The Religion Newswriters Association is currently meeting here inside the Beltway, which guarantees that somebody, from somewhere is going to release a boatload of new information about some trends in American religion. This time around, it's a team of scholars from Baylor University, my alma mater. Sic 'em Bears, and all that.
Due to a GetReligion-related business meeting (no breaking news, at this time), I was not able to get down to the press conference rolling out the latest numbers from the Gallup and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. I also need to admit that I did not spend last night munching my way through the data. I'll be down at the RNA meetings tomorrow for a panel on religion blogs and I hope to pick up the study and some recordings of the presentations about it.
But there's some interesting mainstream coverage out there today. Check it out.
So far, what I am seeing is dividing into two camps -- the two sides of what may be the same coin.
On one side, you have the news (I am shocked, shocked!) that very few Americans are very Orthodox when it comes to matters of heaven, hell and eternity. Americans tend to think that good people go to heaven (people we like) and bad people do not. It's a majority-rule kind of thing.
That's the angle that you find in crisp Religion News Service report from Adelle Banks (a friend, I must confess) and also over at the next-door-to-Baylor Waco Tribune-Herald. The basic idea is that there are few narrow, intolerant people still out there. The RNS lede:
Heaven is no longer viewed as an exclusive place by many Americans, according to a new survey from Baylor University.
When researchers polled U.S. adults about who (and how many) will get into heaven, 54% of respondents said at least half of average Americans will make it through the Pearly Gates. More than a quarter of those surveyed -- 29% -- said they had no opinion about the fate of the average American, a figure that mirrored those who thought "half or more" of nonreligious people would make it into heaven.
Rodney Stark, co-director of Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion in Waco, Texas, said the findings represent a marked difference from earlier studies.
"I think that it's really just a ... broadening because of the cultural experiences of diversity," said Stark, author of the new book What Americans Really Believe, which details the study's findings on topics ranging from belief in guardian angels to the practices of "irreligious" people. "I know that when we did studies like this back in the '60s, the notion that only Christians could go to heaven, for example, was much more extensive than it is now."
It will be interesting to see the numbers. The basic idea seems to be that people want to be more tolerant, but they still are looking at the world through a lens that is basically semi-Christian or, dare I say, liberal Christian. Remember that Pew Forum study from last summer on this same theme?
But note that it is possible to turn this coin over and see this same trend another way: Very few Americans have a consistent, coherent approach to religious faith and doctrine. Is this good or bad?
To see the Baylor report from that angle, click here to head over to Julia Duin's A1 story in the Washington Times. The lede:
Half of all Americans believe they are protected by guardian angels, one-fifth say they've heard God speak to them, one-quarter say they have witnessed miraculous healings, 16 percent say they've received one and 8 percent say they pray in tongues, according to a survey released Thursday by Baylor University.
Now, get ready for the twist:
The survey, which has a margin of error of four percentage points, also revealed that theological liberals are more apt to believe in the paranormal and the occult -- haunted houses, UFOs, communicating with the dead and astrology -- than do conservatives. Women (35 percent), blacks (41 percent), those younger than 30 (40 percent), Democrats (40 percent) and singles who are cohabitating (49 percent) were more likely to believe, the survey said.
Now, that's interesting.
I'm reminded of a comment by a Czech journalist this past summer, who told me that the Czech Republic is one of the most secular nations in Europe (and, thus, the world), yet it is also the most superstitious. Religious faith fled the pages of scripture and moved into the tabloids.
The same angle shows up in the Wall Street Journal coverage, where we read this spicy detail. It seems that the survey answers were:
... (Added) up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.
Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama's former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin's former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.
I would share more about this provocative story, but I really shouldn't do so. You see, it's written by someone named (wait for it) M.Z. Hemingway.