About 20 percent of Americans have read one of the 12 Left Behind novels or megachurch pastor Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. Nearly 50 percent have seen Mel Gibson's feature film, The Passion of the Christ. About 40 percent say that born-again or Bible-believing best describes their religious identity.

Those are some results from the new Baylor Religion Survey, one of the most comprehensive studies of religion in America. Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) released initial survey findings today.

Conventional wisdom holds that America's religious landscape has grown more secular over time. But Baylor sociologists are citing survey findings that support their long-held hunch that decades of other surveys have painted a picture of the landscape that's imprecise at best.

According to a statement from the survey's scholars: "Past survey research has tended to consistently depict Americans as a highly religious people, while some of these same surveys have shown that the percentage of Americans indicating no particular religious affiliation has doubled over the last two decades.

"Our survey reconciles any apparent contradiction. It turns out that Americans remain connected to congregations to an extent far greater than they associate with denominations or other religious labels. Also, a fair number of those who claimed 'no religion' in our sample were actually active, engaged affiliates of evangelical congregations who were 'screened out' by previous surveys that concentrated on denominational affiliation."

The survey suggests some 90 percent of Americans identify with an individual congregation or "religious family." Many of those surveyed don't see themselves as belonging to a particular denomination. Those who do are also more evangelical than earlier research has indicated.

The survey subdivided the respondents into four kinds of believers in God, including people who believe in the authoritarian God, the benevolent God, the critical God, and the distant God. The survey found 29 percent of respondents who were Catholic or mainline Protestant showed belief in a distant God. A majority of surveyed black Protestants and evangelicals showed belief in an authoritarian God.

The John Templeton Foundation funded the Baylor ISR's study of a national representative sampling of 1,721 Americans with a three-year, $716,000 grant. In late 2005, the Gallup Organization conducted the 360-question survey by mail and phone. The survey included sets of religion questions about politics, moral attitudes, civic engagement, paranormal beliefs, Pentecostal practice, the war on terror, and buying habits of religious goods.

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The ISR plans to repeat the survey with varied sets of questions every two years. The last similar survey on religion in America was prominent sociologist Rodney Stark's 1963 Berkeley study, titled "American Piety." Stark is now co-director of Baylor's ISR.

The new study, "American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the U.S.," has uncovered findings that may confirm some widespread beliefs about Americans' faith, but it will also likely surprise both social scientists and the public.

Among the Baylor study's findings:

  1. 4 percent of Americans think God picks sides in partisan politics. Evangelicals are most likely to believe God favors the United States, followed by Catholics.

  2. Fewer than 5 percent claim a faith outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream.

  3. Approximately 55 percent of all respondents believe abortion is always wrong when the rationale is that the mother cannot afford the child or when the mother does not want the child.

  4. Among survey respondents who attend church weekly, almost 55 percent agree that the Iraq war is justified, and 48.5 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11.

  5. Among those who never attend church, only 30.5 percent believe the war is justifiable, and 24 percent believe links exist between Saddam and 9/11.

  6. Respondents were asked about paranormal beliefs and experiences. A majority of Americans (52.0%) expressed belief that dreams can sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths, and 43.0 percent of Americans reported experiencing such a dream that later came true. While only 12.3 percent of Americans believe astrology impacts one's life and personality, more than twice as many—28.0 percent—have consulted horoscopes to get an idea about the course of their lives.

The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Fewer with 'No Religion'
Baylor's survey asks some questions similar to those of other national surveys on religion in addition to deeper questions.

For example, in addition to asking respondents whether they pray, Baylor asked to whom they pray, whether they pray before meals, and what they prayed about the last time they prayed.

Baylor sociologists believe a key finding is that fewer than 11 percent of respondents have 'no religion.' That is in contrast with the prominent University of Chicago General Social Survey, conducted annually in 90-minute in-person interviews that include religion questions. The 2004 General Social Survey determined that 14 percent of Americans adhere to no religion. The 1988 survey found 8 percent adhered to no religion. Scholars have cited this growing percentage as evidence of secularization in America.

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But ISR's contrasting findings may prove to be bombshells in academia and in the press, Baylor sociologists maintain.

Byron Johnson, ISR co-director, said that the many sociologists who are convinced America is becoming more secular use religious "nones" as evidence. Baylor's survey, however, found that when a question probed the name and address of a person's local congregation rather than simply asking denominational affiliation, some people previously counted as having "no religion" were actually active in non-denominational evangelical churches.

Johnson maintains bias may be behind this discrepancy. "Sociology is more dominated by people who are hopeful that the secularization thesis can be validated, and previous findings give it support," Johnson told CT.

Concerning survey findings that run counter to the "secularization thesis" that Americans are becoming less religious, veteran sociologist Stark wrote in an e-mail to CT, "The secularization thesis has died an overdue death among scholars who attend to evidence, lingering only among European intellectuals dedicated to irreligion and professional atheists."

Evangelicals Avoid 'E-Word'
Evangelicals, whom the survey found make up 33.6 percent of Americans, don't prefer being called evangelical. The survey found only 15 percent of the population used the term to describe their religious identity, and just 2.2 percent answered that the label best describes their identity.

Johnson said he actually expected fewer evangelicals to embrace that label because "there's a distinct bias against evangelicals," he said. "My prediction is that in the next five years the term evangelical will become as marginalized as the term fundamentalist is today."

Baylor sociologist Kevin Dougherty said the figure of 33.6 percent was determined from survey respondents' affiliations with congregations and denominations that Wheaton College scholar Lyman Kellstedt previously had grouped into evangelical, mainline, and other religious traditions.

Due to the volume of information, researchers say they will likely never fully mine the data from this study. Already the ISR is preparing for its next round of this survey, which will be administered in late 2007.

Related Elsewhere:

Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion has more information on the survey.