Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Surveying Americans' Attitudes toward Faith INTERVIEW

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Surveying Americans' Attitudes toward Faith INTERVIEW

Article excerpt

FOR nearly 60 years, the Gallup Organization has traced Americans' attitudes toward religion through answers to questions about faith in God, belief in heaven, and use of the Bible.

What's remarkable about the scores of surveys on the subject, says George Gallup Jr., head of the nation's best-known polling firm that bears his name, is "the stability of religious practice and belief" over the years.

Since the polls about religion began in the late 1930s, more than half of respondents have consistently said religion is "very important" in their lives. The figure was highest in 1952, when 75 percent of Americans polled by Gallup gave that response. The low point was 1987, when it dipped to 53 percent. But the number has been climbing since then.

"Always," Mr. Gallup says, "the challenge is to dig deeper -- to what degree are people transformed by faith and changed in the ways they relate to others?" What Gallup calls "the inner life" could be a new frontier for survey research, he says. At present it's "pretty much neglected in this country."

But how do you get at that inner life through survey questionnaires? One way, Gallup suggests, is to probe the nature of people's "religious experiences." An "ongoing one-third" of Americans say they've had such experiences, he says -- a finding that has surprised him, he says.

The experiences include conversion, near-death episodes, and revelations from the beauty of nature. They can be sudden, Gallup says, or more gradual, but always there's a discernible point when something happened. He's determined to try to "understand the nature of these experiences -- what prompted them." He'd also like to study such experiences abroad.

"The implications for creating stronger bonds between people are tremendous," Gallup says. He says his surveys have indicated people's religious experiences "invariably move them in a positive direction."

Gallup says the work done by his Princeton Religious Research Center, the branch of the polling organization that concentrates on this subject, suggests ties between religious commitment and self-esteem, optimism, and health. At the deepest level, such commitment reaches what Gallup might call saintliness. …

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