Belief by the Numbers

Who’s reading which Good Book,

Who’s praying for what and why,

Who’s going to heaven?
(Hint: almost all of us, or so we think).

Complied by: Russell Shorto

Just how religious are we?

American plainly have a gut feeling that they are in the midst of a secular era. In a recent survey, 60 percent of the respondents said that religion is a waning force in American life. But, just how accurate is that perception?

Fifty (50) years ago, 95 percent of the population said they believed in God----- compared with 96 percent now.

The same percentage of Americans pray today-----90 percent. as did in 1947.
The same percentage also still attend church once each week-------41 percent.

While 63 percent still give “thanks” before their meals. Compared with 43 percent in 1947.

It is true that American church membership peaked 50 years ago. But America is still a far more observant place than it was in its earlier years.

The more than 40 percent of the population that attends weekly services places the U.S among the most actively religious countries.

Nigeria (89 percent)

Ireland (84 percent)

And the Philippines (68 percent) are more observant, but

Canada (38 percent) Spain (25 percent) France (21 percent) Australia (16 percent), among many others, are less so.

The Evangelical Boom.

About 87 percent of all Americans consider themselves Christians.

And most of them attend church sometimes.

But, the churches they go to are hardly the same old churches.

Of the approximately 1,600 religions and denominations in the U.S. today, about 800 were founded since 1965.

Mainline Protestant churches have lost ground to evangelical churches.

Catholicism, which has grown by nearly 400 percent in Africa since 1967, represents a slightly smaller proportion of the American population today (22 percent) than it did just 30 years ago.

Here’s a look at how some established denominations have floundered while churches that favor evangelism have flourished.

Increase or decrease, over the past 30 years, as a proportion of the U.S. population, in percentages:

  • Episcopal........................ . -44
  • Methodist......................... . -38
  • Roman Catholic............. . -3
  • Southern Baptist.............. +8
  • Mormon........................... +96
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses ........ +119
  • Assemblies of God ........... +211
  • Church of God in Christ .... +863

The evangelical boom has been fueled in large part by the rise of the megachurch ( a church with more than 2,000 attendees at a given service)

In 1970, there were 10 megachurches in America; now there are 400.

How big do they get?

Consider the Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forrest, California:

In 1980, 8 people attended its first gathering;

it now pulls 13,000 to the 4 services it holds over the weekend.

Not Just Christians

America’s non-Christian landscape has undergone considerable change.

There are now approximately 800,000 Hindus in the country, compared with about 70,000 in 1977.

The growth of Islam has ben especially pronounced.

There are now about as many Muslims in the U.S. (At least 3.5 million) as there are Presbyterians. The largest group of Muslims (30 percent) is from South Asia, about 25 percent are Africa-Americans; and only 20 percent are Arabs (and, contrary to popular belief, only about 33 percent of Arab-Americans are Muslim)

Buddhism appears to be the fastest-growing Eastern religion, with an estimated 750,000 adherents now .living in the U.S. Tibetan Buddhism is the highest-profile subgroup .(thanks, in part, to celebrity converts like Richard Gere and Steven Seagal) and includes some 100,000 American converts.

The American Jewish population, meanwhile, is virtually the same size today as it was in 1960, about 5.5 million, but as a percentage of the population, Jews have slipped to from 3 percent to just over 2 .percent. The leading cause of the decline is intermarriage; some scholars estimate that 50 percent of the Jews who married this year married outside their religion (compared with 10 percent who did so before 1960).

The Good Book and other Media Properties

Americans love their Bibles!

93 percent contain at least one, and

33 percent of American adults say they read the Bible at least once a week.

But, as the survey show, their devotion may overshadow their retention.

Below, the percentage of respondents who:

  • Can’t name the authors of the four gospels: 54
  • Don’t know what a gospel is: 63
  • Can’t name five of the ten Commandments: 58
  • Think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife: 10.

One of the country’s largest religious publishing houses, Thomas Nelson of Nashville, reports selling about 8 million Bibles in the U.S. each year. The King James Version is easily the most popular .translation. (“John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’

The International Bible Society’s “Free on the inside” Bible, tailored for prison inmates, has sold 525,000 since 1994. Zondervan publishes 400 Bible editions and formats, including one aimed at the 40 million American adults who read at or below the fourth-grade level. (“John said, ‘Look! The Lamb of God!’”) In its first year, it has sold more than 300,000 copies.

