April 4, 2006

God is Alive and Well in America

by David Masci and Gregory A. Smith

Forty years ago this month, Time magazine published one of its most famous and controversial covers. Splashed in bold red print across a black background was a short, simple and yet intensely provocative question: “Is God Dead?”

Without providing a definitive answer, the authors of the piece, dated April 8, 1966, seemed to imply that the idea of an omnipotent creator could be heading for history’s dustbin. The spread of communism, they pointed out, meant that nearly half of the world’s population lived “in thralldom to a brand of totalitarianism that condemns religion,” while “in the traditional citadels of Christendom, grey Gothic cathedrals stand empty, mute witnesses to a rejected faith.” Even in the United States — where, the authors acknowledged, “faith in God seems to be as secure as it was in medieval France” — many theologians were openly concerned about “the quality and character of contemporary belief.” As the eminent historian Martin Marty observed at the time, “too many pews are filled on Sunday with practical atheists — disguised nonbelievers who behave during the rest of the week as if God did not exist.”

But four decades after the Time article was first published — and nearly 125 years after the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche first famously declared that “God is dead” — reports of the Almighty’s demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated. For although religious faith and observance certainly have declined sharply in Europe, belief in God as well as attendance at religious services have remained strong in the United States and much of the rest of the world.

In fact, the existence of God is one of the few things almost all Americans consistently agree on. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 96% of the public says they believe in God or some form of Supreme Being, roughly the same number as in a 1965 survey cited in the Time piece.

This is not to suggest that religious belief and observance in the United States were unaffected by the decay of organized religion noted in the Time piece. The number of Americans who think of themselves as “secular” has grown noticeably in the past 40 years. According to the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been asking Americans about their religious preferences since 1972, the number of those expressing no religious preference has doubled, from just under 7% in the 1970s to just over 14% at the beginning of the 21st century. And the number of Americans who report attending religious services only once a year or less has increased as well, from 34% in the 1970s to nearly 40% by the turn of the millennium.

Nevertheless, church attendance in the United States remains at fairly high levels. According to Pew polling, more than half of Americans say they attend religious services at least once a month, and about four-in-ten report doing so at least once a week. And for most of the public, faith remains an integral part of daily life, with approximately six-in-ten Americans saying that religion is “very important” in their own lives.

Just as the United States largely remains a religiously observant nation, so the religious beliefs of Americans remain fairly traditional. In fact, more than one-third of Americans (36% in recent Pew polling) continue to believe that the Bible is the “actual word of God” and is to be taken literally, and an additional 40% say the Bible is the word of God although not everything in it should be taken literally. More than three-in-four Americans, in other words, view the Bible as God’s word.

The American religious experience, at least so far, seems to contradict another idea presented in the 1966 article: that as science increasingly explains the mysteries of the universe, and as knowledge and technology shield us from disease, starvation and life’s other harsh realities, the need for man to worship an omnipotent creator will disappear. Indeed, the Time article posited that “faith in God survived scientific attack only when churches came to realize that the religious language of the Bible is…‘poetry-plus, rather than science-minus.'”

But recent Pew polling suggests that when science and religion collide, it may be religion that emerges victorious. Consider, for instance, the public’s views on the theory of evolution outlined by Charles Darwin nearly 150 years ago. Pew polling from 2005 indicates that 42% of the public basically accepts the creationist account of the origins of life, compared with 26% who can be described as Darwinian evolutionists. And fully 60% of Americans (including creationists and those who believe that life has evolved over time through a process guided by a Supreme Being) see an active and creative higher power behind the origins and development of human life.

Finally, recent survey research suggests that in the United States, religion is not just a private affair but also has public and political consequences. A Pew analysis of the last two presidential contests, for example, shows that frequency of church attendance was closely associated with how people voted. It proved to be a much better predictor of voting behavior than most other demographic factors, such as income, age and union membership. In fact, the only demographic factor that rivaled the importance of church attendance in the 2004 election was race.

So while the U.S. may be somewhat less religious now than in the 1960s, religion’s place in the nation’s collective consciousness has remained strong, certainly much stronger than the authors of the Time article, and most of the experts they cited, seemed to predict.

David Masci is a senior research fellow and Gregory Smith is a research associate at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.