Americans' Belief in God Is High but Nuanced, Study Says

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, December 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

Americans' Belief in God Is High but Nuanced, Study Says


Dart, John, The Christian Century


A new analysis of how strongly Americans believe in God finds no upward trends in atheism, agnosticism and doubt. However, surveys also show that various levels of belief and skepticism are masked by a common claim that 95 percent of U.S. adults believe in God.

The better figure would be 80 percent who believe in a traditional, personal God--a number combining 64 percent who have no doubts about God's existence and 16 percent who believe despite some doubts--according to a series of nationwide surveys that offered six possible responses.

About 8 percent of Americans said the best description for them was, "I don't believe in a personal god, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind."

Other responses were picked by the ambivalent ("I find myself believing in God some of the time, but not at others," 4 percent) the agnostic ("I don't know if there is a God, and I don't believe there is any way to find out," 4 percent) and the atheist ("I don't believe in God," 2.5 percent).

The data came from a total of 8,000 adults polled in six General Social Surveys by the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center in the period 1988 through 2000. The now-biennial GSS poll did not ask this multilevel question about belief in God in 2002 or this year.

In a paper for this year's meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University said he did "the first systematic analysis" on what demographic factors would predict "the odds of being an atheist, agnostic or a true believer."

Many of Sherkat's conclusions were not surprising. He found that marriage and childrearing strengthen belief, that divorce can have a negative effect, and that aging is the most important element contributing to certainty in God. "As humans get older, marry and have children, they become more convinced [of] the existence of God," said Sherkat. By the same token, atheists also are likely to be more convinced in their disbelief" as they grow older.

Higher education, as expected, takes its toll on certainty of belief. "Each year of increase in education reduces the odds of being in a more 'certain' belief category by 7 percent," Sherkat said.

Denominational ties are indicative, too. While only 53 percent of liberal Protestants (including Presbyterians and United Church of Christ members) and 56 percent of Episcopalians have unwavering faith that God exists, fully 81 percent of Baptists and 85 percent of Mormons have no doubt about Cod.

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Americans' Belief in God Is High but Nuanced, Study Says
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