This News from top U.S. researchers has to encourage anyone who is yearning for an America in which our religious diversity strengthens our communities, rather than dividing them. That reflects a founding principle here at ReadTheSpirit and we know that thousands of our readers feel the same way.
Monday afternoon, researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life unveiled Wave 2 of their findings, based on their massive survey of 35,000 Americans. We reported on Wave 1 in February. With three more months to dig through their mountain of data, several top researchers spent two hours describing their latest findings to journalists (linked via a nationwide conference call on Monday afternoon).
What Do We Find Most Important?
Perhaps appropriately, news reports on these Pew findings are likely to be diverse as well. Based on the questions asked by reporters from major newspapers and online publications across the U.S., our interests are literally all over the map. Some journalists are interested in Muslim responses; some are intrigued by Catholics; some are pushing for possible links to our red-hot presidential race.
But here’s the top-line finding that jumped out at me and was underlined, over and over, by the researchers:
Religion is hugely important in Americans’ lives, but not in the two-dimensional ways that faith is often portrayed. The vast majority of Americans believe in God, pray and find solace in our faith. Most of us regard our religious affiliation as a very important part of our lives.
HOWEVER — in huge numbers, Americans are making practical choices about what we believe. And, in particular, we’re a whole lot more open and respectful toward diverse religious traditions than many commentators, journalists and political activists would have us believe.
“There tends to be an emphasis on the conflict that religion can produce in American politics — but we find evidence that religion also can be a source of consensus,” John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum said during the telephone conference.
First of all, most Americans don’t believe that their family members, friends and neighbors are going to Hell, even if they disagree about religious doctrine. Then, beyond that basic flexibility in the way we regard other faiths — Green said that Americans actually share some broad areas of agreement about what our faiths are calling us to do in the world.
Green said, “A majority of nearly every religious group in our survey supports stricter environmental regulation and supports helping those in need.” (Again, these are themes we explore regularly here at ReadTheSpirit.)
Duke Helfand of the Los Angeles Times was one of the journalists pushing the researchers to explain more about this remarkable spiritual optimism and flexibility that show up in the findings. Duke asked the researchers if this reflects a loosening of American morals. “The fact that more Americans believe in Heaven than Hell now — does that mean they’re less afraid they’re going to Hell, so they can do what they want?”
“The question is very interesting. It’s a very complicated subject and we may explore that in future surveys,” said Green. But Green said we are, indeed, seeing a more flexible and compassionate view of faith among millions of Americans. He put it this way: “Many more people believe in Heaven than believe in Hell. It does seem to be associated with whether we view God as a judge, someone who punishes people — and many more people now believe in God as someone who is merciful and forgiving.”
Finally, Green was asked whether these findings surprised him. You may not immediately recognize Green’s name — but he has been quoted for many years as an expert on faith and politics in American life. For decades, he’s been a top scholar in this field.
Nevertheless, Green said that these findings did surprise him.
“I was surprised by two things,” he said. “The first thing was the enormous diversity of American religion. I have written about this for 25 years, but I was stunned at just how diverse we are. This study is so detailed that we can see this diversity goes all the way down to the ground. When we say Americans are religiously diverse — we mean it.
“The other thing that surprised me was the large numbers of Americans who have non-dogmatic views of their faith. I’ve seen this before, but in this data I’m seeing this as much larger and more widespread than I thought. This is clearly an important aspect of American religion and we think it likely is connected to the fact that, on a daily basis, the average American is likely to run into people whose faith is different than their own. … We suspect that this non-dogmatic approach is a very practical response to living in such a religiously diverse society.”
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, chimed in at that point to say that, quite simply, this diversity now extends into millions of Americans’ families. “We are living with people of different religions now. So, this non-dogmatic approach goes right down to the level of our kitchen tables.”
Care to Read More?
Pew’s main Web site for the findings was updated late Monday to include more of their multi-media graphics. Dig around inside the site and you’ll find intriguing things like a clickable, 50-state analysis of the data. You also can download a long version of their Wave 2 report. But, here’s a word of warning: The Pew site is a little confusing at first. You’ll get the hang of it but most likely you’ll find yourself lost in there for a good hour or so looking at interesting bits and pieces. So, pour a fresh cup of coffee before you start.
HOWEVER, if you haven’t got that luxury right now — ReadTheSpirit ALSO is posting a Pew News Summary of the top-line findings. This summary should take just a few minutes to digest.
CATHOLICS may be interested to read an overview of the Pew data as it relates to their church — provided late Monday by Thomas Reese, SJ, a top Catholic analyst.
THEN — this is waaay cool. We want to thank the Detroit Free Press’ Steve Dorsey, an editor with a background in graphic arts, who Facebooked over this next link Monday evening. USA Today online created this interactive graphic, based on the Pew data. In fact, this is so well done that I’d recommend you check out USA Today’s clickable graphics before the Pew graphics.
TELL US WHAT YOU THINK. Click on the “Comment” link below. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.