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Religious belief remains vital around the world, study says.

Signs of a religious rivival appear in Slovenia, Hungary

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Religious belief remains strong among most of the 19,000 people surveyed in 14 Western Christian and Jewish countries, sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley reported May 17 to members of the International Social Survey Program at their annual meeting in Chicago.

"God didn't die, even under socialism," he said.

Greeley found belief strongest in the United States, Ireland and Poland, and weakest in East Germany and the Netherlands, with some signs indicating renewed religious belief in parts of Eastern Europe.

Greeley of the University of Chicago and National Opinion Research Center analyzed data collected in 1991 by ISSP, a consortium of social science research centers from 21 countries.

The report, title "Religion Around the World," is based on data from 14 countries. Separate surveys were taken in East and West Germany and in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The German and Irish splits were done "for substantive intellectual reasons, not for political reasons," Greeley told NCR.

The report is the most comprehensive international study of religion ever undertaken based on representative national samples. The countries represented, besides Germany and the Irelands, are Britain, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Israel, Slovenia, New Zealand, the United States, Netherlands and Poland.

The report is called a world study because the nations represented are from North America, Australasia, the British Isles, continental Europe and the Near East. None of the countries represented is in South America or Africa. The United States is the sole Western Hemisphere nation included and New Zealand the only Asian or Southern Hemisphere nation.

However, the report is preliminary, and 21 nations including Japan, the Philippines, Canada and additional Eastern European nations will be included by October, Greeley said.

Among the findings:

* Nine of 10 people in Ireland and the United States believe in God, as do eight of 10 in Italy and more than two of three in Israel, Britain and New Zealand. The survey found East Germany and the Netherlands to be the least religious countries, with the majority rejecting belief in God.

* Belief in life after death is higher among people younger than 35 in East Germany, West Germany, Slovenia, Israel and Hungary than among those in the middle years of life. However, only 12 percent of all people in East Germany believe in life after death, as do 33 percent in Slovenia and 42 percent in Israel.

In former socialist countries, Greeley told ISSP members, "there is not a massive return to religion nor a change that is immediately observable, but there is an invisible religious revival in belief in life after death which has not been observed, as far as we know," in other data about religion. "It is the reverse of everything that the theories of secularization and religious decline lead us to anticipate."

Only East Germany appears to be "an unreligious country," Greeley said. "Signs of a revival of religious belief" appear in Slovenia and in Hungary, he explained.

In East Germany, 65 percent of the people have no religious affiliation; in Hungary only 5 percent. Only a little more than a quarter of Hungarians ISSP asked in 1986 admitted ever attending church and only 6 percent reported going regularly. In 1991, however, more than 19 percent said they regularly attend church.

The majority of people attend church services regularly -- two or three times a month -- in Ireland and Poland, more than two of five do in the United States and Italy, 21 percent in the Netherlands, 17 percent in Britain and 15 percent in West Germany.

The survey found "that the more often people pray, the more likely they are to oppose the death penalty," Greeley said. "I think a lot of folks think this can't be true because they know fundamentalists support the death penalty." Yet, "it is true. Fundamentalists aren't the only ones who pray often, and fundamentalists who pray a lot are more likely than other fundamentalists to oppose the death penalty."

Moreover, he found in analyzing the data that "those who believe in life after death are more likely to oppose the death penalty." Such people are "more likely to be sympathetic to the condemned criminal and to the poor," he said. In relatively unreligious countries, such as Norway and the Netherlands, as well as in comparatively religious ones such as the United States and Ireland, people who pray often and believe in life after death were found to support government intervention to aid the poor and unemployed, and to oppose cheating the government.

Asked whether he might anticipate similar or different survey results from heavily Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or other nations, Greeley said, "I find that hard to answer even on a speculative basis." In Islamic countries, "you'll find extremely high rates of belief in God, extermely high rates of prayer. But what the impact would be, I don't know."

Historian of religion Scott Appleby said the ISSP survey results "would be surprising only to people who buy into the now discredited theories of secularization" so popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Appleby, associate director of the fundamentalism project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, will join the University of Notre Dame history department in the fall to head its Cushwa Center, which studies U.S. Catholicism.

Those who believe that modern progress means "the eventual repeal and erosion of religious identity" will find the results surprising, he said. However, most scholars of religion will find "confirmation of what they already believe," that religion is enduring, that it "orients the individual to his or her world" and that it "informs many decisions and deliberations the individual makes."

Were the survey taken in Muslim countries, "in which there is more of a traditional piety prevalent," he speculated, the results probably would be "an even deeper confirmation that religion remains a if not the significant orienting and framing reality."

A theological conclusion from both Greeley's report and the fundamentalism project, Appleby said, is that "religion is an irreducible aspect of human existence." It is "not simply filling a gap," rather it "is something deeper, more profound found and more intertwined with the human spirit."

Bernard Spilka, psychology professor at the University of Denver and author of The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach and other books, assessed Greeley as "a first-rate sociologist of religion" and said the survey appears to show "that religion is not going to remain separate from living, that people are bringing it more into their life."

In the United States, where 90 percent of people pray, even "15 percent of atheists admit to praying," he said, although he does not know to whom or what they pray.

He distinguished intrinsic religion, a search for truth and guide to everyday living, from extrinsic religion, a convenience or device to deal with crises. "What we're seeing" in Greeley's report sounds like meaningful, intrinsic religion that is "an extremely strong and powerful force in virtually all nations," he said.

In Eastern Europe, "what may have happened," he said, is that efforts to suppress religion merely forced religion underground, and it is now on the rebound.

Spilka said he would like further studies to investigate "the real critical thing," the image or kind of God people believe in and their understanding of the life after death in which they profess belief.

Different images of God -- a loving and forgiving God; a God with feminine, nurturing qualities; an "omni-God" who is omnipresent, omniscent and ominipotent; a punitive, threatening God -- affect people's behavior differently, he explained.

He also speculated that were the survey to be taken in Africa, the findings would show similar humanizing tendencies resulting from religious belief even though, where religion is contained in an isolated group, prejudice and discrimination against outsiders may result.
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Title Annotation:Father Andrew Greeley speech
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 28, 1993
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