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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious information and polls

Comparing U.S. religious beliefs with
those in other mainly Christian countries

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Christian beliefs vary greatly:
bullet Roman Catholics differ significantly from Protestants, and
bullet Conservative Protestants differ greatly from liberal/progressive Protestants.

This essay describes how adults' beliefs differ among various Christian countries, including the Philippines, United States, European countries and Russia. Included also is the non-Christian country of Israel as a comparison. Israel is composed primarily of secularists, although their society is governed largely by very conservative Jewish faith groups. 

Two international surveys were conducted during 1991 and 1993 by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). This is currently located at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

A comparison beteeen the ISSP survey and common Gallup polls on religion is instructive. The ISSP seeks information on the level of strong beliefs in God and other religious topics. When the Gallup Poll conducts a poll on belief in God, they seem almost to design a question to obscure the results. They ask for belief in "God or a universal spirit." Like the ISSP survey, Gallup does not differentiate between belief in monotheistic God as defined in Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and other religions, and the creator God in Deism who has since disappeared, polytheistic pantheons of deities, the Goddess and God of Wicca, etc. Futher, Gallup does not differentiate between any of these deities and some vague notion of a supernatural entity who is perhaps impersonal.

In 1991, subjects were asked to agree or disagree with each of the following seven statements:

bullet God: "I know God exists and I have no doubts about it"
bullet Afterlife: I definitely believe in "life after death"
bullet Bible: "The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word." A yes answer probably implies that the subject believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and that its authors were inspired by God.
bullet Devil: I definitely believe in "the Devil."
bullet Hell: I definitely believe in "Hell."
bullet Heaven: I definitely believe in "Heaven."
bullet Miracle: I definitely believe in "religious miracles."

Results are shown below. Appended to the list are:

bullet the results of a survey showing the percentage of persons who said yes to the following question: "In your opinion, how true is this? ...Human beings developed from earlier species of animals.." The results are a measure of belief in human evolution, and disbelief in creation science.
 Country God Afterlife Bible Devil Hell Heaven Miracles Evolution
United States 62.8 55.0 33.5 45.4 49.6 63.1 45.6  <35.4
N. Ireland 61.4 53.5 32.7 43.1 47.9 63.7 44.2  51.5
Philippines 86.2 35.2 53.7 28.3 29.6 41.9 27.7  60.9
Ireland 58.7 45.9 24.9 24.8 25.9 51.8 36.9  60.1
Poland 66.3  37.8  37.4 15.4 21.4 38.6 22.7  35.4
Italy 51.4  34.8 27.0 20.4 21.7 27.9 32.9  65.2
New Zealand 29.3  35.5 9.4 21.4 18.7 32.2 23.1  66.3
Israel 43.0  21.9 26.7 12.6 22.5 24.0 26.4  56.9
Austria 29.4  24.8 12.7 11.1 10.0 20.1 27.4  N/A
Norway 20.1  31.6 11.2 13.1 11.4 23.0 17.8  65.0
Great Britain 23.8  26.5 7.0 12.7 12.8 24.6 15.3  76.7
Netherlands 24.7  26.7 8.4 13.3 11.1 21.1 10.2  58.6
W. Germany 27.3  24.4 12.5 9.5 9.3 18.2 22.7  72.7
Russia 12.4  16.8 9.9 12.5 13.0 14.7 18.7  41.4
Slovenia 21.9  11.6 22.3 6.9 8.3 9.5 13.4  60.7
Hungary 30.1  10.6 19.2 4.2 5.8 9.4 8.2  62.8
E. Germany 9.2  6.1 7.5 3.6 2.6 10.2

11.8

 81.6

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Some observations

bullet All numbers are in percentages.
bullet since 1944, the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans whether they "believe in God or a universal spirit." The answers have always been 94% or more affirmative. These numbers have been so widely reported in academic articles, and the media that they have been almost etched in stone. However, the ISSP results are under 63%. The wide gap is probably due to the different wording of the question asked. The ISSP requires a degree of certainty of belief in God that is not present in the Gallup Poll. This shows that many Americans who believe in God are not very certain about their conviction. An additional difference is caused by the term "universal spirit" that Gallup has introduced into the question. Many Americans believe in some vaguely defined supernatural entity, but do not refer to him/her/it/them as "God."
bullet A similar drop is seen between the Gallup Poll and the ISSP poll over belief about life after death. American results are typically 75% and 55%. Again, the degree of certainty expected for a positive answer to the ISSP question is probably responsible for the difference. Many Americans seem to hope for life after death, but are not that certain that it exists.  
bullet Americans, Irish, Filipinos, and Poles together form a group of Christian cultures with a much higher degree of traditional religious belief than the other predominately Christian countries shown.
bullet The results on the evolution question may reflect the strength of a scientific, secular world view in the society. The results on the existence of God might reflect the strength of traditional religious belief. The two seem to be inversely related.
bullet A comparison of data from East and West Germany is interesting. Presumably, at the end of World War II, the two populations would have held similar religious views. But the East Germans were exposed to almost two generations of Communist rule, with its oppression of religion and the active promotion of Atheism. The East Germans have lost much of their traditional religious belief. Some of the results dropped to less than one third of the values for West Germany. It will be interesting to see whether residents in the eastern part of Germany can recover their old levels of belief, and at what rate.

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Comparison of the U.S. and Britain

On 1999-DEC-16, Opinion Research Business released the results of a poll conducted in Britain. 3 Some of their findings were: 

bullet About Jesus Christ:
bullet 14% do not know who he is.
bullet Less than 50% "believe in Christ". This probably means that they do not believe that he is the son of God; the exact meaning of the question was not defined
bullet 22% believe that he is "just a story."
bullet Church affiliation:
bullet 49% identify themselves as affiliated with a religious group.
bullet 27% belong to the Church of England (Episcopalian, Anglican). This is a drop from 40% in 1990.
bullet 9% are Roman Catholics, unchanged since 1990.
bullet Church attendance:
bullet 3% of the population goes to church only at Easter and Christmas.
bullet 46% say that they have never gone to church at all.

A 2005 survey of Church of England members and clergy found a phenomenon that has been often observed in other denominations on both sides of the big pond: the clergy is more liberal than the congregations.

bullet 97% of both clergy and laity believe in God.
bullet 80% of both clergy and laity believe in the resurrection of Jesus
bullet 62% of the laity and 60% of the clergy believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.
bullet 65% of the laity and 61% of the clergy believe that Jesus converted water into wine.
bullet One in three clergy and one in four laity favor the ordination of "practicing homosexuals."
bullet 56% of the laity and 48% of the clergy believe that same-sex behavior is wrong.

The data was contained in a 180-page report, titled "Fragmented Faith?. It states that "In many ways ordained Anglicans look out on to a somewhat different world from the world viewed by lay Anglicans. Overall, it is the faultline between the clergy and the committed laity on the issue of homosexuality which may take the Church of England most by surprise." 4