Good News and Bad News for Organized Religion

May 23, 1993|By FRANK P. L. SOMERVILLE

A new study of religious attitudes in the United States, Britain, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel and New Zealand has concluded that large majorities in most of the countries surveyed believe in God and in life after death.

One would suppose that such results, released last week by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, came as welcome news -- perhaps even relief -- to religious leaders battling or courting a secularist society.

Not so fast.

The pioneering international survey, taken as a whole, is evidence of an underlying tension between private faith and organized religion. For the latter, there is at least as much challenge as comfort in the findings.

To take the good news for religious leaders first, the existence of God was affirmed by more than 90 percent of the respondents in the United States, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Elsewhere, Christian and Jewish majorities holding to a belief in God ranged from 59 percent in Norway to 88 percent in Poland. Even in the Netherlands, widely perceived as a secularist nation, there were equal numbers of theists and atheists.

Of all the widespread communities covered in the 1991 research, only the former East Germany showed a minority -- 26 percent -- believing in God. And even there, according to the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Roman Catholic priest and sociologist who was a coordinator of the study, "there are signs of a revival of religious belief."

Then why should supporters of institutional religion be concerned?

While majorities everywhere, except the former East Germany and the Netherlands, said they retained a formal religious affiliation, the numbers who attended church or synagogue regularly were always smaller, and often considerably smaller, than the numbers who said they were believers.

For example, Roman Catholics are obligated under church law to attend Mass every Sunday except when excused for a serious reason. Yet, fewer than half of the Catholics surveyed went to church "regularly" in the United States -- where belief in God was shown to be the highest -- or in Britain, New Zealand, Germany and Hungary.

Even in Catholic Italy, a bare majority -- 52 percent -- were said to attend Mass "regularly," defined for the purposes of the study as "two or three times a month or more."

Although generally the respondents to the survey expressed higher opinions of their religious institutions and leaders than of business and government, only two out of five Americans had "complete" or "a great deal of" confidence in religious leaders.

In both Ireland and Northern Ireland, where church attendance was relatively high, the level of confidence in institutional religion was only between 41 and 46 percent.

Religious leaders received the lowest confidence ratings in East Germany and the Netherlands, 20 percent in both; in Britain, where it was 19 percent, and in Israel, 18 percent.

According to the study, which is the work of a worldwide consortium of research centers known as the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), nearly three-quarters of Israelis and almost half of the population of Italy and of the former West Germany believe that the clergy and their institutions have too much power.

Poland, where Catholicism is so dominant, was alone among the former socialist countries in recording a majority -- 61 percent -- who think the church is too powerful. In once-socialist Hungary, by contrast, only 13 percent held that view.

Hungary, in fact, has demonstrated a dramatic increase in religious activity over the last six or seven years. In 1986, an ISSP study recorded that only about 25 percent of Hungarians admitted to ever attending a church service. The 1991 data suggest that two-thirds go to church at least some of the time.

Seven years ago, 6 percent of Hungarians said they went to church services several times a month or more. By 1991, this number -- evenly distributed through the population regardless of age -- had more than tripled to 19 percent.

Randomly questioned in the 1991 survey were 19,000 people, with a minimum of 1,000 in each of 13 countries or regions.

It found that the traditional sexual teachings of the Christian churches were not widely accepted. Nowhere did a majority believe premarital sex is always wrong, and in Germany, Hungary and Slovenia majorities did not oppose extramarital sex for married couples.

Only in Ireland was there majority opposition to abortion, and even in Catholic Poland, thought in some church circles to be safely insulated from the "hedonism" of the West, attitudes on premarital, extramarital and homosexual sex were virtually indistinguishable from those of American Catholics.

"If religion persists, often in forms that are older than Christianity," Father Greeley concluded in his summary of the findings, "it does not follow that organized religion is universally admired."

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