05/30/2013 04:33 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

What Do Religious People Really Believe?

Few topics are more contentious than religion. Our culture has been so deeply immersed in religion for so long that we can't avoid its presence and its influence, and therefore we all seem to have strong opinions -- whether in defense of our own religion, criticism of religion as an institution, or even condemnation of other people's beliefs. But the messages that we receive about religion all too often come from the loudest voices of extremists (from both supporters and detractors), and through the media's distorted attention. And so, few topics are more subject to stereotyping and misconceptions than religion. We are left asking, then, what do religious people really believe, and what is the position of those who don't?

In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted an extensive study on religion in America to find out what members of different religions believe. The study asked respondents such questions as:
  • Do you believe in "God or a Universal Spirit"?
  • Do you believe that your Holy Books are meant to be taken literally word for word, or not?
  • Do you believe that your religion is the one, true faith?
  • Do you rely on the teachings of your religion to determine right and wrong?
  • Do you believe that there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of your religion, or are there more than one true way?
  • Do you think there is a natural conflict between being a devout religious person and living in a modern society?
  • Do you believe that homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society, or that homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged?
  • Should the government do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt?
The study found that there is a tremendously wide variety of religious beliefs. And most of these beliefs are non-dogmatic, nuanced and inclusive. The following is an overview of the responses from those who claimed to be religious:
  • While 92 percent said that they believe in "God or a Universal Spirit," less than 68 percent professed a belief in a "theistic" God -- a Creator who is intimately involved in our lives.
  • 67 percent believe that their tradition's Holy Books are not meant to be read literally. This number is much higher for Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and non-evangelical Protestants.
  • Only 24 percent of respondents claim that their religion is the one true faith.
  • Only 29 percent said that they look primarilly to religious teachings and belief most for guidance. The rest answered that they look to personal experience, reason and science for guidance.
  • 68 percent of all the religious people surveyed answered that there is more than one way to understand the teaching of their faith, including 89 percent of Jews and 82 percent of mainline Christians and non-evangelical Protestants.
  • An average of 76 percent of religious people across different faiths responded that they see no conflict between religion and science, even for the most devout in their faith.
  • 79 percent of Jews, 69 percent of non-denominations Christians and 58 percent of Catholics agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society.
  • In every category of religion, the majority of the respondents supported governmental help for the needy -- even if this means incurring more debt -- with a blended total of 62 percent.
Another poll on religion, which Gallop conducted in 2012, sought to determine the overall status of religion on America today. The poll discovered that although the United States remains a predominantly religious country, the number of Americans who have faith in organized religion is at an all-time low. Only 44 percent of Americans today responded to having "a lot of confidence" in organized religion. Many Americans have left organized religion altogether, and this group is growing faster than any religious faith in the U.S. This poll also found that 54 percent of those asked said they would vote a well qualified atheist into the Oval Office.

Other recent studies show that in Western Europe -- the historic center of Christianity -- religious affiliation has plummeted over the last several decades. According to recent polls, the population there is now divided roughly in half between those who claim a belief in God and those who don't. In Sweden, 80 percent of those polled responded that they do not believe in God (while, interestingly, 53 percent answered that they believe "there is some sort of spirit or life force"). In Germany, 59 percent of individuals are self-defined as atheists. And in Great Britain, less than 17 percent of respondents answered "yes" to the statement "I believe God exists and have no doubts."

These studies clearly demonstrate that matters of religion resist easy generalizations. The truth is that most religious people bring individual expression to their faith and feel no conflict with those who have different religious belief systems, or no religious belief whatsoever. These studies also show that atheism is not a small or discriminated minority in much of the world, and that criticism of religion is not the taboo that it is often thought to be. To anyone who has studied the history of religion these results are not surprising. An objective view of history reveals a very complex institution that exists simultaneously on many levels and for many purposes, with little unanimity.

These studies show that religions are much more complex and personal than any simple model asserts, and that we can't easily lump all religious people into one category and generalize about their beliefs and practices -- just as we can't lump together all those who don't belief in a Creator. And as these studies indicate, the majority of people who claim to be religious are moderate and inclusive in their views. (For those who assert that moderates are not "true" believers, please see my earlier blog on this subject.)

Far too much of the conversation around religion comes from a lack of understanding of how others truly experience their faith, and how their religion truly function. And far too much comes from misunderstanding from religious people toward those who don't share a belief in God. I know because I can be guilty of this, as conversations that start with good intentions get twisted due to lack of common context. But I also believe in the inherent goodness of people, and in our basic desire to connect meaningfully to others. We ought to voice our disagreements, and to hold others to high ethical and moral standards, but these disagreements should be rooted in reality and understanding, not blanket generalities. My prayer, then, is that in the conversation about religion -- as in all conversations -- we see each other not as stereotypes or, God forbid, as enemies, but as fellow glorious, flawed, loveable human beings who are seeking truth and happiness.