Belief in God found to be prevalent in survey of 13 nations Religion isn't dying, researchers say

May 18, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- A survey of 13 predominantly Judeo-Christian countries shows substantial majorities in most of them believe in God and in life after death, refuting perceptions of social scientists that society isn't as religious as it used to be.

"It is too early to write an obituary notice for religion," said Rev. Andrew Greeley, Roman Catholic priest-sociologist-author and a coordinator of the study released yesterday by the International Social Survey Program. "God didn't die, not even under socialism."

Measured in terms of belief in God, heaven and life after death, and in terms of weekly prayer and regular church attendance two or three times a month, the most religious countries are the United States, Ireland, Poland and Italy. The least religious are the Netherlands and the former Socialist nations of Slovenia, Hungary and the former East Germany.

The former East Germany was the only country where belief in God was a minority view.

Despite evidence of widespread religious belief, the survey found that a majority of Christians and Jews reject church teaching on premarital sex and opposition to abortion.

The survey also found strong support for separation of church and state, especially in nations where the church has the most political power. Majorities in all countries said their religious leaders "should not interfere" in elections and government.

The survey also found strong belief in the supernatural. In six countries, majorities believe in miracles. Even among the most skeptical nations, a sizable minority in the former East Germany (30 percent) and Hungary (28 percent) believe in miracles.

Questions about good-luck charms, horoscopes and fortune tellers were asked only in Britain, the former East Germany, Ireland, Slovenia and the former West Germany. Varying minorities believe in such "magic," with the only majority being 56 percent in Slovenia believing in fortune tellers.

The International Social Survey Program, a consortium of social science research centers, released its findings at its annual meeting convened yesterday in Chicago. They are based on random surveys of 19,000 people, with a minimum of 1,000 in each of 13 countries, in 1991.

The diverse group is: the United States, Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, the former East Germany and the former West Germany.

Among the survey's findings:

* Substantial majorities believe in God everywhere except the former East Germany and the Netherlands. The numbers ranged from 94 percent in the United States and 92 percent in Ireland to 50 percent in the Netherlands and 26 percent in the former East Germany.

* Majorities in nine countries believe in life after death. Belief ranged from 80 percent in Ireland and 78 percent in the United States to 33 percent in Slovenia, 26 percent in Hungary and 12 percent in the former East Germany.

* Belief in afterlife -- viewed as important to Christian belief -- is as high among young people, under 35 years old, as it is among those over 55 -- indicating a new generation of religious faith.

* Majorities believe in heaven in the United States, Italy, Poland, Britain, New Zealand and Ireland (or "the Irelands," as a separate survey was done in Northern Ireland). Countries where less than a majority believe in heaven range from Israel and the former West Germany (43 percent each) to the former East Germany (19 percent).

* The only countries where a majority attend church regularly and pray daily are Ireland and Poland. In nine countries, less than a majority pray weekly, with the lowest rates being 26 percent in Slovenia, 16 percent in Israel, and 12 percent in the former East Germany.

* Despite its historical separation of church and state, the United States is one of only five countries where a majority of respondents (64 percent) support prayer in schools. The others are Ireland, Britain, Poland and Italy. The strongest opposition exists in the former East Germany, Slovenia and Israel.

This is the first such comprehensive international religious survey, so there are no previous years' figures for comparison. But compared with previous surveys in the United States, Britain and the Netherlands, "religious belief is holding steady," said Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, one of the study's coordinators.

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