"Crucifix," on display at the Indianapolis
Museum of Art (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
According to a recent study conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the state of Idaho ranks nineteenth in the United States in terms of the importance of religion in the lives of its citizens. Four factors were taken into consideration, including frequency of church attendance and prayer, and subjective indicators such as the degree of importance of religion in one's life, and the certainty of one's belief in God. The aggregated measures were taken from a sweeping national survey conducted in 2007 in which more than 35,000 Americans were questioned. In this compilation, some states were combined due to lack of data, so there are only 46 jurisdictions in all. The results for Idaho stand alone.
I was somewhat surprised, as my overall impression since coming here from New Jersey in 1998 was that Idaho is a very religious state indeed. Even more surprising is the fact that Idahoans rank only No. 25 in terms of their certainty in their belief in God, not even in the upper half. But perhaps it was simply the contrast that I noticed, as New Jersey's rankings are 30 and 35 respectively.
The southern states ranked the highest, and Alaskans and New Englanders turned out to be the least religious. These relatively non religious states are known for their libertarian views as well. Is there a connection? Are libertarians less religious than other political groups, including liberals? Perhaps that is why Idaho did not rank as high as I expected, because there is strong libertarian strain here as well. But there is no way to answer the question from the available data.
The certainty of belief in God strikes me as a curious question, not only because it is almost an oxymoron - how can you be certain about a belief? - but because the idea of "God" is ambiguous and admits to a bewildering array of possibilities. The question was, "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" (See page 44 of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey). And if the question was answered affirmatively, the next question was: "How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?" For the nation as a whole, 92% reported that they believe in God or a universal spirit, and of those, 71% were absolutely certain about their belief. Another question asked of everyone was, "Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?" About 60% believe in this personal God. That means 40% don't accept such a simplistic view of the cosmos, a very significant number. The survey doesn't do justice to these people.
Indeed, the very fact that a single, upper case "God" dominates the series of questions might lead the respondents to answer in a limited way, or even to intimidate them. Why on earth stop at one "God," or one "universal spirit" rather than a god, or many gods, or some more sophisticated idea? Surely there are as many concepts of deities, spirits and cosmological consciousnesses as the human mind can wrap its neurons around, and then there are all the possibilities that we aren't capable of imagining with our limited supply of gray matter. It's as if this survey, which elicits specific information about religious customs and traditions of the American people in three of the questions, then imposes an orthodox, regimented framework that restricts their answers in the last to some monotheistic, acceptable, societal norm.
A better question might have been, how strong is your faith in your religion? That would separate religious beliefs from more abstract philosophical speculation.
But perhaps I'm quibbling. This is a fascinating survey, well worth perusing. One thing is for sure: Americans are a very religious people.