Strong majority of U.S. adults believe in human souls and existence of God or other higher power
Most Americans also believe in reality of heaven and hell
Although a declining number of Americans participate in organized religion, the overwhelming majority still accept some premises common with religions, such as the existence of human souls or spirits and the existence of God or some higher power, a study released this week by the Pew Research Center shows.
About 83 percent of American adults believe people have a soul or spirit in addition to their physical body, and 90 percent believe in the existence of a God or higher power. Even a significant number of self-described atheists, 22 percent, believe there is a higher power or spiritual force.
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A large majority, 71 percent, also believe in a heaven, while a smaller majority, 61 percent, believe there is a hell.
The survey was conducted in July and August of this year with a representative sample of Pew’s American Trends Panel.
Pew Research, a nonpartisan think tank that frequently studies American attitudes toward religion and a wide variety of social issues, said it had asked many of the questions in the survey for the first time. As a result, Pew was unable to provide comparisons with how the answers to the questions have changed over time. However, it intends to use the results of the survey as a baseline for future studies that would look for shifts in attitude.
Overall, the results of the study paint a picture of an America that generally recognizes the existence of spiritual forces and other phenomena that go beyond scientific knowledge. About 81 say there is something spiritual beyond this world, even if we cannot see it, and almost that many, 74 percent, say there are some things that science cannot possibly explain.
Overall, about 70 percent of people see themselves as spiritual in some way. The survey indicates:
Almost half, 48 percent, call themselves spiritual and religious.
Those calling themselves spiritual but not religious total 22 percent.
A similar number, 21 percent, are neither spiritual nor religious.
The smallest group, 10 percent, see themselves as religious but not spiritual.
In its survey, Pew did not define for the respondents what spirituality means, instead asking the participants to indicate how they understand the term from a list of 10 possibilities. About three-fourths of those seeing themselves spiritual defined its meaning as “being connected with something bigger than myself” and almost that many (70 percent) with “being connected to God.” (Participants could use more than one definition.) Almost two-thirds, 64 percent, saw spirituality as “being connected with my ‘true self.’”
When asked to use their own words to define spirituality, about a fourth, 27 percent, used descriptions connected to organized religion.
Many of the beliefs about spirituality transcended age groups and other demographics. For example, while those ages 18 to 29 were less likely to believe in the existence of human souls than older people, a large majority still did. For seniors, the total was 87 percent, while for young adults it was 74 percent.
In fact, of the demographics analyzed, all groups other than atheists said they believe that human souls exist. But even 31 percent of the atheists agreed.
Attitudes toward religion
As would be expected, those who consider themselves religious are more likely to have positive attitudes toward religion.
More than half of religious people, 54 percent, said religion encourages people to do the right thing and treat other people well. But only 13 percent of those spiritual but not religious saw things the same way, and only 8 percent of those neither spiritual nor religious.
On the flip side, a large minority, 42 percent, of nonreligious people said religion causes division and intolerance. Only 11 percent of religious persons agreed.
Among other noteworthy findings in the study:
The most common way for respondents to seek spiritual connection is to spend time looking inward or centering themselves (44 percent). About a fourth (26 percent) spend time in nature, and almost that many (22 percent) meditate.
About half of people believe that various nonhuman creatures as well as parts of nature (such as rivers and trees) can have spirits or spiritual energies.
Nearly half said that at least monthly they experience a deep sense of wonder about the universe, and a slightly smaller number feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being.
About 39 percent of U.S. adults are involved with a religious community such as a church or other type of religious congregation.
Those defining themselves as spiritual but not religious are much more likely to be or lean Democratic (60 percent) than Republican (34 percent), virtually the same as for those neither spiritual nor religious. The numbers were approximately reversed for those calling themselves religious: 55 percent Republican or leaning that way, and 38 percent Democratic or leaning that way.