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Defining Faith

Dec. 4, 2006

In a nation seemingly zoned into partitions by war, political parties and age, the trivia of cell phone etiquette, home décor and Brad and Angelina's new baby, Baylor University achieved a remarkable feat this fall when it brought out a rich, scientific survey on religious attitudes that shows 95 percent of the population agrees that God exists and that we are more religious than previous surveys suggest.

This study of faith has garnered international attention and contributed to the dialogue about spiritual matters across the country. In a collaboration between Baylor researchers and the Gallup Organization, the survey reveals that 88 percent of Americans espouse religious beliefs and shows a fabric of faith in American that is both diverse and complex:

• Although a majority of Americans agree God exists, they do not agree about how God feels about politics or other public issues.

• Religious Americans label themselves differently than do academics and the media, which tend to apply more restrictive labels, such as "evangelical." Only a third of people in evangelical Protestant congregations use that term to describe themselves.

• Americans pray, but differ on whom they pray to or what they pray about.

"This survey provides a wonderful example of the perfect marriage of faith and research," says Baylor University President John M. Lilley.

"Through rigorous scientific methodology, the study has stimulated rich discussion about what faith means to us as a nation and led individuals to examine what they actually believe."

When Americans answered questions about their religious practices 40 years ago, one of the researchers was Rodney Stark. Now a Baylor sociologist, Stark was also involved in the new Baylor Religion Survey. He points out the important differences between his historic and most recent survey work and the research that has most frequently occurred since then.

"In the 1960s, I had some radical research ideas like asking people if they gave money for church, and instead of asking them if they pray, asking them what they pray for," Stark says. "I think it was almost 30 years before anyone asked again, 'Did you give any money to your church?' We went back to, 'Do you believe in God, yes or no? What is your denomination, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, non-denominational or other?'"

Titled "American Piety in the 21st Century" Baylor's survey shows the depth of information that can be gleaned when matters of faith are probed at a deep level.

An atypical survey

"This is not just another typical survey of religion," says Byron Johnson, a sociologist and co-director with Stark of Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. "Most surveys might ask, 'How often do you pray?' We want to know who do you pray to, what was the last thing you prayed about, why do you pray? We know that a lot of Americans say they believe in God, but we want to know, 'What do you think God's personality is like? How engaged is God in the world? What gender is God?' "

Asking those kinds of in-depth questions, 350 in all, led to detail in the results that Baylor's President Lilley describes as "fascinating and illuminating." This kind of research fits naturally with Baylor's mission, Lilley says.

"As a national research university, Baylor's aim is to undertake academic studies that not only examine basic questions but that also produce results that might sustain communities, address controversies and contribute to social health and well-being," he says. "Any study of our society without understanding of the role played by religion is necessarily incomplete."

Few religious 'nones'

"A fundamental question to anybody studying religion is, are Americans losing their religion?" says Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology and one of the main drivers of the Baylor survey. "The reason this is such a big question is there is evidence other places that societies do in fact lose their religion over time. In 1988 the General Social Survey found that 8 percent of Americans had no religion. By 2004, that percentage had grown to over 14 percent. Others have reported the percentage of religious 'nones' in America today at levels greater than 14 percent."

If that were true, Dougherty says, it would show a tremendous amount of secularization in society. But he and others say that the way surveys ask about religious connection makes a difference in determining the population's true leanings.

"Prior national studies asked "What is your religion or religious preference, and provided response options: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Other, or No religion," Dougherty says. They also asked about denominations. "There might be a list of options--Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian -- or, they might leave it open at 'Please tell us the name of your denomination.' In the Baylor survey we experiment with that same structure, and when we do, we find about the same percentage of people with no religion. However, we also take it one step further. Elsewhere in the survey, we ask 'What is the name of your place of worship, and can you give us the address of that place?' "

When Dougherty and his colleagues examined responses to the latter questions, they found that barely 1 out of 10 people have no faith affiliation. "This means that prior national studies which have concluded that 10 million people are not religious are overlooking the fact that these people are actually in church on Sunday," Dougherty says.

Furthermore, the survey shows that fully a third of Americans are affiliated with an evangelical Protestant congregation or denomination such as Assembly of God or Church of the Nazarene. That means about 100 million Americans are affiliated with evangelical Protestantism, Dougherty says. "How do you explain the differences between our findings and other national studies that seek to measure religiosity? It goes back to how you ask about religious behavior. Like many studies, the Baylor Religion Survey asks about religious affiliation, religion preference, and denominations. But we take it a step further and ask about congregational life - the name and address of your congregation.

