U.S. retains strong belief in miracles

November 6, 2012 • 6:30 am

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?

44 thoughts on “U.S. retains strong belief in miracles

  1. miracles promoted in non-dogmatic ways by […] best-selling books such as the “Left Behind” […] series

    As anyone who reads Fred Clark knows, the Left Behind series is most certainly dogmatic, of the most pernicious stripe.

  2. I think secularism depends on the health of the society. Its rise is by no means guaranteed. As you said, much depends on this election (and the ones to follow).

  3. I think in any place where people are theistic, the belief in miracles is high. A case in point , though I have no statistics, is here in Kenya or Sub Saharan Africa which is mainly theistic, the belief in miracles is really high and the march to secularism is in the womb

  4. Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks reports that 68% of Republicans believe in demonic possession but only 48% believe in climate change. When he breaks it down into the overall population, belief in demonic possession has a commanding lead over belief in ghosts which is polling at “only” 37%.

    1. How sad that so many folks believe in things that can’t be documented like demonic possession & refuse to believe in what’s staring us in the face, namely, climate change.

      Do they think Sandy was escorted up thew east coast last week by a pack of demons?

          1. Yep, so now we have Demonic Global Warming (DGW) instead of AGW. Relax everyone, it’s not our fault. We must all pray to jesus to save us from DGW (or vote Romney).

    2. Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks reports that 68% of Republicans believe in demonic possession but only 48% believe in climate change.

      And what percentage of Democrats believe in religious nonsense? I think it’s probably lower than for Republicans, but not that much lower.

  5. Religiosity in the classic sense has been declining, especially in Europe, and this would in general be a good thing, if it automatically meant that people who leave traditional religion grow up to be the kind of rationally-thinking scientifically-minded people we would want everybody to be. But that is not the case – they mostly simply move to alternative varieties of woo.

    The formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe are a classic illustration of that effect. The regime drilled it into people’s head for decades that there is no God but it did very little to develop the critical thinking skills that are necessary for an intellectually-fulfilling and self-sustaining atheism. This still had a negative effect on the church though, and when the system collapsed and there was no longer any repression on religion, while traditional religiosity did resurge, it never regained the positions it had prior to communism. But unfortunately, it is not the case that the rest of the population are scientifically-minded atheists; instead the void was filled by all sorts of new age woo, astrologists, clairvoyants, extrasense healers, and other charlatans of the sort.

    It’s probably the same effect that’s behind the data here – the people who go to church believe in miracles for obvious reasons, while the belief increases for those on the margins because with the advent of mass media in the last decades if the 20th century, it has become possible for the charlatans not directly associated with traditional religion to gain visibility. Orpah has definitely played a big role, but it’s much bigger than just here

  6. Imagine an alpha value of 0.000000001. In our aleatoric, uncertain, probabilistic world, there is one chance in a billion of an event-phenomenon occurring with this alpha value-“miraculous”!!!! Role the dice (alea) at a casino. Assume the casino is “worth” a billion dollars. How many successful roles of the dice would you need after placing ONE DOLLAR down to have title to the casino? When our parents conceived us, hopefully in a moment of passion, in that zygote there were at least 70 trillion different recombinations of their chromosomes! What is more likely? Who you are genetically or having title to the casino? You bet! Best of luck! Is Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino still in foreclosure? Inundated by Sandy’s tidal surge? Both? Why does not manna or Plumpy’Nut rain down from the heavens to feed those children that are in the wrenching grasp of the Angel of Death at this moment.

  7. I know people are less careful with their spelling and grammar when using twitter or the internet, but there really seems to be a connection between consistent misspelling and a belief in woo. ‘Greatful’? ‘Formarly’?

    1. Oh, oh. If you’re checking spelling, I must confess that I had one a couple of comments above — put a “w” on the end of “the” — but honest, it was just a typo!

      1. I noticed, but was far too polite and “well brought up” to mention it.

        In any case, we can generally tell the difference between a typo and a misspelling (at least my Google Chrome is quite good at it, even if we occasionally argue over US English).

    2. Have you noticed that practically every English speaker who uses “evidences” as a plural noun is a creationist?

    3. It’s not the consistency of the misspelling that I find a useful flag of how silly someone is likely to be. It’s the use of seemingly sensible but incorrect homophonic misspellings. As you say, “formarly”, “greatful”. Stewpid.

  8. Belief in miracles and the slow rise of non-denominationalism and atheism need not be mutually exclusive.

    The numbers are perfectly compatible with a trend long evident in American politics and society, and of which today’s elections may be the strongest realisation yet: polarisation.

    Example: In the ARDA study, only a quarter of non-religious probands believe definitely in miracles. Among the religious, it’s a stark majority (from 55% to nearly 80%).

    But, religious or not, there is one domain where common belief in miracles is shared by so many that it seems foundational:

    Forget secularism. Converting a majority to economic rationality would be a signal success. As long as the national belief in the reality, viability, and sustainability of exponential growth persists, lasciate ogni speranza.

