From last week’s PuffHo blog, writer David Briggs, a renowned writer on religion who worked for the Associated Press but also has a degree from Yale’s Divinity School, analyzes how strong the belief of miracles remain in the U.S.
Brigg’s piece, “Belief in miracles on the rise,” gives some depressing statistics that come from recent polls as well as research by Robert Martin at Pennsylvania State University. These results are quoted directly from the piece:
- “Penn State’s Martin analyzed General Social Survey data from 1991 to 2008. He found the belief in miracles is growing in recent years. Nearly 73 percent of American adults in 1991 believed that miracles definitely or probably existed, compared to 78 percent in 2008. The percentage who ‘definitely’ believed in miracles rose from 45 percent in 1991 to 55 percent in 2008.”
- “Overall, some four in five Americans believe miracles definitely or probably occur.”
- “While beliefs in heaven and hell have remained steady in recent decades, the increased belief in miracles crosses all religious traditions, with the strongest gains reported by those who attend services infrequently, Martin reported.”
- “Service attendance is the strongest predictor of belief in miracles, and demographic groups such as women and evangelical and black Protestants retain relatively strong beliefs in the existence of miracles. But the greatest growth appears to be coming on the periphery of organized religion.One striking finding, for example, was that marginal attenders across faith lines strengthened their belief in miracles over the past two decades.’Evangelical, mainline, and black Protestants as well as Catholics, so long as they attended religious services once a year or more but less than once a month, all experienced a strengthening in their belief in miracles,’ Martin reported.Even among respondents with no religious affiliation, the percentages who believe in miracles increased from 32 percent in 1991 to 42 percent in 2008.”
Now this appears to conflict, of course, with the reported increase in “nones” (those people reporting no religious affiliation) in recent years in the U.S. But, as Michael Shermer pointed out in his talk the other day, those “nones,” while not being formally religious, may still be ridden with “woo” and the form of “spirituality” that is quasi-religious rather than just representing awe at nature’s bounty. They’re not simply atheists or agnostics who have given up on belief.
Briggs attributes the increase to what might be called the “Oprah Effect”:
One potential explanation, according to Martin, is the cultural preoccupation with miracles promoted in non-dogmatic ways by a series of popular television programs such as “Touched by an Angel” and best-selling books such as the “Left Behind” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.
No one, Martin and other researchers point out, may have done more for this spiritual phenomenon than Oprah Winfrey, who with her extraordinarily popular television show and other ventures made accounts of the miraculous a regular part of the lives of millions of Americans.
. . . What is most telling about this unceasing belief in miracles, Dougherty said, is that it is another indicator that “as a society, as Americans in general. [We] are not in this uniform march toward secularism.”
I’m not sure, though, that I fully believe this is trend is real. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but the increase of 5-10% in those who either probably or definitely believe in miracles might be a function of this one survey, and 5% is surely within the limits of error. As for the increase in “marginal attenders of services” or “nones,” that could represent the swelling of those categories by those who have dropped out of formal religion, but nevertheless retain some belief in spirituality or deism.
Dougherty doesn’t pass judgement on what he sees as an absence of a march toward secularism, but the approval—and reassurance of Americans disturbed by atheism’s increasing presence—seems implicit. Nevertheless, I do believe we’re on a (very slow) march to secularism, just as Europe was. It’s going to be slowed, though, if Mittens gets elected.
The PuffHo comments are pretty evenly split between nonbelievers and those convinced that miracles occur, which itself is heartening given the hegemony of faith in the U.S. So while we see comments like these (click to enlarge):
there are also comments like this:
Wouldn’t it be nice to see more classes in “critical thinking” in American schools?