AUSTIN, TEXAS. — A new study of network television programming reported by the Associated Press last month confirms the obvious. Religion is virtually absent from prime-time shows.
Researchers from Duke University Medical Center, the University Dayton and Northwestern University conducted a systematic analysis of one month's fictional programming from 1990. The sample consisted of 100 prime-time shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox TV.
The study was sponsored by the American Family Association, an organization based in Tupelo, Mississippi, that frequently criticizes network television programming for being hostile to Christian values. The association has also organized boycotts of companies that advertise on shows it considers particularly offensive.
''Television's treatment of religion tends to be best characterized as abuse through neglect,'' the study contends. ''Overall, the message being presented about religion by network television is that it is not very important because it is rarely a factor in the lives of the characters presented on TV or in the society in which they are portrayed.''
Television's portrayal of the importance of religion in American daily life may not, however, be as inaccurate a reflection of reality, as these findings suggest.
Previous polls measuring religious beliefs indicate that nine out of 10 Americans claims some religious affiliation, and almost half regularly attend formal worship services. But such statistics provide only superficial evidence that religion influences the daily lives of many Americans.
The frequent manifestation of attitudes and behaviors that our religious beliefs teach us are wrong underscores a common tendency to consign religion only to the Sabbath. The continuing pervasiveness of racial and sexual discrimination, greed and personal and professional dishonesty, to cite only a few examples, reveals a clear schism between our Sabbath-day professions of faith and our daily lives.
Thus, the virtual absence of religion from network television programming may indeed be a reasonably accurate reflection of daily life for many self-described ''religious'' Americans. If so, the fault is not that of the networks.
Those who want television to include more religion need to consider the nature of the medium. Commercial programming, which seeks primarily to entertain, occasionally treats serious subjects sensitively and soberly. The tendency is to trivialize, distort or caricature them.
Religion deserves better, but it would likely be depicted in much the same way. Television's portrayal of religion could be far more offensive to many Americans than its virtual absence. Neither religion nor television would profit from that.
If, however, network programmers were to treat religion seriously and explicitly in their shows, a crucial and very problematic question immediately arises: Which religions and whose beliefs should be presented?
This is a nation of tremendous religious diversity. Virtually every major and minor world faith, denomination, and sect claim adherents in the United States, and universal agreement among them even on fundamental tenets is rare. Television could not possibly depict all religious groups and beliefs equally. Selecting certain ones means that others would be unfairly excluded or minimized.
A recent Texas controversy illustrates this point. Johnny Frank Garrett was executed last month for the 1981 rape and murder of a 76-year-old Roman Catholic nun. Mr. Garrett was put to death after the expiration of a temporary stay of execution Gov. Ann Richards had granted in response to clemency appeals from Pope John Paul II and 16 Texas bishops.
The Catholics who asked that Garrett's life be spared did so on the basis of a deeply held religious conviction that all life is precious. But many Texans professing other religious beliefs roundly condemned their intercession. A battle of Bible verses ensued in letters to the governor and major Texas newspapers.
This case could be adapted as a compelling script for an episode of NBC's ''L.A. Law,'' and it would be powerful television. But which side of the religious debate over capital punishment should be portrayed more favorably? Each is valid to its proponents and invalid to its opponents.
Not withstanding these reservations, network television could and probably should pay more attention to religion. But debating this touchy issue may be more distracting than productive. Much more of value would be accomplished if those troubled by this matter would simply turn off their sets and devote their time and energies to ministering to the hungry and homeless, the impoverished and imprisoned, the destitute and dying.
If we all translated our religious beliefs into daily actions that spoke louder than our words, we would render the question of television's treatment of religion essentially irrelevant.
But sitting in an easy chair and criticizing the tube is so much easier -- and far less sacrificial.
Joe Patrick Bean is assistant professor of history and journalism at Concordia Lutheran College. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.