The Changing Religious Landscape the 2000 Gallup & Barna Polls

Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Changing Religious Landscape the 2000 Gallup & Barna Polls


For years SKEPTIC has tracked the ever-changing religious landscape of beliefs. Although overall rates of belief (and disbelief) remain steady, the variations within the numerous variables that go into what we know as religion and spirituality are in constant flux.

Want a steady marriage? Try an atheist. In February Gallup released its latest poll that included a few surprises, such as nonbelievers having a lower rate of divorce. So much for Dr. Laura and her religiously-based, family-values argument for marital bliss.

* A survey from the Gallup polling organization suggests that while Americans remain "intensely religious' they increasingly embrace nontraditional approaches to organized faith.

* In addition, a "Key Indicators" Gallup poll claims 52% of voters surveyed "would be more likely to vote for a candidate for president who has talked about his or her personal relationship with Jesus Christ during debates and news interviews." The latter finding, if true, is relevant in light of the increase in religion-oriented rhetoric which has become part of the year 2000 electoral campaign. The candidates from both parties have gone on record extolling their "born again" roots, as in the case of Democrat and Vice President Al Gore, and GOP Texas governor George W. Bush who recently stated that Jesus Christ was the major philosophical thinker that shaped his life. Among the findings in the latest Gallup survey studying religious opinions:

* Six out of 10 American say that religion is "very important in their life," with another 3 out of 10 saying that it is "fairly important." These figures appear to confirm results of an earlier study which was conducted by Gallup International and the London-based Taylor Nelson Sofres marketing firm that covered 60 countries. Worldwide, 87% said that they considered themselves to be part of some religion, with 63% of Americans saying that "God was very important" in their lives.

Two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a church or some other religious institution. Gallup says that "only 9% of the public" respond with "none" when asked to identify a religious affiliation or preference.

Eight percent of the public say that they never attend religious services, while 28% report that they "seldom" go. Gallup concludes, "about two-thirds of the population claim to attend services at least once a month or more often... 36% say they attend once a week." Curiously, when asked if they attended church or synagogue "in the last seven days," 45% said yes.

Almost 9 out of 10 Americans (86%) say that they believe in God, even when given the choice of saying that they "don't believe in God, but believe in a universal spirit or higher power" (chosen by only 8%). Gallup adds: "In fact, only 5% of the population choose neither of these choices and thus claim a more straightforward atheist position."

The Gallup findings tend to confirm a trend which sociologists and others have observed for some time--Americans are abandoning institutional religion in favor of "cafeteria style" faith, and replacing denominational dogma with a vague "spirituality." "The results of the survey...suggest that despite their outward affiliation with a religion and frequent church attendance, less than half of Americans live their daily lives strictly by the code or teachings of their religious faith," notes Gallup. About 48% say that they place emphasis on "God and religious teachings" when deciding a course of action. Forty-five percent, though, say that they give priority to their "own views and the views of others." In addition, "about half of Americans say that religions have unnecessary rules and responsibilities...." Catholics are more likely to express this sentiment (59%) than their Protestant counterparts (46%).

The latest Gallup numbers conform to the findings that pollsters have claimed over the years, namely that about 40% of Americans are regular church attendees, and that atheists account for approximately 10% of the population.

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