Sales of what Bill Anderson, president of the Christian Booksellers Association, calls “Christ-honoring products”—from books to bumper stickers to CD’s------- grew from $1 Billion in 1980 to $4 Billion in 1996!

Brock and Bodie Thoene, a husband and wife who write Christian historical fiction have 6 million books in print. The hottest knickknack is anything bearing the legend “WWJD?” (For “What would Jesus do?”: coffee mugs, key rings, bracelets, etc.. This year Bob Siemon Designs of Santa Ana, California, has sold more than 2.5 million WWJD pieces.

Television, too, has found God to its liking.

In 1974, there were 9 religious TV stations, .in the entire country.

By last year there were 257.

In 1974, only 1 percent of all television programming was religious, Compared with 16 percent in 1996.

God does less well in cyberspace.

One survey showed (after finding) that only 40 percent of online users considered themselves Christian, while just 65 percent believe in a supreme being. And, 11 percent call themselves atheists (compared with 3 percent in the American population ----though surveys on atheism, depending on how the question is asked and phrased, produced widely varying results.)

Heaven? Absolutely! Hell? Well......

About 90 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven.

But, even some nonbelievers feel pretty good about their futures:

94 percent of all respondents say they have a fair-to-excellent chance of going to heaven.

Meanwhile, 65 percent of Americans say they believe in the devil.

(Compared with the more than 75 percent who believe in angels—and that they exist and affect human affairs.

And 73 percent believe in hell, though only (yes, only) 6 percent believe they’ll wind up there

Selective belief

In one study, 87 percent of Americans said they “believe in the resurrection of Christ.” But, another found that 39 percent feel Jesus did not return bodily from death; even 35 percent of born-again Christians agree.

Catholics remain among the most devoted worshipers, albeit selectively so.

About 85 percent consider themselves“religious,” and 73 percent say the belief in Mary as the mother of God is “very important”.

Meanwhile, 82 percent of Catholics say that using birth control is “entirely up to the individual,” and 64 percent agree that “one can be a good catholic without going to Mass.”

American Jews, too, remain unbound by traditional guidelines.

According to a recent poll of Conservative Jews, 62 percent believe that they are “ obligated to obey” traditional Jewish law, but 62 percent also believe that they can be ‘religious” without being “particularly observant.”

Meanwhile, 67 percent do not support the law stating that a child must be born of a Jewish mother to be considered Jewish.

Godlessness 101

In a recent survey of college freshmen, 15 percent indicated no religious preference.

(The highest figure ever and two and a half times as much as the nation as a whole)

The Christian Right: Not a Monolith

A recent poll of conservative evangelical Christians revealed a more complex set of beliefs than is commonly presented. Though 38 percent support conservative political organizations, 49 percent believe religious leaders shouldn’t tell people how to vote. While Christians and Jews believe by 82 percent that they share the same value system, and 79 percent might vote for a Jew for President, 58 percent believe Jews need to be converted to Christianity. And 79 percent believe homosexuals are too influential in American society.

God is in the Decimal Point

Conventional wisdom holds that religion is the balm of the oppressed.

Conventional wisdom could be, and may be, wrong.

Americans who earn more than $75,000.00 are more likely to have gone to a religious service in the previous week than those earning less than $15,000.00 (that’s 44 percent compared with 28 percent.)

One possible reason:

The people in the high-income group were more likely to have done something in the previous week that they later regretted doing. (24 percent to 17 percent).

About 60 percent of those in the low-income group see God in Cecil B. DeMille terms: creator of the universe, bringer of rewards and punishments. Only 34 percent in the high-income group agree, with an equal percentage (34) just as likely to think God as a “force” that maintains the balance of nature.

The Power of Prayer

Nearly everyone in America prays once in a while.

And, among those who do 98 percent pray for their family’s health and happiness Below, a list in percentages, of some of the other things they pray for:

  • World Peace: 83.
  • Personal salvation 78.
  • The return of Jesus: 55.
  • Good grades: 42.
  • End of an addiction 30
  • Victory in Sports: 23.
  • Material possessions 18
  • Bad tidings for someone else 5.

    Source: The New York Times Magazine
    “A Special Issue” God Decentralized
    December 7, 1997
    Section 6. Pages 60 and .61.

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