepreneurs to believe in God, to participate in a congregation and to read Scripture. Where American entrepreneurs do stand out is that they pray and meditate more than non-entrepreneurs. A third pray several times a day or meditate, in contrast to a quarter or less of non-entrepreneurs.
"The differences are modest but meaningful," said Kevin D. Dougherty, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Baylor. "It could be that the stress and struggle of new business ventures drive people to their knees." (p. 25, Figure 27)

Beliefs about Heaven and Hell Make a Difference. Beliefs about Heaven and Hell are common among Americans, but Americans express more certainty about Heaven than about Hell. Sixty-two percent absolutely believe that Heaven exists, while 51 percent absolutely believe that Hell exists. Belief in Heaven tops belief in Hell regardless of gender, race or religious tradition. Those who absolutely believe in Heaven and Hell are more satisfied with their jobs, more committed to their workplace and more often pursue excellence in work. "It seems that, despite popular culture promoting relativism, absolute beliefs about life after death still have a place in society and work," Neubert said. (p. 28, Figure 30)

Homosexuality and Rights. Americans clearly distinguish between rights that should be granted to gays and lesbians from those that should be withheld, the survey shows. More than 80 percent of Americans agree that gays and lesbians should have equal employment opportunities, but that does not necessarily extend to other social institutions, including marriage and family. Politically conservative, less educated and religiously affiliated individuals appear to maintain a division between lesbians and gays' right to equal employment and their right to marry and raise children.
"Across religious traditions, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference in levels of support when it comes to institutions of family," said Andrew L. Whitehead, a researcher in the department of sociology at Baylor. "The most dramatic difference is between those who are affiliated with any tradition and those who are unaffiliated with any religion. Those who are unaffiliated are more likely to support gay marriage and civil unions." (pp. 31-32, Figures 35 and 36)

Source of Homosexuality. The extent to which Americans support same-sex marriage, civil unions and same-sex adoption is closely tied to whether they believe homosexuality is genetic or a choice. The survey shows that less than half (41 percent) believe it is a choice; more than half (57 percent) believe it is genetic. Individuals who believe it is a choice are much more likely to label it "always wrong" and less likely to have a favorable opinion on same-sex marriage, civil unions and same-sex adoption. Those who think sexual orientation is determined by genetics are much more likely to deem homosexuality as morally acceptable and to support same sex-marriage, civil unions and same-sex adoptions. Those who are religiously unaffiliated are 35 percent more likely to view homosexuality as genetic, while the religiously affiliated are nearly three times more likely to report that homosexuality is a choice. Almost half (45 percent) of the religiously affiliated view homosexuality as a choice, as compared to just 15 percent of the religiously unaffiliated. While there is no conclusive evidence from the scientific community concerning homosexuality's cause, the possibility of finding one raises interesting possibilities. If a genetic explanation is established, attitudes toward gays and lesbians might be expected to grow more favorable. Otherwise, large portions of the American public will continue to view homosexuality as a choice, implicitly holding lesbians and gays responsible for their orientation. (p. 37, Figure 44)

About Baylor University

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, classified with "high research activity" by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Baylor provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students, blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating Texas university. Located in Waco, it welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.

About Baylor's Department of Sociology

The National Research Council ranks the program in the top 18 percent of the nation's 118 sociology doctoral programs. Private firm Academic Analytics places it in the top 25 percent of all doctoral sociology programs and ranks the department among the top 10 in books, articles and citations per faculty.

Baylor Religion Survey Faculty Researchers

Dr. Kevin D. Dougherty, associate professor of sociology and research fellow in the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He specializes in religious organizations and the link between religion and entrepreneurial behavior.

Dr. Paul Froese, associate professor of sociology and research fellow in the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the lead author of America's Four Gods: What we say about God and what that says about us (Oxford University Press).

Andrew L. Whitehead, a researcher in the department of sociology at Baylor University and research fellow in the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He specializes in religion, organizations, sexuality and gender.

Dr. Jerry Z. Park, associate professor of sociology and research fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. His research focuses on American religion, race relations and civic participation.

Dr. Mitchell J. Neubert, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship and The Chavanne Chair of Christian Ethics in Business at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business. His research focuses on preparing leaders to lead individuals, teams and organizations in a virtuous manner that results in positive change.