More than 20 years ago, superstar pastor Rick Warren created composite characters who best exemplified members of his congregation at the Southern California Saddleback Church. Meanwhile, Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., constructed Unchurched Harry and Mary to better help his congregation target the unsaved.
The Pew Forum released its full U.S. Religious Landscape Survey late in 2009, and thanks to the data, Oklahomans can essentially construct a composite believer. According to the report, the typical Oklahoma believer attends an evangelical Protestant church, prays daily, believes with absolute certainty that God exists, and says religion is very important.
Oklahoma ranked as the seventh most religious state in the country, joining eight former Confederate states as the most religious top 10. Mississippi was No. 1; Kentucky, not a Confederate state but a border state, was No. 10.
The Pew Forum researchers interviewed more than 35,000 adult Americans in both English and Spanish to compile this first-of-its-kind report. Totaling 143 pages, the full report is the most exhaustive survey ever conducted of the religious preferences of Americans. Many of the report’s findings have already made news, particularly the revelation that 44 percent of Americans have changed their religious affiliation at least once in their lives. (This figure includes those switching to no religious affiliation.)
But other figures have flown under the radar. Among those was the finding that 71 percent of Americans believe in God with absolute certainty. This is significantly lower than the 92 percent who espouse a belief in a god or universal spirit. Included in that first figure were atheists, 8 percent of whom apparently believe in a god with absolute certainty.
Allison Pond, a research associate for Pew Forum, said the number, which appears to be a contradiction, is a limitation of surveys in which participants are allowed to self-identify.
“From an academic or theological perspective, that appears to be a contradiction,”
Pond said, “but it actually just shows that people think about their faith in complex ways. Semantically, it’s possible that someone might call himself an atheist and simply mean he objects to church attendance or organized religion.”
Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Among the monotheistic traditions, Jews recorded the lowest number of respondents who believe in God with certainty. Only 41 percent of Jewish respondents answered in the affirmative. The Jewish population of Oklahoma is estimated in the report to be less than one half of 1 percent, compared to 2 percent nationwide.
Rabbi Abby Jacobson of Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City said the low number of affirmative answers is a result of two factors.
“This is partly due to the fact that there is no catechism in Judaism,” Jacobson said. “In Judaism, action is vastly more important than belief, and changes in belief are a normal part of someone’s life; they are a painful but necessary part of life and growth in relationship with God. We do believe God is a certainty, but we don’t emphasize belief as much as practice.”
The other factor is related to the self-identification problem.
“Judaism is tighter than Christianity and Islam,” she said.”Jews view themselves as part of one ethnic group irrespective of their country. We are both ethnic and religious. Consequently, you will have some who self-identify as Jewish who are simply culturally Jewish.”
As an overall population, 80 percent of Oklahomans claimed to have an absolute belief in God’s existence. This is at least partly due to 53 percent of Oklahomans being part of an evangelical Protestant tradition, a group that was second only to Jehovah’s Witnesses (93 percent) in the frequency with which they claimed absolute belief (90 percent).
The 53 percent figure makes Oklahoma first in the nation, tied with Arkansas, for percentage of citizens who are evangelical Protestants. That figure is more than twice the national average of 26 percent. The next three largest groups in Oklahoma are mainline Protestants (believers in the older, established churches, like Lutheran and Presbyterian), which make up 16 percent of the population; Catholics, 12 percent and half the national average; and unaffiliated, also 12 percent and four points less than the national average.
What about atheists?
Douglas Baker, director of communications for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, the state’s largest evangelical denomination, said he has looked at the report and was struck by a different statistic.
“Only 50 percent of Oklahomans attend worship services on a weekly basis,” Baker said. “This appears to be part of a downward trend in religious adherence.”
Baker said he believes this dip is in part due to the work of the so-called “new atheists,” a group of scientists, journalists and writers including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
“The new atheists have given a new challenge to the church, and lamentably, some parts of the church have become anti-intellectual in their response to this challenge,” Baker said. “We have not worked as hard as we should to formulate responses, and the attacks have taken a toll.
“That is changing. We are trying to provide solutions as well as critiques. Instead of just focusing on abortion, we’re positively highlighting adoption and foster care. We are trying to answer questions with biblical faithfulness and theological engagement.”
Others are not so sure that the new atheists are the culprits in the downward trend. Neal Judisch, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, said he believes the new atheists are likely to be more off-putting than compelling.
“This is a new, aggressive form of atheism,” Judisch said, “and because of the aggressive nature, the rancor and meanness that emanates from this quarter, I think they are more off-putting. More likely is the increasing sensitivity to the wide variety of religious opinions out there. People don’t feel comfortable just labeling everyone ‘out there’ as stupid, and they have come to realize that we can’t reason our way to the bottom of this discussion and wake with the one correct answer.”
Brint Montgomery, chair of the department of philosophy at Southern Nazarene University, said certainty is not really the important factor.
“Certainty is a psychological issue, not a philosophical one,” Montgomery said. “Many people have certainty; the question is, are their beliefs rationally justified? Is there evidence for their beliefs? People disagree on this, of course, but even in cases where people have the facts, they disagree on the meaning of the facts.”
‘God is incomprehensible’
Thanks to the Pew Forum, we now have facts aplenty, but what do they mean?
The findings are similar to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey in which 69.5 percent of people agreed with the statement, “There is definitely a personal God.” Although worded differently, the two statements are very similar.
Is it a good thing that people believe in a god with certainty, or is it a sign of a welcome humility that the numbers who believe with certainty are much lower than simple belief?
Tom Boyd, professor emeritus of philosophy at OU, said he believes that people are becoming less certain about many things, and he views the trend as “epistemological humility.”
Epistemology is the field of philosophy that deals with knowledge.
“Every theologian I’ve read agrees that God is incomprehensible,” Boyd said. “That means we can never be sure or certain, ever. We must simply trust, a good synonym for faith, and faith has no verb, so we are left to trust, to act as if it’s true, and that entails risk.”
As for the new atheists, Boyd calls them “sophomores.”
“Their arguments are straw men,” he said. “They set up arguments against gods I’ve never even considered. However, they may have managed to trigger the question in a fresh way.”