Statistics on Religion- Part II

Jonathan Morgan

Profile shot of professional man holding hands up to face againsLast week I wrote about the rise of the Nones.  The Pew Forum on Religion documented a rise in the religiously unaffiliated over the last five years.  Many interpret this as a decline in religious authority, saying religion no longer holds the power it once had.  Others see it merely as a shifting religious landscape, not necessarily a decline.  You could take either side of the debate with good reasons, but the question is too complex to be resolved by any one set of statistics.  So we turn to another set of data to gain a different perspective on the American religious landscape.

If you’re arguing with a friend about how religion is changing (do other people do this?), the Baylor Religion Surveys are a great resource to have in your back pocket.  Beginning around 2004, a team of sociologists, religion scholars, and other researchers began a twenty-year process of tracking religious belief in America.  Each wave of results focuses on different aspects of religious life.  The first wave, published in 2006, sheds light on last week’s topic.  In the latest wave, they didn’t just collect data on people’s individual beliefs, but also on how those beliefs impact their well-being, their entrepreneurial spirit, their belief in the American Dream, their sense of control… the list goes on, giving a fascinating picture of how deeply religion is interwoven with other parts of our lives.

It’s worth highlighting a few of the findings:

The religious worry less.  The survey showed that nearly one in five Americans were chronic worriers.  The bulk of that 20% don’t attend religious services or have regular religious practices.  This finding fits nicely with other research on religion and anxiety.

While religious practices, affiliation, and attendance do seem related to worrying and anxiety, they didn’t impact the number of other mental health issues people reported.  This finding adds to the already complex layering of research on religion, spirituality, and mental health.  While prayer, attendance and affiliation didn’t seem to relate to mental health in this study, the nature of one’s relationship to the sacred did seem to have an impact.  Confirming most of the research in this area, perceiving a secure relationship with a loving God seems to be conducive for one’s mental well-being.  Those who reported a strong relationship with a loving God also reported far fewer mental health issues.

People with lower levels of income and education are more likely to believe God has a plan for them.  Despite being in the lower income brackets, these respondents were also the most likely to call America’s economic system fair and to believe that hard work really does pay off.  With a somewhat Calvinist, predestinationist attitude, this group is also the most likely to say that some are meant to be rich and others poor.  It’s easy to read interpret this finding cynically and think Marx was right: religion is just an opiate of the masses.  But this is about people’s belief in God’s plan for them, not just general religiosity, which seems to cut across economic diversity.  Furthermore, these statistics tell us nothing about causation or other nuances, which must shade this relationship.

A few shorter, yet interesting findings:

People in the south are more likely to find religious significance in their work.

Entrepreneurs are more likely to pray or meditate.

62% of the sample believe heaven exists, but only 51% were sure about hell.  And those who believed in both were more satisfied with their jobs.  John Lennon was not included in this sample.

Of course, these surveys don’t describe necessary relationships.  They also don’t tell us much about why or how the two things are related.  Poverty doesn’t cause someone to believe that God has a plan for them, and meditating won’t turn you into an entrepreneur.  What these surveys do provide is an interesting snapshot of the American religious landscape with all of its quirky relationships.  Over the next decade (new results will be published in 2014 and 2017), the Baylor Religion Surveys are bound to give us an even better view of how this landscape changes over time.

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