Thursday, December 4, 2008

What Americans Really Believe

My first two years of undergrad work were done at Baylor University. As a result, I still get Baylor Magazine in my mailbox every time it comes out. I rarely read it, but the Winter issue for this year has an article about the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor.

Here are some excerpts:
The co-directors of the Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) were surprised when more than half of those responding to their latest survey on religious belief said that a guardian angel protected them. Fifty-five percent of Americans surveyed--not just evangelicals, but the entire United States--agreed with the statement, "I was protected from harm by a guardian angel." Dr. Rodney Stark describes the result as "extraordinary" in a new book detailing the findings called What Americans Really Believe. "I would have believed 10 percent or less would have had an experience with a guardian angel."
I find the result "extraordinary" myself. And where's he getting his prior presumption? From some guardian angel run-in index? We then get anecdotes from people who contacted Stark via email to tell them about how an angel saved them from falling down and another where an angel pulled a man from a burning car.

Which makes me guardian angels look out for lowly atheists like me, or just for true believers. Actually, I'm probably fucked. I doubt a guardian angel is going to save me from being mugged. I'll probably just have to rely on other people. Bah.

On atheists:
Generally, the snapshots reveal some surprises--the guardian angel statistic, for example--and some expected results. In the latter category, responses show that just 4 percent of the population is atheist--a result that might not be expected by those who have seen book after book on atheism hit the bestseller lists in recent years, but one "that doesn't surprise us," Johnson says. "It has been that way for decades. If it were 8 percent, we would be stunned."
Of course, the most recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 92% of Americans claimed to believe in some kind of god or spirit, so go figure. I think the numbers probably vary pretty wildly depending on the phrasing, but I wouldn't think Johnson should be knocked out of his chair if they had found 8% of Americans claiming to be atheists.

Finally, I liked this bit too:
The researchers are finding that faith undergirds prosocial behavior, Johnson says. "Typically, scholars don't write about this."
I wonder if their survey included people in the prison system, and asked what their religious beliefs were at the time they committed their crimes. I don't doubt that in many cases religious belief compels people to act nice. But I do quibble with the idea that it's the only way to get people not to shit on each other. I blogged about this not too long ago in reference to Phil Zuckerman's book about the Danes and the Swedes.

Anyway, I do think it's important to try to figure out what people believe, because those beliefs have a profound impact on society. Here's hoping that the next time the ISR takes a survey, they are shocked by the rising number of atheists.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although this bears no direct relation to your current post, I thought this might be of interest to you. His opinion on a personal God is also on the website.

Looking forward to more posts from you on Cognition and your research work.