Religion a Salad Bar in America

Posted on: 06/24/08 5:51 PM | by Jonathan McKee

“Religion today in the USA is a salad bar where people heap on upbeat beliefs they like and often leave the veggies — like strict doctrines — behind.”

Wow… what an indictment! That’s USA Today’s summary of the new data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life‘s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 35,000 Americans. Most of these findings seem to parallel studies I quoted a few years ago about today’s culture in my Do They Run When They See You Coming book about reaching out to unchurched students.

This 2008 survey reveals some interesting findings about U.S. religious beliefs. A few highlights:

• 92% U.S. adults believe in God

58% say they pray at least once a day.

• 78% overall say there are “absolute standards of right and wrong,” but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to “practical experience and common sense,” with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.

• 74% say “there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” but far fewer (59%) say there’s a “hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”

• 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

• 68% say “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

• 44% want to preserve their religion’s traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”

• 50% say “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society,” but the most consistently traditional religious groups say society should discourage it — 76% of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 68% of Mormons, 61% of Muslims and 64% of evangelicals.

• 51% have a certain belief in a personal God, but 27% are less certain of this, 14% call God “an impersonal force,” and 5% reject any kind of God. “People say ‘God,’ and no one knows who they mean,” says Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

• 14% of all surveyed, including 28% of evangelicals, say religion is the “main influence in their political thinking.”

Check out this link for a fantastic little interactive graph with a collection of these findings. Very cool! (Pew Forum always has great research- you heard a few of these results from us recently in our Youth Culture Window article on church attendance).

Another interesting fact about all of this… apparently my home state of California proved to be “less religious” than other states. (Oh stop it… I know, I know!) LA Times summarized some of these findings.

These are great facts to familiarize ourselves with to better understand the culture we’re trying to reach out to.