New Research Refutes Common Perceptions of American Religion

Baylor University’s Institute for Studies on Religion (ISR) released a survey Thursday that concluded surprising results about the American religious landscape. In a follow-up to the school’s 2005 survey on religion, which found that most Americans believe in God or a higher power, researchers sought to delve deeper into Americans’ beliefs.

“Our mission with the Baylor Religion Survey [was] to ask deeper questions,” said Christopher 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.

“The idea was to take every question you usually see on a religion survey and try to push it several levels.”

Conducted by the Gallup Organization on 1,648 random American adults, the study found that contrary to common opinion, megachurches have more intimate relationships among congregants then do smaller congregations.

“None of the things we all believe about the megachurch is true,” said Rodney Stark, professor of social sciences at Baylor and co-director of the ISR.

Megachurch constituents tend to show more commitment to their churches by attending Bible studies and weekly services, as well as tithing more consistently, than their smaller counterparts. People attending churches with more than 1,000 members are also involved outside the church—often active in home Bible studies and inviting more friends and family to church.

“We think of [megachurches] 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.”

Results from the study, which were announced in the nation’s capital and is published in What Americans Really Believe by Rodney Stark, found that despite recent reports Americans have not become disenfranchised with organized religion. An estimated 31 million people participate in community outreaches such as neighborhood prayer meetings and Bible studies affiliated with a church.

“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 Byron Johnson, professor of sociology at Baylor and co-director of the ISR. “What we found [is] 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.”

With the emergence of atheistic best-selling books such as The God Delusion, some have claimed atheism is on the rise in America. But the ISR report refutes this assertion. The research showed atheism has remained a steady 4 percent of the U.S. population since the mid-20th century and that atheists, as a group, tend to be avid readers, which might explain why recent atheistic books sold so well.

Other findings found that 55 percent of Americans have had specific spiritual experiences, including hearing God’s voice, feeling God’s directional leading, speaking or praying in tongues, being protected by an angel, and witnessing or receiving a miracle healing.

Forty-five percent of respondents said they’d had at least two religious experiences. Women, African-Americans and Republicans charted the highest numbers in this category.

Sixty-seven percent of Americans said heaven “absolutely” exists and 73 percent said hell exists.

The study is the second of a series of religious research that will continue to be conducted every two years by the ISR until 2018.

“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 concluded.


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