According to the latest Pew Forum US Religious Landscape Survey, an ongoing examination of American religious beliefs and practices, 92% of us are betting on the existence of God or a “universal spirit.” 7 in 10 are “absolutely certain” God exists, and 60% say God is not merely a “life force,” but a relational being.
Hedging their bets, 20% of atheists also believe in God, which is like discovering that 20% of PETA members have fur coats stashed in their closets.
America is bursting with faith.
Three-quarters of Americans say they pray at least weekly — unfortunately, we don’t know if those prayers concern lottery picks, parking spaces, or weightier matters. But nearly half claim they have received specific answers to their prayers in the past year.
Three-quarters of Americans believe in some sort of afterlife, and 80% believe that God is still in the miracle business. In fact, Americans hold strongly to a belief in divine healing.
Predictably, we are divided about the political implications of faith. And, the Pew research makes it clear that religious belief and practice is still more common among conservatives, with lack of belief more common among liberals. About one-third of liberals say religion is unimportant to them, compared to only one in five conservatives who agree.
This “faith-gap” in politics has been well documented, and Democrats have made serious attempts to field candidates who are able to talk the faith talk. Barack Obama is the perfect example of this new Democratic attempt to tap into America’s religious fervor.
America is unusual in this regard, at least among its western peers. While Europe has become increasingly secular, America has held on to its religious roots. Mainline denominations may be shrinking, but churches that express certainty about God are thriving.
Why have we resisted the lure of secularism? Why, despite so many attempts to bury God, are so many refusing to let go of their faith?
I think some have underestimated how tightly faith was woven into the American cultural psyche.
We were founded as a refuge against religious intolerance. Every school child knows the story of the Pilgrims, and we identify with them every November as we pause to give thanks for our blessings. Even at this distance in time, those strong religious convictions that drove men and women to flee Europe for an uncertain safe harbor still resonate with ordinary Americans. We still resist the intolerance of those who are offended by faith, and it may just be that belief is a way of pushing back against modern efforts to strip every religious symbol from our public squares.
In gratitude to God, our American ancestors built churches and religious institutions, but also schools, hospitals, charities and fraternal associations (e.g., the YMCA and Boy Scouts). All of these encouraged religious devotion as a necessary element in the properly formed life. Even as many of them have downplayed their religious histories, they still stand as silent witnesses to the goodness and generosity of men and women of faith, as well as to their certainty that society could be transformed by the collective efforts of individuals who have themselves been transformed by faith in God.
Americans, taking cues from their Scriptures, created governmental systems built on principles of justice, fairness, equality, and compassion, along with a political philosophy that acknowledged the right of all people to worship as they please. The First Amendment, properly understood, prohibits government from attempting to influence religious practices and beliefs. The First Amendment reminds us that belief in a higher authority than government is a precious thing worth preserving. Belief is constitutionally guarded, and hence, encouraged.
Americans are independent thinkers. There have been an abundance of voices proclaiming God’s death, but Americans have mostly ignored those voices.
This independent thinking has been partly responsible for the decline of the mainstream denominations. As mainline churches have shifted their focus from devotion to God to a more secular love, politics, Americans have responded by forming new, independent churches and splinter denominations that have returned to the historic roots of religious faith.
There are still a great many unsolved mysteries in the universe. Phoenix is right now digging up dirt on the surface of Mars to learn something of its history. The world’s largest particle accelerator is soon to be finished near Geneva, Switzerland, and will be used to try to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, an important elementary particle that has been hypothesized but never observed. 1.5 million young people develop Type I diabetes every year, but doctors don’t know what causes the disease or how to prevent it.
And then there is God, the alleged Creator of everything, the law-giver, the judge of all humanity, the immortal and infinite being who loves and speaks to moral and finite men and women. Does God exist? Does faith still make sense in an age of rockets to Mars and atom smashers?
In America, the answer seems to be a resounding Yes!
Photo credit: The National Center for Public Policy, Peyton Knight