The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life today released its second report on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which finds that while many Americans are highly religious, most are not dogmatic in their approach to faith. This new analysis examines the diversity of Americans' religious beliefs and practices as well as their social and political attitudes. It follows the first report of the Landscape Survey, which was published in February 2008 and detailed the size, internal changes and demographic characteristics of major religions in the United States.
"The fact that most Americans are not exclusive or dogmatic about their religion is a fascinating finding," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum. "Most people will be surprised that a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including a majority of evangelical Protestants, say that there isn't just one way to salvation or to interpret the teachings of their own faith."
Based on interviews conducted in English and Spanish with a nationally representative sample of more than 35,000 adults, part two of the Landscape Survey includes a wealth of information on the religious beliefs and practices of the American public. It also explores the social and political attitudes of religious groups, including members of many small religious traditions - such as Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics - not typically analyzed in public opinion surveys.
"This report illustrates, chapter and verse, the amazing diversity and dynamism both between and within religious traditions in America," noted John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum. "And this diversity of affiliation, belief and practice matters when it comes to social and political questions."
The second report of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds:
• Although many Americans are highly religious, they are not dogmatic in their faith. Seventy percent of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions - not just their own - can lead to eternal life. Most also think there is more than one correct way to interpret the teachings of their own faith.
• This does not mean, however, that Americans take religious matters lightly. Most, in fact, say they rank the importance of religion very highly in their lives, and a plurality wants to preserve the traditional beliefs and practices of their faith, while only a small minority wants to accommodate their religion to modern culture.
• There is tremendous diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the U.S. Important religious differences exist between the major religious traditions, but there are also important differences within religious traditions.
While more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there are considerable differences in the nature of this belief. Six-in-ten adults believe that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship; but one-in-four - including about half of Jews and Hindus - see God as an impersonal force. Similarly, seven-in-ten Americans say that they are absolutely certain of God's existence, while roughly one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.
Three-quarters of Americans report praying at least once a week, with large majorities among most religious traditions saying they pray on at least a weekly basis. Even among the unaffiliated, roughly one-in-three pray on a weekly basis. At the same time, however, there are those among all faith groups who pray much less frequently; overall, one quarter of the public says they pray a few times a month or less often.
Almost two-fifths of Americans report meditating at least once a week. This practice is particularly common among Buddhists, but nearly half of evangelical Protestants and Muslims say they meditate at least weekly. About one-quarter of the unaffiliated report weekly meditation. These patterns may incorporate elements of both Christian and non-Christian traditions.
• Politics and religion in the United States are intertwined, and religion is highly relevant to understanding politics in the U.S. Yet while the diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice translates into important differences on many social and political issues, differences on other issues are less pronounced.
Religion is closely linked to political ideology. The survey shows that Mormons are among the most politically conservative groups in the population. Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, by contrast, are among the most likely to describe their ideology as liberal.
People who regularly attend worship services and say religion is important in their lives are much more likely to identify as conservative, and this pattern extends to many religious traditions. For example, within the evangelical, mainline Protestant, historically black Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and Orthodox Christian traditions, those who attend church weekly are significantly more likely than those who attend less often to describe themselves as political conservatives. And among Jews, those who say religion is very important to them or pray every day are more likely than others to be politically conservative.
The connection between religious engagement and political attitudes appears to be especially strong when it comes to hot button social issues such as abortion or homosexuality. For instance, about six-in-ten Americans who attend religious services at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while only three-in-ten who attend less often share this view. This pattern holds across several religious traditions.
On other topics covered in the survey, such as views on the role and size of government and foreign policy attitudes, the role of religion is less clear and there appears to be greater consensus across and within religious traditions. For instance, a majority of nearly every religious group supports stricter environmental regulations and believes the government should do more to help Americans in need. Similarly, most Americans, including majorities of most faiths, say it is more important to focus on problems here at home than to be active in world affairs.
In conjunction with the release of this report, the Pew Forum is updating its online presentation of the findings at religions.pewforum.org. Updated features include interactive mapping by state, dynamic charts and a variety of other tools that allow users to explore the beliefs and practices as well as social and political views of major religions in the United States.
Subsequent releases will include a re-contact survey that delves deeper into the relationship between religious and political identity, issues related to conversion and attitudes toward religious pluralism in America.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life delivers timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. The Forum is a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization and does not take positions on policy debates. Based in Washington, D.C., the Forum is a project of the Pew Research Center, which is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.