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Study finds contradictions among Americans' religious beliefs

by Matthai Kuruvila, San Francisco Chronicle, June 23, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (USA) -- Americans remain heavily religious, but their views rarely conform to dogma, according to a massive new survey released this morning.

Seventy percent of religious adherents in the United States believe multiple religions can lead a person to salvation, while 68 percent say there is more than one way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

Those views are at the centerpiece of a survey of 36,000 people released today by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey - unprecedented in its combination of survey pool and breadth of questions - reveals that religious beliefs and practices in America defy doctrine.

- 57 percent of evangelical Christians say that multiple religions can lead to salvation, though nary an evangelical theologian or minister would say that.

- 58 percent of Catholics believe society should accept homosexuality, a view that is greatly at odds with U.S. Catholic bishops, including the Bay Area.

- 12 percent of Eastern Orthodox Christians say they speak in tongues once a week, even though it is a Pentecostal practice that is not in Orthodox liturgy.

- 21 percent of self-defined atheists believe in God.

The unusual hodgepodge of often contradictory beliefs and practices underscored for several religion demographers the distinct nature of the American religious tradition, which has some 5,000 denominations among Christians alone.

"Religion in the United States has increasingly become a matter of personal choice, as opposed to the community they grew up in," said Todd Johnson, director for Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass. "Categories are not as strong as they have been in the past."

Some believe the survey's findings illuminate superficiality in American faith practice.

"Religion in America is 3,000 miles wide, but it's only 3 inches deep," said Prof. D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist and religion demographer at Rice University. "The issue is not that Americans don't believe in anything. It's that they believe in practically everything. It's possible for Americans to hold together contradictory beliefs at the same time."

The survey found that there are Catholics who meditate, while Lindsay said other surveys have found Protestants who pray to the Virgin Mary.

These findings take on greater significance, in part, given that religion is a defining characteristic of living in the United States - an unusually religious nation.

Some 92 percent of Americans believe in God. Over 83 percent claim affiliation to a specific Christian denomination, such as Church of God in Christ, or to a non-Christian religion, such as Buddhism. (Another 6 percent say they are religious, but have no specific affiliation.)

Those trends are substantially higher than what is found in most developed, capitalist or industrial nations. Scholars say what the survey reveals is the great diversity of American religions, as well as the diversity of thought within them.

Religion scholars say America's religious diversity is in part the result of not having an official state church, as England and Spain do with the Church of England and Catholicism, respectively. It's also the result, in part, of 1965 laws that broadened the pool of immigrants. And those trends have a particularly pronounced effect in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area now has numerous Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. The region has an unusually high concentration of Buddhist centers, representing various ethnic traditions as well as more American hybrid practices. And there are always new religious traditions emerging here.

Those newer American beliefs blend into a region that has long had an array of Jewish synagogues as well as a slew of churches that span the American religious diaspora, from evangelicals to mainline Protestants to Catholics, who account for 30 percent of Californians.

Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons were the only two denominations in which majorities declared the singular primacy of their religion. They were also the two denominations in which had the staunchest views on allowing for only one interpretation of their own faith.

Hindus, Buddhists and Jews are at the other end of the spectrum, giving wide latitude to other beliefs as well as interpretation of their own religion.

It's not unusual, particularly in the Bay Area, for Americans to work with or study with those of different faiths. But several scholars who read the study - or were involved in it - said the often counterintuitive results revealed another ongoing theme in American religion: Many believers may know little about the true practices of their own faith, much less others.

So the fact that Americans largely see multiple religions leading to salvation may not reveal a trait of true understanding, but possibly naivete.

"If it's ignorance, it's not very encouraging," said Johnson, the director for Center for the Study of Global Christianity. "But if people are becoming more informed and appreciating other religions and Christian traditions, then I think it's positive. In the end, it's probably a combination of both."


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