  9. It seems like believing in miracles just makes the Problem of Evil so much worse. If god(s) routinely step in and interven, then it seems it would always raise the question of why this and not that? Why did that women survive the flood but not that child? Seems like a really untenable position to me.

  10. Belief in miracles is the direct result of ignorance- we desperately need to revamp our educational system as regards critical thinking (and a little information about recycling and financial responsibility wouldn’t hurt, either)!

  11. I don’t know exactly how this survey was worded, but if it was a simple, “Do you believe in miracles?”, I reckon the numbers would look considerably different if it was instead, “Do you believe that the laws of nature are sometimes suspended for the sake of supernatural intervention?”

    I think there are certainly woo-thinkers who aren’t positively religious in those numbers, but I also think there’s a problem with very loose language. I’m not one to complain about language change, but you can think of it in the same way that the ubiquitous use of “awesome” has made it lose all of its original sense of actual, profound awe. I suspect that the colloquial understanding of “miracle” is, for many people, nothing more than an extremely unlikely event with sentimental attachment which leads them to a very vague, not-specifically-religious sense of it being “meant to be”.

    1. I blame the popular press, who are inclined to attach the label “miracle” to many frankly everyday events, such as a child surviving an otherwise fatal car crash, or doctors succeeding in saving the life of a cancer victim.

      1. You can also blame those self-help books and seminars which encourage people to see “miracles” everywhere — in a sunset, in a flower, in a baby’s smile. Now we’re no longer even looking at “unlikely” events.

    2. I agree. Not only is “miracle” a very loose term, but what it means to “believe in miracles” seems to have transformed itself in the popular mind into “have an optimistic attitude.” It’s hard to parse out what people sincerely believe from what they have been conditioned to think they ought to believe. You don’t want to be a negative thinker. Anything is possible. Believe.

      Go into any of those quaint little boutiques selling potpourri and antiques and knickknacks and padded chairs and read what’s written on the walls, on carpets, on flower pots and on framed calligraphy: “Believe.” Yes, you also see “Faith” a lot, but I think “Believe” is more popular.

      Believe in what? Miracles? Yes, believe it’s all a miracle. Believe in belief. Buy a sign saying “Believe,” stick it in your family room, and be inspired. Let other people know what you’re like. You WANT to believe.

    3. I was about to say the same thing. When it’s described as a ‘miracle’ when one child survives a car crash in which five children die, the word has obviously lost its original meaning.

    4. Yes, I’ll put in my two cents worth of agreement with C.H. as well. I think a lot of people think of a miracle as merely a quasi-religious /interpretation/ of an unlikely event: “sure it was unlikely, but I suspect it happened because the game is teleologically rigged to produce a desired (by someone?) result.” I’ve met a number of atheists who still wish to ascribe some sense of old-fashioned-handed-down-from-on-high-objective purpose to the universe. Such people may reject the idea of an “according to Vega” miracle (when God makes the impossible possible), but will happily claim to believe in miracles in the looser sense described above. I suspect many people perceive such belief as a “positive thing” and would actively seek to find a definition of miracle that they can believe in despite not being traditionally religious.

    5. I concur with you and the others who have added their agreement before me. Miracle is not used exclusively to mean an act by a supernatural entity that circumvents the events of the natural universe. Something is miraculous if it is merely highly unlikely or unexpected or currently unexplainable. And as has been pointed out, the popular press/media leads the way. It is unfortunate that sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking. There are probably many people who feel their theistic/supernaturalistic beliefs are bolstered every time something is reported as being a miracle.

      1. Fellow commentators: Please read my comment = #7 on probability- “You bet” … “Best of luck” + and add other aleatoric aphorisms. View Murillo’s painting, “Boys throwing dice.” Secure a pair of dice (die?), and teach your children the rudiments of chance and necessity. Hopefully, if you do have children, they were created in a moment of passion and that zygote had 50 doublings to give rise to that multicellular darling who is now on the floor “rolling those dry bones” with you. Recall that that precious zygote was one chromosomal recombination out of 70 trillion assuming no crossing “overs.” D. Reid Wiseman

  12. “Wouldn’t it be nice to see more classes in “critical thinking” in American schools?”

    it sure would! consider taking one yourself, mr. ‘many people say that animals that taste good don’t really suffer, so that’s good enough for me!’.

  13. US could do better. If you run this through google translate, it says that surveys shows ~ 1/5 of Swedes beliefs in ghosts, psychics et cetera. Some analysts cited proposes much of the remaining belief is supported by the Oprah Effect.

    The real miracle would be observing a miracle.

    1. I missed the opportunity a couple of days ago to graffiti a sign advertising a “psychic evening” (whatever one of those is ; “woo” in some form). It was tempting to write “cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances” over it. But I’d have been late for dinner.
      Yeah, it’s vandalism ; but it’s soooo tempting!

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