"What we find is that just asking about religious preference, 33 percent of the respondents that said 'I don't know my religion,' five questions later gave us the name of a congregation. Ten percent of the respondents that told us they had no religion five questions later gave us the name of a congregation."

Denominations less important

This is because denominations don't mean as much as they used to, the researchers say, and some people are affiliated with groups that don't have a denomination. As Stark puts it, "An enormous number of Americans today don't know whether they are Protestant or Methodist or Baptist because they go to a community church. So we say they are Christians."

The researchers asked people directly what religious label best described them, giving 12 labels to choose from and allowing the selection of more than one label. Almost half of the results came back "Bible-believing," Dougherty says, while a quarter say born-again and another fourth say mainline Christian.

"By affiliation, 33.6 percent of Americans are in what have historically been labeled evangelical Protestant congregations or denominations," he says. But barely 15 percent identify with that label. "How do religious affiliation and religious labels fit together? Not too well. Some people that are in evangelical congregations and denominations are likely to choose this label, but not everyone in Southern Baptist, Nazarene or Assembly of God churches is using the term. Only a third of those in evangelical Protestant congregations identify with this label. Of those in black Protestant denominations, only half are using the label.

"Now we see why estimates of evangelicals in America are so wide, Dougherty adds. "It depends on who is doing the labeling."

Four views of God

By analyzing answers to 30 questions about God, the researchers determined that people see God in four distinct ways.

The survey describes an authoritarian God, who is judgmental and engaged; a benevolent God who is not judgmental but still engaged; a critical God, who is judgmental and angry but not engaged; and a distant God who is non-judgmental and completely removed from worldly issues.

"Ninety-five percent of people believe in God, but they don't agree on what God is like," says Chris Bader, Baylor assistant professor of sociology. Of that 95 percent, 31.4 percent say God is authoritarian; 25 percent say God is benevolent; 23 percent say God is distant; and 16 percent say God is critical.

Further analysis shows these beliefs about the nature of God correlate strongly to a respondent's opinions about political and moral issues, the researchers say. "If I know your type of God, I know all kinds of things about you, " says Paul Froese, another member of the research team and also an assistant professor of sociology.

Someone who believes in a distant God is not likely to be an activist. This person might think about God as a cosmic force who has power over the laws of nature, but does not see God as a being who acts in the world or who has clear opinions about man's activities or world events.

The believer in an authoritarian God is more likely to think that God is angry, highly involved in daily life and world affairs, responsible for global events, and capable of doling out punishment to the unfaithful.

Income and gender figure in as well, Froese says. "The higher your income, the less likely you are to think God is angry. The lower your income, the more likely you are to think God is angry." Meanwhile, women lean more toward a benevolent God while men are more likely to see an authoritarian and critical God.

"One of the most powerful things that the types of God predict are political and moral attitudes," Froese says. "For example, in our survey, only 18 percent of Americans overall think we should abolish the death penalty. However, people who believe in an authoritarian God are less likely to think we should abolish the death penalty while those who believe in a distant God are much more likely to think we should abolish the death penalty."

Help for congregations

Johnson hopes that ongoing religion surveys conducted by this research team will eventually offer help to congregations. "Many of us who do this kind of work publish articles in academic journals that are not accessible to the public, and here, with my colleagues, we have had some serious conversations about how can we begin to help congregations with this research."

The ability to conduct scholarly research within the framework of a Christian university, illustrated by 2012, Baylor's Vision, was one of the factors that made Baylor attractive to both Johnson and Stark.

"When you say, 'We're a Christian university and we want to be a top research university that's also profoundly Christian,' you've got my interest," Johnson says. "That vision was captivating -- the chance to be at a place that's serious about academics and wants to do better all the time but without losing its faith along the way."

Johnson says he and the other researchers not only want to go to churches and give presentations about their research, but they want congregations to ask them questions. "We want to learn from them," he says. "That informs our work. We want people to see Baylor as an academic powerhouse, but we also want them to understand that Baylor is a place that's intentional about helping congregations."

The figures that have been released are only some of the results the survey yielded. Researchers are still going through a treasure trove of data and expect to report new findings in coming months. They are also planning for the second wave of the survey, which will go into the field in fall of 2007 with a variety of new questions. They intend to release a new religion survey every two years, says Johnson, using the first one as a benchmark.

"I have a feeling that in the future the Baylor survey will be very much anticipated on a national and international level. We have set a precedent. In two years, people will begin to ask, where's that Baylor religion survey?"

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