BRS—begun in 2005 by Baylor’s Department of Sociology and the Institute for Studies of Religion, with initial funding from the John Templeton Foundation—is one of the most extensive surveys ever conducted on religious beliefs, values and attitudes. Designed by Baylor scholars and administered by the Gallup Organization, the survey through the years has addressed topics ranging from the paranormal to politics, from entrepreneurship to eternity.
The latest analysis—American Values, Mental Health, and Using Technology in the Age of Trump— was presented Sept. 7 at the Religion Newswriters Association’s conference in Nashville.
The previous four “waves” of the research were released in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2014, garnering extensive international interest from such prominent media outlets as USA TODAY, The Washington Post, PBS, NPR and Religion News Service.
Participating in Wave 5 of the survey were 1,501 adults chosen randomly from across the country, with 15 Baylor sociologists combining efforts to analyze data collected during the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“This was an ideal time to capture the uneasy tenor of American public opinion, especially with regards to the intersection of religion, politics and mental health,” Dr. Paul Froese, BRS director and sociology professor in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences, said.
“Today, divisions in the American public are stark, and we can trace many of our deep differences to how people understand traditional morality, theology and the purpose of our nation,” he said. “It is our purpose to provide the public and other researchers with unique data concerning religion, health, and community in America today.”
In the latest survey, Baylor sociologists found that nearly half of Americans are sure they’ll go to heaven; those who believe life has no purpose are the most despondent; most people have never used the Internet to find spiritual content or share their religious views; and rural Americans are more likely to believe a stronger tie should exist between religion and the federal government.
Their analyses indicate that the majority of those who supported Trump tend to say they are very religious, are members of white Evangelical Protestant churches, see the United States as a Christian nation and believe in an authoritative God actively engaged in world affairs.
In addition, they tend to see Muslims as threats to America, value gender traditionalism, and oppose lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Another important pattern that researchers uncovered among Americans is what they call “fear of others.”
Participants were asked how they felt about atheists, conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims, with researchers assessing how much respondents feel that other groups (a) hold values “morally inferior to people like me,” (b) “want to limit the personal freedoms of people like me,” and (c) “endanger the physical safety of people like me.”
The most feared religious groups are, in order, Muslims, atheists and conservative Christians. A third of Americans believe that conservative Christians want to limit their freedoms, while the values of atheists are the most disparaged.
Another matter addressed by sociologists was that of “Christian Nationalism.” Analysis revealed that more than a quarter of Americans believe that the United States is and always has been a Christian nation. But more—32 percent—believe that the country is not Christian today but was in the past.
About 20 percent of Americans disagree with both of those perceptions, saying it has never been a Christian nation; 21 percent are unsure if the country is or ever was a Christian nation.
With technology’s ever-growing role in society, sociologists also focused on faith and the Internet.
Most Americans report they never use the Internet for religious or spiritual content, and most have never used the Internet to share religious views, researchers found. But about half of those who attend church weekly believe that the Internet helps them connect to their spirituality.
Americans overall tend to say they are not addicted to technology, but those most likely to feel addicted to their devices have no religious affiliations.
Finally, Froese noted that the survey findings underscored that fact that religion—or lack of it—plays a role in a person’s mental health, along with such factors as physical health and life’s circumstances.
Nearly 50 percent of Americans are sure they will go to heaven; more than one-third have little to no fear of hell. Meanwhile, only about 10 percent feel life has no clear purpose, researchers found.
People who believe they are going to heaven reported being “very” or “pretty” happy, and people who do not fear hell are also consistently happy, according to survey findings. But Americans who have discovered a purpose are the most likely to be very happy.
“The most depressed are those who feel that life has no purpose,” Froese said. “This suggests that a meaningful world, even one guided by a judgmental God, is better than one having no meaning at all.”
>> For more information about Wave 5 of the Baylor Religion Survey, as well as waves released in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2014, visit baylor.edu/baylorreligionsurvey/.