33165777What do Americans really believe and practice? Rodney Stark answers several questions that could fit under that larger question in this section: from religious experiences, to gender, to heaven, to God, to evil, to spirituality, to giving, to whether humanity is hardwired for God.

06 Religious Experiences: God told me to go to Church

American Piety did a study on the religious experiences of Americans forty years ago that has been the industry standard since. Unfortunately, says Stark, only a partial expression of their research was ever aired because they were told it would be unsettling for most Americans. The Gallup Poll also researched the religious experience of Americans, but unfortunately their questions were to vague or so widely accepted that their survey didn’t really add much to the American Piety one.

Baylor, says Stark, intentionally tried to go beyond these studies and get much more particular in their questions. Here’s what they discovered regarding religious experiences among Americans;

  • 20% of Americans have said they heard the voice of God speaking to them.
  • 44% said they felt called by God to do something
  • 55% said they felt that they had been protected from harm by an angel
  • 23% said they had witnessed a miraculous healing
  • 16% said they themselves had experienced a miraculous healing
  • 8% said they spoke or prayed in tongues

Their research also showed that conservative Protestants were far more likely to experience God; that women were more likely than men (50% vs 38%); that African Americans were more likely than Whites (68% vs 43%); that education nor age nor region mattered much; and that Republicans were more likely that Democrats to admit a religious experience. Here’s the most remarkable thing, only one of every three people they asked said no to every question. Whatever America is, it isn’t atheistic, at least not in the mainstream.

07 Gender: Women believe more, pray more

Women have always been the majority in the church, even in the Early Church. Whether its personal beliefs in God, Jesus, or the existence of heaven, hell, and the devil women always rank higher than men. And the same is true in how women practice their faith: women are more likely to attend church, pray at least once a day, read the bible weekly, and have mystical experiences.But are these gender experiences limited to America? “So far as can be determined, the gender difference in religiousness is universal.” (pg. 65)

You might not be surprised but these figures work in the opposite direction as well. Women are less than half as likely as men to agree that they like doing things for a thrill (4% vs 10%). Why do these differences exist so universally? Stark is careful not to delve into an answer here but he does note that the survivalist instinct is more prominent possibly in men.

08 Heaven: We are all going

Do Americans believe in life after death? The first study put out on this question by the Gallup poll in 1957 said yes, 74%. But just a few years after this study, in 1964, American Piety put out a study and people were doubting that this commonly held idea was still prominent – it was, now 79% said yes. In 2005 Baylor put out their own study and this time the number had increased again, 84% said yes.

Women, African Americans, non-college educated people, people living in the South, and Republicans were all more likely to say yes. Overall at least 46% of Americans were all quite certain not just of life after death but that they would be going to heaven, 84% said heaven exists. And of them, conservative Protestants were more likely than any denomination to hold to that commitment.

But what are the ground rules for entering heaven? Who’s going in other words? “The primary finding here is that few Americans think heaven is very exclusive. Only 29% think that even the irreligious are prevented from entering. But what about hell? 73% of Americans believe hell exists but they may define it differently. Americans believe in an afterlife and for the most part, 56% in fact, they believe most Americans will be there.

09 God: Love, anger, and commitment

In 1944 Gallup did a poll where it showed that 94% of Americans believed in god, but as Stark’s team has well pointed out in the book, the real question then becomes ‘what kind of god?’ “It is nearly useless to continue to ask people if they believe in God without finding out what they mean by “God.”” (pg. 75) What the Baylor team did in their research was to ask whether people believed in a benevolent and engaged God or a judgmental and severe God. As you might imagine the majority went to the benevolent but it wasn’t a huge majority (buy the book to find out).

Does believing God is benevolent and engaged change how Americans live? Yes, “Conceiving of God as benevolent and engaged is very highly correlated with a variety of aspects of commitment, from prayer to regarding oneself as a religious person. In contrast, seeing God as judgmental is only very weakly related to these aspects of commitment.” (pg. 78)

10 Evil: Did sin cause the hurricane?

Perceptions of the presence of evil lie at the foundation of a persons broader moral framework. “A starting place for examining this topic is to assess where individuals attribute the source of evil: whether evil is caused by supernatural forces or humans, whether greed is the root of all evil, or whether all these sources are working in concert.” (pg. 81) The Baylor group’s study showed that 89% of people in America attribute most evil in the world as being caused by mankind. 43% of that same testgroup also attributed evil to the devil, and 25% of that group said that human nature is basically evil. As might be expected Conservative Protestants are more likely to believe in the devil and human nature as a cause of evil and less likely to say mankind causes evil than Liberals, Roman Catholics, and Atheists. Women say the devil made me do it, while men say I’m the devil. African American’s are far more likely than White Americans to attribute evil to the devil. Non-college students are more likely to believe in the devil than college students. 

How does belief in the source of evil shape other decisions and opinions American’s have? those who believe human nature is basically evil are less likely to agree to abolish the death penalty, and more likely to agree to punish criminals more harshly. those who believe in the devil as a source of evil are less likely to abolish the death penalty and much more likely to punish criminals more harshly.

11 Spirituality: Religion and spirituality are not mutually exclusive

Is spirituality displacing religiosity today? The first study to answer this question was done by the General Social Survey done in 1998 and it showed that only 10% of Americans said they were spiritual-but-not-religious. In 2007 Baylor did their own social scientific research and this is what their findings showed;

  • Spiritual, but not religious 10%
  • Spiritual and religious 57%
  • Religious, but not spiritual 17%
  • Neither 16%

Now maybe like me you’re saying don’t the two categories overlap a bit? Yes they do and Stark is quick to admit that is the case, after all that’s why 57% of Americans say their both.

Who are the Americans that say they are spiritual but not religious? There is no difference across genders, nor across races, age is definitely a factor (the largest group that say they’re spiritual but not religious are under 30), as well as marital status (unwed people living together are the most likely to self-impose this title).

How do spiritual, but not religious people practice faith? Few attend church, and prayer and Bible reading are not typical among them; and with these items theological commitment on issues like inspiration and the devil falter as well. And as might be expected they fall on the Liberal side of the culture wars as well. 

12 Giving: The rich, the poor, and the widow’s mite

This chapter opens with a brief survey of the tithing issue in scripture and quickly shifts to researching what happens in churches that do believe in tithing. Here’s the questions they posed: 1) who gives money to the church?; 2) how much do they give?; and who tithes? Get ready for some sobering statistics;

  1. 10,000 or less income, 11.4%
  2. 10-20,000 income, 6.2%
  3. 20-35,000 income, 4.6%
  4. 35-50,000 income, 3.3%
  5. 50-100,000 income, 2.7%
  6. 100-150,000 income, 2.2%
  7. 150,000 or more income, 2.7%

Clearly…it is the “poor” who give the largest percentage of their incomes to the church.” (pg. 97) But that’s not the only factor, those who attend church more frequently also give more, actually if they attend several times a week they give upwards of 29.9%.

But what about the widow’s mite, are widows still giving? “Overall, 17.6 of widowed people tithe, while only 8.6 percent of the nonwidowed population tithes.” (pgs. 98-99) And here’s a bit of news that’s old to us on the inside but may be new to those on the outside, “In all, not very many regular church-goers actually give a tithe to their churches – which is not news to most pastors and church business administrators.” (pg. 100)

13 Personality: Are we hardwired for God?

Obviously the details of religious culture are transmitted socially, but are they rooted in an underlying biological component of the human makeup, independent of culture and society?” (pg. 101) The way to answer this question is to answer whether religiousness is a basic part of human personality. Unfortunately the popular OCEAN personality acronym doesn’t contain a religious component. Where does that leave us? “…religiousity seems to be as important, if not more so, as general personality traits in predicting these important aspects of social life.” (pg. 111) To see the research that bears this statement out buy the book.

Critical Interaction with Chapters 06-13

A lot of surprises in these chapters and as many asumptions varied. I really don’t have much to say on the research other than it was a high point for me to see more theological discussion before the chapters began and to see the ways they pushed for more clarity on the questions they raised. The Spirituality chapter was a high point for me, really interesting results.