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

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 God is. Is God angry, is God judgmental, is God friendly, is God forgiving, is He engaged with the world?”

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

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

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, Bible study groups and tithing. They also are more likely to accept that heaven "absolutely" exists, and that God rewards the faithful with major successes. They are also more convinced of the reality of evil, more given to having religious and mystical experiences, significantly younger in age, and are remarkably active in volunteer work (as much or more so than smaller churches).

Atheism and Irreligion

In both the 2005 and 2007 Baylor Religion Surveys, researchers found that 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

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 of ‘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. These experiences were also shown to occur with considerable frequency in nearly all religious groups. The survey 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.

"Scattered" and "Gathered" Religious Groups

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.

For more details about The Baylor Religion Survey, go to the website of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion at