June 1, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices

Chapter 1: Religious Beliefs and Practices

This chapter examines the diverse religious beliefs and practices of American adults. It looks first at the various degrees of importance Americans assign to religion in their lives and explores their views of God, Scripture, miracles and other religious beliefs. It then moves into a discussion of worship and other congregational activities, followed by a look at devotional practices, spiritual experiences and other practices. The chapter concludes by examining beliefs about religion, including how exclusive people are in their claims to salvation, as well as by examining the ways in which members of different religious traditions think about morality.

Along the way, four key measures of religious commitment – importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in God, frequency of prayer and frequency of worship service attendance – are singled out for in-depth demographic analysis. These four measures will be used in the next chapter as lenses through which to examine social and political attitudes within the religious traditions. These measures were chosen because they each touch on an important element of religious experience – overall attachment to religion, religious belief, frequency of private devotional activities and engagement in communal religious activities.

Just as the first report of the Landscape Survey detailed the remarkable diversity that exists in the religious affiliation of adults in the United States, the pages that follow document the great diversity the survey finds in the religious beliefs and practices of Americans. Many measures confirm that the United States is, indeed, a very religious country. Americans are largely united in their belief in God, for instance, with majorities even of people who are unaffiliated with a particular religious tradition expressing belief in God or a universal spirit. Large majorities also believe in miracles and an afterlife. Yet there are significant differences in the exact nature of these beliefs and the intensity with which people hold these beliefs. For example, while most Americans believe in God, there is considerable variation in the certainty and nature of their belief in God.

The survey also finds considerable diversity within religious groups. For instance, Americans who are not affiliated with any religion often report having some specific religious beliefs and practices. The reverse is also true; some adults who say they belong to one religion or another nevertheless say religion is not too important in their lives and report having few religious beliefs or practices.

Although the U.S. is a highly religious country, Americans are not dogmatic. For instance, a large majority of Americans who are affiliated with a religion, including majorities of most faith groups, say there is more than one religion that can lead to eternal life and more than one way to interpret the teachings of their faith. And though the overwhelming majority of the public expresses a belief in absolute standards of right and wrong, the survey suggests that this belief is shaped as much by practical experience as by religious beliefs.

I. Importance of Religion

The Landscape Survey confirms how important religion is to most Americans. A majority of adults (56%) say religion is very important in their lives, and more than eight-in-ten (82%) say it is at least somewhat important. Only about one-in-six adults (16%) say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives. The groups most likely to say religion is very important in their lives include members of historically black (85%) and evangelical (79%) Protestant churches, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses (86%), Mormons (83%) and Muslims (72%). Slightly more than half of Catholics and members of mainline Protestant churches say religion is very important in their lives. By contrast, only about a third of Jews (31%) and Buddhists (35%) say religion is very important in their lives.

Religion is important even among a large segment of those who are unaffiliated with a particular religious group. More than four-in-ten of the unaffiliated population (41%) says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. The unaffiliated population (who represent 16.1% of the total adult population) includes those who identify themselves as atheist or agnostic, but roughly threequarters of the unaffiliated group consists of people who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This latter group, in turn, is comprised of two distinct subgroups. Those who say religion is somewhat or very important in their lives can be thought of as the “religious unaffiliated”; those who say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives can be categorized as the “secular unaffiliated.” These two subgroups, as well as atheists and agnostics, are examined separately throughout this Landscape Survey report. (See the first report of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey for details on divisions within the unaffiliated population.)

While the Landscape Survey finds that religion is important to a sizeable portion of the unaffiliated, it also finds that nearly one-in-ten (8%) of those who are affiliated with one religious group or another – including 28% of Jews and 24% of Buddhists – say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives.

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Importance of Religion and Demographic Groups
The survey finds that women are significantly more likely than men to say religion is very important in their lives. This holds true to varying degrees among many religious groups, though equal numbers of male and female Mormons (83%) say religion is very important in their lives.

In general, older adults are more likely than younger adults to say religion is very important in their lives. For example, less than half (45%) of adults under age 30 say religion is very important in their lives, compared with more than two-thirds (69%) of those age 65 and older. This pattern also holds across many religious traditions, but it is particularly strong among Catholics and members of mainline Protestant churches. There is no generation gap, however, among Mormons, Jews and Muslims. Within these groups, those who are younger are about as likely as those who are older to say religion is very important to them.

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Among the general public, adults with less education tend to be most likely to say religion is very important in their lives; this is also true for the unaffiliated and for Muslims. For most religious traditions, however, there are only small differences in the importance of religion across different levels of education.

II. Religious Beliefs

God

More than nine-in-ten adults (92%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit. This includes the vast majority of every major religious tradition, including virtually all Mormon respondents and at least 95% of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of all three Protestant traditions. Even among those who are not affiliated with a particular religious group, seven-in-ten say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Indeed, more than a fifth of selfdescribed atheists (21%) and more than half of self-described agnostics (55%) say they believe in God or a universal spirit.

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There is significant variance, however, when it comes to the certainty and nature of people’s belief in God. At least nine-in-ten Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of evangelical and historically black Protestant churches say they are absolutely certain God exists. Somewhat smaller majorities of other religious groups – Muslims (82%), members of mainline Protestant churches (73%), Catholics (72%), Orthodox Christians (71%) and Hindus (57%) – are also completely certain of the existence of God or a universal spirit. By contrast, fewer than half of Jews (41%) and Buddhists (39%) are completely certain that God or a universal spirit exists. Interestingly, about one-third of the unaffiliated (36%) say they are absolutely certain that God or a universal spirit exists, with 8% of atheists saying they are absolutely certain of this.

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There are also differences in the way members of different religious traditions conceive of God. For example, nine-in-ten (91%) Mormons think of God as a person with whom people can have a relationship. This view of God is shared by large majorities of Jehovah’s Witnesses (82%) and members of evangelical (79%) and historically black (71%) churches. Fewer members of mainline Protestant churches (62%), Catholics (60%) and Orthodox Christians (49%) share this conception of God. And half of Jews, along with 45% of Buddhists and 53% of Hindus, reject the idea that God is a person, saying instead that God is an impersonal force. Muslims are divided on this question, with 42% saying God is an impersonal force and 41% saying God is a person.

Looking at these three measures together – belief in God or a universal spirit, certainty of belief and conception of God – the Landscape Survey finds that 51% of U.S. adults are absolutely certain in their belief in God and view God as a person. At the same time, 14% believe with certainty that God exists but think of God as an impersonal force rather than a person. More than a quarter (27%) say they believe in God but are not completely certain in their belief, while 5% say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit.

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Belief in God and Demographic Groups

Women are significantly more likely than men to say they are absolutely certain in their belief in a personal God (58% vs. 45%). This holds true for most religious traditions with the exception of Mormons, Buddhists and Hindus, where men and women profess roughly the same levels of absolute belief in a personal God.

Older Americans are considerably more likely than younger Americans to profess certain belief in a personal God. Among those age 65 and older, almost six-in-ten (57%) express this belief, compared with less than half (45%) of those under age 30. Generational differences are especially pronounced among Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In other traditions, however – especially members of evangelical, mainline and historically black Protestant churches – young people are about as likely as their older counterparts to express certain belief in a personal God.
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Overall, Americans with a college education tend to be slightly less likely to believe with certainty in a personal God compared with those without a degree. But the opposite is true among members of evangelical churches, where those with a college degree are more likely than those with a high school degree or less to profess certain belief in a personal God. This is also true, though to a lesser extent, among Catholics and members of historically black churches.

Scripture

There is considerable variance in the approach religious groups adopt toward their sacred texts. Roughly two-thirds of Americans (63%) view the sacred text of their religion as the word of God. More than eight-in-ten members of evangelical (89%) and historically black (84%) churches, Mormons (92%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (93%) believe that the Bible is the word of God, and 86% of Muslims say the Koran is the word of God. By contrast, only 18% of Buddhists and 37% of Jews and Hindus say their sacred texts are the word of God. In fact, majorities or pluralities of these groups say their sacred texts are written by men and do not constitute the word of God.

Although large majorities of all Christian traditions say the Bible is the word of God, the extent to which they say it should be taken literally varies widely. Majorities of members of historically black (62%) and evangelical (59%) churches say that the Bible should be taken literally, word for word. By contrast, members of mainline Protestant churches and Catholics are more likely to say that the Bible is the word of God but should not to be taken literally (35% and 36%, respectively). Half of Muslims say the Koran is the literal word of God, while 25% say the Koran is the word of God but should not be taken literally.

About two-thirds of the unaffiliated (64%) view the Bible as the work of men and not as the word of God. However, among the religious unaffiliated, roughly half (51%) view the Bible as the word of God, with one-in-four expressing the view that the Bible is the literal word of God.

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The Afterlife

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Americans believe in an afterlife, with two-in-three of these (50% of the public overall) saying they are absolutely certain in this belief. Solid majorities of most major religious traditions believe in life after death, including 98% of Mormons and 86% of members of evangelical Protestant churches. A remarkable 88% of Mormons are absolutely certain that there is life after death.

Members of mainline and historically black churches as well as Catholics are somewhat less convinced about the existence of an afterlife (78%, 79% and 77%, respectively, express belief in life after death). However, among members of historically black churches, 62% are absolutely certain that there is life after death, compared with only 49% of members of mainline churches and 45% of Catholics. Only about four-in-ten Jehovah’s Witnesses (42%) and Jews (39%) say they believe in an afterlife.

Among the unaffiliated, nearly half (48%) believe in life after death, including two-thirds of the religious unaffiliated (66%) and more than four-in-ten of the secular unaffiliated (44%). But the unaffiliated tend to be less certain about this belief than members of most other religious traditions.

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Three-quarters of U.S. adults (74%) say they believe in heaven, but only 59% say they believe in hell. Mormons are the most likely to believe in heaven (95% say they do), followed by members of historically black (91%) and evangelical (86%) churches, Muslims (85%) and Catholics (82%). By comparison, less than half of all Jews (38%), Buddhists (36%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (46%) and the unaffiliated (41%) believe in heaven. While in most religious traditions people are more likely to believe in heaven than in hell, members of evangelical Protestant churches and Muslims are nearly as likely to believe in hell as to believe in heaven.

The Landscape Survey asked Buddhists and Hindus specific questions on their beliefs about the afterlife, probing Buddhists’ beliefs about nirvana and Hindus’ beliefs about reincarnation. The survey finds that roughly six-in-ten Buddhists (62%) believe in nirvana – the ultimate state transcending pain and desire. However, only about a quarter are absolutely certain about this belief. Nearly one-in-five Buddhists (18%) have no opinion or are not certain about their belief in nirvana.

A similar number of Hindus (61%) say they believe in reincarnation, or that people will be reborn in this world again and again. Slightly more than a third (34%) are absolutely certain in this belief.

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Miracles and the Supernatural

The Landscape Survey finds that belief in miracles and supernatural phenomena are widespread among U.S. adults. Nearly eight-in-ten adults (79%), including large majorities of most religious traditions, believe that miracles still occur today as in ancient times. More than eight-in-ten members of evangelical (88%) and historically black (88%) churches, Catholics (83%) and Mormons (96%) agree that miracles still occur today.

However, relatively narrow majorities of Jews and the unaffiliated express belief in miracles, and among Jehovah’s Witnesses, only about a third (30%) believe in miracles. In fact, nearly half of all Jehovah’s Witnesses (48%) say that they completely disagree with the statement that miracles occur today as in ancient times.

Two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) believe that angels and demons are active in the world. Significant majorities of members of Christian traditions agree with this statement, including about nine-in-ten members of historically black and evangelical Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

Less than half of Buddhists and Hindus, and less than a quarter of Jews, say angels and demons are active in the world. Although relatively few atheists and agnostics believe in angels and demons, nearly a third of the secular unaffiliated (29%) and more than two-thirds of the religious unaffiliated (68%) believe angels and demons are active in the world.

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III. Religious Practices

Worship Attendance

Overall, about four-in-ten Americans (39%) say they attend religious services at least once a week. Majorities of Jehovah’s Witnesses (82%), Mormons (75%) and members of historically black (59%) and evangelical (58%) churches all say they attend church at least once a week.

Among the unaffiliated, nearly three-in-four (72%) say they seldom or never attend religious services. Not surprisingly, attendance at worship services is more common among the religious unaffiliated (11% say they attend church at least once a week, and 35% say they go occasionally).

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By contrast, at least eight-in-ten atheists (85%), agnostics (80%) and those in the secular unaffiliated group (85%) say they seldom or never attend religious services.

Attendance at Religious Services and Demographic Groups

Women in several Christian traditions are more likely than men to attend religious services at least once a week, with the largest gap existing among members of historically black churches. Among Muslims, however, men are much more likely to attend services weekly, and among Mormons, Jews and the unaffiliated, the figures are roughly equal.

Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to say they attend services at least once a week. Among Christian groups, the age gap is particularly large for Catholics; nearly two-thirds of Catholics over age 65 (62%) say they go to church every week, compared with only about a third of Catholics under age 30 (34%). There are similar, though somewhat less pronounced, generational differences among all three Protestant traditions. Notable exceptions to this pattern are Mormons, Jews and Muslims, among whom younger individuals are at least as likely as their older counterparts to say they attend religious services on a weekly basis.

Among the general adult population, there are no substantial differences in attendance at worship services by education. But within certain Christian traditions, including members of evangelical, mainline and historically black Protestant churches as well as Mormons, those with more education tend to attend church somewhat more often than those with less education.

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Formal Membership

Six-in-ten Americans (61%) report that they or their family are members in a local church or other house of worship. Mormons (92%) are most likely to say they or their families are official members of a local church or house of worship. Members of historically black (83%) and evangelical (74%) churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses (76%) are also very likely to say they or their families belong to a local congregation. Roughly two-thirds of Catholics (67%), members of mainline churches (64%) and Orthodox Christians (68%) are official members of a church.

Members of non-Christian religions tend to be less likely than Christians to report official membership in a house of worship. Only 30% of Buddhists do so, along with 32% of Hindus, 42% of Muslims and 55% of Jews.

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Interestingly, nearly a quarter of the unaffiliated (22%) say they or their families are official members of a local church or house of worship. The figure is even higher for the religious unaffiliated (30%). These findings could indicate that a sizable number of people who say they have no particular religious affiliation have family members who belong to a religious congregation. Alternatively, it could indicate that many who do not identify with a particular religion nevertheless belong to a religious congregation.

Size of Congregation

Among U.S. adults who attend worship services at least a few times a year, around one-fifth (21%) say they attend a small congregation with a membership of less than 100, while more than four-in-ten (44%) attend a house of worship with between 100 and 500 members. An additional 21% attend congregations with between 500 and 2,000 members, and 10% attend a house of worship with more than 2,000 members.

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Among Protestants, 7% belong to “megachurches,” classified as those with more than 2,000 members. Nondenominational Protestants (including 18% of nondenominational Protestants within the evangelical tradition and 13% of nondenominational Protestants within the mainline tradition) are especially likely to belong to megachurches.

It should also be pointed out that, historically, Catholic parishes were known for having very large congregations. Indeed, even today, nearly one-in-five Catholic adults (18%) attend a congregation with more than 2,000 members. Many Hindus also belong to large congregations, with 24% saying they attend services at congregations with more than 2,000 members.

Congregational Activities

Overall, nearly four-in-ten adults (37%) participate at least monthly in activities other than religious services at their church or house of worship. More than a quarter (28%) say they participate in social activities, and roughly one-in-five participate in community or volunteer work (19%) or work with children (18%). About one-in-eight (12%) report participating in a choir or musical program.

Participation in these kinds of congregational activities outside of worship services is particularly common among Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses; more than three-quarters of both groups participate in at least one such activity every month (77% and 76%, respectively). Majorities of members of evangelical (54%) and historically black (60%) churches also participate in at least one of these activities on at least a monthly basis. Not surprisingly, the unaffiliated population (8%) is least likely to participate in volunteer or social activities at a place of worship.

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Religious Upbringing of Children

Overall, nearly two-thirds of adults (63%) who have children under age 18 living at home say they pray or read Scripture with their children. Mormons (91%) are especially likely to do this. Roughly eight-in-ten members of evangelical (81%) and historically black (77%) churches also pray or read Scripture with their children.

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Jews (41%), Buddhists (37%) and the unaffiliated (31%) are much less likely to pray or read Scripture with their children compared with members of many other religious traditions. But there are major differences within the unaffiliated group; a majority of the religious unaffiliated (52%) pray or read Scripture with their children, compared with only 16% of the secular unaffiliated, 19% of agnostics and 8% of atheists.

Similar patterns are seen in parents’ decisions about sending their children to Sunday school or other religious education programs. Six-in-ten Americans with children under age 18 living at home arrange for them to attend such programs. Mormons (90%) stand out for their propensity to enroll their children in religious education, followed by members of evangelical (79%) and historically black (77%) churches. More than a third of the unaffiliated (35%) send their children to religious education programs, including a quarter of atheists (24%) and about half of the religious unaffiliated (49%).

Among parents with children under age 18 living in their homes, 15% home-school their children or send them to a religious school instead of a public school. Jews (27%) and Orthodox Christians (30%) are most likely to do this.

Prayer and Meditation

A majority of U.S. adults (58%) say they pray at least once a day outside of religious services, and 75% pray at least once a week. Daily prayer is especially common among members of evangelical (78%) and historically black (80%) churches, Mormons (82%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (89%) and Muslims (71%). Roughly six-in-ten Catholics (58%), approximately half of members of mainline Protestant churches (53%) and Buddhists (45%), and a quarter of Jews (26%) say they pray every day. Not surprisingly, relatively few atheists (5%), agnostics (9%) or the secular unaffiliated (11%) pray daily; but close to half of the religious unaffiliated (44%) say they pray daily.

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Prayer and Demographic Groups

As with other measures of religious involvement, women are considerably more likely than men to say they pray daily, and this pattern holds to varying degrees across many religious traditions. Similarly, older adherents pray at least once a day at much higher rates than their younger counterparts, both among the public overall and across several religious traditions.

College graduates are less likely than others to say they pray daily. Among Catholics and members of mainline and historically black churches, however, these differences are relatively small. And among Mormons and members of evangelical churches, college graduates are noticeably more likely than others to say they pray daily.

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In addition to the general question about prayer, the Landscape Survey asked Buddhists and Hindus a more specific question about how often they pray at a shrine or other religious symbol in their homes. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of Hindus say they do this at least once a week, compared with one-third of Buddhists. Nearly four-in-ten Buddhists (39%) say they never pray at a shrine or religious symbol in their home.

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The Landscape Survey also finds that a significant number of U.S. adults meditate on a regular basis; nearly four-in-ten (39%) say they meditate at least once a week. More than seven-in-ten Jehovah’s Witnesses (72%) meditate weekly, as do more than six-in-ten Buddhists (61%). A majority of members of historically black churches and Mormons also meditate weekly (55% and 56%, respectively). Among the unaffiliated, a quarter (26%) say they meditate weekly, and for the religious unaffiliated, the figure is 34%.

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Scripture Reading

About a third of U.S. adults (35%) say they read Scripture at least once a week, and an additional 18% read Scripture occasionally. Nearly half of U.S. adults (45%) say they seldom or never read Scripture. Jehovah’s Witnesses are the group most likely to read Scripture regularly (83% do so at least once a week), followed by Mormons (76%). Scripture reading is also a common practice among members of evangelical and historically black churches (60% of each group read Scripture at least once a week) as well as among Muslims (43% read Scripture at least once a week).

However, only 27% of members of mainline churches say they read Scripture at least once a week. Catholics (21%), Orthodox Christians (22%) and Hindus (23%) are also relatively unlikely to read Scripture on a weekly basis. Seven-in-ten Jews and nearly eight-in-ten of the overall unaffiliated population (77%) say they seldom or never read Scripture. However, more than a fifth of the religious unaffiliated (21%) say they read Scripture at least once a week.

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Participation in Prayer Groups and Other Religious Activities

Four-in-ten American adults (40%) participate in prayer groups, Scripture study groups or other types of religious education at least occasionally, and 23% do so at least once a week. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say they seldom or never participate in these kinds of activities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are notable for their high levels of weekly involvement in these types of groups (82% and 64%, respectively). About four-in-ten members of evangelical and historically black churches also participate weekly (41% and 44%, respectively). Among all other religious traditions, majorities say they seldom or never participate in these kinds of groups.

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Sharing the Faith With Others

The Landscape Survey finds wide variance across religious groups in the frequency with which they report sharing their faith with others. Nearly one-in-four adults (23%) in the U.S. who are affiliated with a particular religion share their faith with others at least once a week. Jehovah’s Witnesses are more than twice as likely as members of all other traditions to share their faith with others frequently; three-quarters (76%) do so at least once a week. Many members of historically black churches also frequently share their faith with non-believers or people from other religious backgrounds; 42% do this at least once a week. Among members of evangelical churches, 34% say they share their faith at least once a week.

Only 7% of Jews share their faith with others at least once a week, while 71% say they seldom or never share their faith with others. Among Hindus, too, fewer than one-in-ten (9%) share their faith weekly.

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Mormons are not significantly more likely than the religiously affiliated population overall to report sharing their faith weekly, but nearly half do this at least once a month (47%) Only 7% of Mormons say they never share their faith, compared with 24% of all Americans who identify with a particular religion who say this.

The unaffiliated were asked how often they share their views on God and religion with religious people. Atheists and agnostics say they do this somewhat infrequently – only about one-in-ten (11%) do so at least once a week, and about a quarter of each group (23%) does so at least once a month. The religious unaffiliated group is more likely to engage in such discussions, with 21% saying they participate in such conversations at least once a week and 35% doing so on a monthly basis.

IV. Spiritual Experiences

Answers to Prayers

Nearly a third of American adults (31%) say they receive definite answers to specific prayer requests at least once a month. A majority of Mormons (54%) say they regularly receive answers to prayers, as do half of members of historically black churches (50%) and more than four-in-ten Jehovah’s Witnesses (49%), members of evangelical churches (46%) and Muslims (43%). Members of mainline churches say they receive definite answers to specific prayer requests much less frequently than other Protestants, with one-in-four (25%) saying they receive such answers at least once a month.

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Jews and the unaffiliated are among the groups that are least likely to say they receive answers to prayers, which is perhaps not surprising given that they are also among the groups least likely to pray regularly.

Divine Healings

A third of all Americans (34%) say they have experienced or witnessed a divine healing of an illness or injury. Mormons (69%) are especially likely to say this. Half of members of evangelical churches (50%) and a slim majority of members of historically black churches (54%) also say they have experienced or witnessed a divine healing. Within these traditions, members of Pentecostal churches are particularly likely to say they have witnessed a healing.

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By contrast, Jehovah’s Witnesses are especially unlikely to say they have witnessed healing. Only 7% say they have experienced or witnessed a miraculous healing, by far the lowest of any religious tradition.

Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues, a practice often associated with Pentecostal and charismatic churches, is not particularly common among Christians overall. More than three-quarters (77%) say they never speak or pray in tongues; nonetheless, a sizeable minority of Christians (19%) indicate that speaking in tongues is something they do from time to time, with nearly one-in-ten (9%) indicating that speaking in tongues is a weekly practice.

Not surprisingly, speaking in tongues is especially common within Pentecostal denominations in both the evangelical and historically black Protestant traditions. It is also quite common among members of nondenominational charismatic churches within the evangelical tradition, with nearly six-in-ten members (58%) of these churches saying they speak or pray in tongues at least several times a year. By comparison, very few members of mainline Protestant churches report speaking or praying in tongues regularly.

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Peace and Wonder

A majority of Americans (52%) say they experience a sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week. More than seven-in-ten Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (77% and 71%, respectively) say they experience this weekly, as do roughly two-thirds of members of evangelical churches (68%), members of historically black churches (65%) and Muslims (64%). Jews (38%) and the unaffiliated (35%) are among the groups least likely to say they feel spiritual peace and well-being on a weekly basis.

Compared with those who experience spiritual peace and well-being regularly, a smaller proportion of Americans (39%) report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis. More than half of Buddhists (57%) and Muslims (53%) say they feel a deep sense of wonder on a weekly basis, as do nearly half of Jehovah’s Witnesses (49%).

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Although Mormons and members of evangelical and historically black churches are distinct from the general public on many measures of religious belief and practice, they do not differ greatly from the general population on this question; 41% of members of evangelical churches, 40% of Mormons and 37% of members of historically black churches feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis. On this measure, these groups are very similar to Jews (40%) and the unaffiliated (39%). Among the unaffiliated, agnostics are most likely to say they often feel a sense of wonder – 48% do so weekly, compared with 37% among atheists, 40% among the religious unaffiliated and 36% among the secular unaffiliated.

V. Beliefs About Religion

Is There More Than One Path to Salvation?

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Seven-in-ten Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions can lead to eternal life. In fact, majorities of nearly every religious tradition take the view that many religions can lead to eternal life, including more than eight-in-ten Jews (82%), Buddhists (86%), Hindus (89%) and members of mainline Protestant churches (83%), and nearly eight-in-ten Catholics (79%). Fewer members of evangelical and historically black churches (57% and 59%, respectively) agree with this, as do 56% of Muslims. Only among Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do a majorities (57% and 80%, respectively) say that their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.

How Strictly to Interpret the Faith?

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More than two-thirds of Americans with a religious affiliation (68%) believe that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own faith. A slim majority of members of evangelical churches (53%) say the teachings of their religion are open to more than one true interpretation, as do upwards of six-in-ten of most other religious traditions. Roughly nine-in-ten Jews (89%) and Buddhists (90%), for instance, say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. But here again, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses stand out. Majorities of both groups (54% among Mormons, 77% among Jehovah’s Witnesses) say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

A plurality of those affiliated with a religion (44%) say their religion should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices. But nearly half say their religion should adjust to new circumstances (35%) or adopt modern beliefs and practices (12%).

Mormons (68%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (61%) and members of evangelical churches (59%) stand out for their preference that their churches preserve traditional beliefs and practices. Nearly half of members of historically black Protestant churches (48%) and Orthodox Christians (49%) also say they want their church to preserve its traditional beliefs and practices.

Majorities of Catholics and members of mainline Protestant churches, on the other hand, say their churches should adjust traditional practices in light of new circumstances (42%) or adopt modern beliefs and practices (15% among Catholics and 14% among members of mainline churches). Jews, Buddhists and Hindus also tend to favor adjusting to new circumstances.

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VI. Beliefs About Morality

Nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (78%), including substantial majorities of nearly every religious tradition, agree that there are clear and absolute standards of right and wrong. Indeed, with the exception of Buddhists, at least six-in-ten members of every religious tradition believe that absolute standards for right and wrong exist; among Buddhists, the number is 52%.

More than two-thirds of the unaffiliated (67%) agree that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. Atheists, agnostics and the secular unaffiliated are somewhat less likely to take this point of view compared with the religious unaffiliated (75%). But even among more secular adults, there is a high level of belief in absolute standards of right and wrong (65% of the secular unaffiliated take this position as do 59% of agnostics and 58% of atheists).

Chapter 1.6-1

Americans demonstrate a practical bent when it comes to the sources to which they look for guidance on such matters. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) cite religious teachings and beliefs as their biggest influence, but a slim majority of the public (52%) says that they look most to practical experience and common sense when it comes to questions of right and wrong. Fewer look to philosophy and reason (9%) or scientific information (5%) as the primary source of their beliefs about right and wrong.

Only among members of evangelical churches (52%), Mormons (58%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (73%) do majorities say religious teachings and beliefs are the biggest influence on their understanding of right and wrong. Large majorities of members of mainline churches (59%), Catholics (57%) and Jews (60%) say practical experience and common sense are their biggest influences, as do two-thirds of the unaffiliated (66%).

Chapter 1.6-2

Atheists are much more likely than most other groups to cite science as the authority to which they look on questions of right and wrong, with 20% taking this view. A significant minority of Buddhists (27%) say they rely most on philosophy and reason.