c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) In late June, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the latest findings from their comprehensive study on the religious beliefs and practices of 35,000 Americans. The study contains some remarkable findings about American belief.
For starters, researchers found that 92 percent of Americans believe in some kind of God, including one out of five self-described atheists. Instead of a blatantly “secular America” that’s hostile to religion, the Pew survey reveals what many of us have long known: the overwhelming majority of Americans take faith commitments seriously, but they are not dogmatic about it.
In a stunning finding, Pew reports that 70 percent of respondents who are affiliated with a religious community believe that many faiths _ not just their own _ can lead a person to eternal life. And 68 percent say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own religion.
The seemingly contradictory findings are uniquely American in nature and reflect a disdain, an abhorrence even, of zealous “true believers.” Americans have carefully honed a unique skill that proudly affirms their own faith while fully respecting the beliefs and practices of their neighbors, even when it involves central questions of salvation and eternal life.
The Pew study also makes clear that people who are not affiliated with a religious group do not lack either spiritual beliefs or practices. “Unaffiliated” does not equal disinterest in matters of faith. More than 40 percent of the “unaffiliated” still say religion is important in their lives; 70 percent believe in God; and one in four attends religious services several times a year.
The study found that Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus share similarly high percentages in their positive attitudes toward other religions. Close behind in the belief that many religions can lead to eternal life are Orthodox Christians, along with more than half of black Protestants, “mainstream” Muslims and evangelical Christians.
Of course, “belief in God” always means different things to different people. Not surprisingly, evangelicals, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses had the highest percentages affirming the existence of a personal God, far higher than the 60 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants who believe in a Supreme Deity. Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists spoke more about an Impersonal Force, as did many agnostics and religiously unaffiliated.
While statistics can be used to defend or attack just about anything, I find the Pew findings credible. My work in the complex arena of interfaith relations has taught me that most Americans do not accept the religious-right canard that a “secular humanist” cabal is undermining our nation and its spiritual beliefs. The truth is otherwise.
A religious spirit is permanently embedded within the American DNA, and that spirit provides respect for wide religious diversity. How could it be otherwise?
America was founded, after all, by religious dissidents who fled spiritual persecution in other lands. When some of those refugees themselves became fanatics _ think Puritans in New England _ and sought to impose their theocracy upon others, they were unsuccessful.
While Europeans frequently killed one another in the name of religion, our horrific Civil War was not one of religious enmity. America’s profound fissure line is not religion; it has always been, and remains, race.
The Pew survey reminds us that we Americans have escaped the murderous religious pathologies that wracked past societies and remain a tragic reality in much of today’s troubled world.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)
KRE/PH END RUDIN
A photo of Rabbi Rudin is available via https://religionnews.com.