Good News and Bad News for Organized Religion


A new study of religious attitudes in the United States, Britain, Eastern and Western Europe, Israel and New Zealand has concluded that large majorities in most of the countries surveyed believe in God and in life after death.

One would suppose that such results, released last week by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, came as welcome news -- perhaps even relief -- to religious leaders battling or courting a secularist society.

Not so fast.

The pioneering international survey, taken as a whole, is evidence of an underlying tension between private faith and organized religion. For the latter, there is at least as much challenge as comfort in the findings.

To take the good news for religious leaders first, the existence of God was affirmed by more than 90 percent of the respondents in the United States, Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Elsewhere, Christian and Jewish majorities holding to a belief in God ranged from 59 percent in Norway to 88 percent in Poland. Even in the Netherlands, widely perceived as a secularist nation, there were equal numbers of theists and atheists.

Of all the widespread communities covered in the 1991 research, only the former East Germany showed a minority -- 26 percent -- believing in God. And even there, according to the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the Roman Catholic priest and sociologist who was a coordinator of the study, "there are signs of a revival of religious belief."

Then why should supporters of institutional religion be concerned?

While majorities everywhere, except the former East Germany and the Netherlands, said they retained a formal religious affiliation, the numbers who attended church or synagogue regularly were always smaller, and often considerably smaller, than the numbers who said they were believers.

For example, Roman Catholics are obligated under church law to attend Mass every Sunday except when excused for a serious reason. Yet, fewer than half of the Catholics surveyed went to church "regularly" in the United States -- where belief in God was shown to be the highest -- or in Britain, New Zealand, Germany and Hungary.

Even in Catholic Italy, a bare majority -- 52 percent -- were said to attend Mass "regularly," defined for the purposes of the study as "two or three times a month or more."

Although generally the respondents to the survey expressed higher opinions of their religious institutions and leaders than of business and government, only two out of five Americans had "complete" or "a great deal of" confidence in religious leaders.

In both Ireland and Northern Ireland, where church attendance was relatively high, the level of confidence in institutional religion was only between 41 and 46 percent.

Religious leaders received the lowest confidence ratings in East Germany and the Netherlands, 20 percent in both; in Britain, where it was 19 percent, and in Israel, 18 percent.

According to the study, which is the work of a worldwide consortium of research centers known as the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), nearly three-quarters of Israelis and almost half of the population of Italy and of the former West Germany believe that the clergy and their institutions have too much power.

Poland, where Catholicism is so dominant, was alone among the former socialist countries in recording a majority -- 61 percent -- who think the church is too powerful. In once-socialist Hungary, by contrast, only 13 percent held that view.

Hungary, in fact, has demonstrated a dramatic increase in religious activity over the last six or seven years. In 1986, an ISSP study recorded that only about 25 percent of Hungarians admitted to ever attending a church service. The 1991 data suggest that two-thirds go to church at least some of the time.

Seven years ago, 6 percent of Hungarians said they went to church services several times a month or more. By 1991, this number -- evenly distributed through the population regardless of age -- had more than tripled to 19 percent.

Randomly questioned in the 1991 survey were 19,000 people, with a minimum of 1,000 in each of 13 countries or regions.

It found that the traditional sexual teachings of the Christian churches were not widely accepted. Nowhere did a majority believe premarital sex is always wrong, and in Germany, Hungary and Slovenia majorities did not oppose extramarital sex for married couples.

Only in Ireland was there majority opposition to abortion, and even in Catholic Poland, thought in some church circles to be safely insulated from the "hedonism" of the West, attitudes on premarital, extramarital and homosexual sex were virtually indistinguishable from those of American Catholics.

"If religion persists, often in forms that are older than Christianity," Father Greeley concluded in his summary of the findings, "it does not follow that organized religion is universally admired."

More and more, even without the data of the ISSP survey, clergy and others who lead and speak for denominational religion are sounding dire warnings about disaffections among the very people who rely on personal devotion to the Deity.

At the University of Dayton in Ohio recently, Benedictine monk and Roman Catholic Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, who was awarded an honorary degree, said, "People now make the distinction between faith and religion. They claim to have religion, but that religion is between them and God. It's very personal. Faith involves the church, a structure, and they're very leery."

(For his celebrated willingness to listen to divergent views about religious practice, particularly his meetings with women in the Milwaukee archdiocese to gather a variety of Catholics' opinions on abortion, the Vatican in 1990 blocked an honorary degree for Archbishop Weakland from the theology faculty of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.)

At a symposium last month at the Yale Divinity School, William Fore, a former member of the staff of the National Council of Churches, said television, movies and other mass media are replacing religious expression in the consciousness of the majority of Americans.

The media, which are pervasive and deal deeply with people's feelings, Mr. Fore said, have become more powerful than the churches despite Americans' claims to be a religious people.

Writing in the magazine of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, Fergus Macdonald, general secretary of the National Bible Society of Scotland, contrasted what he saw as the "humiliation" of the Bible in churches influenced by mass-media images with people's longing for spiritual guidance outside of organized religion.

"Even in many evangelical churches -- which continue to affirm formally the authority of the scripture -- it is increasingly possible to worship without the Bible being heard and to evangelize without sharing the biblical story," Mr. Macdonald said.

Arguing that this is counter to "a new popular interest in the Bible," he said, "In Eastern Europe, the extraordinary demand for Bibles has created a black market. In the West, the Bible continues to be a best seller, and in some Scandinavian countries there is a revival of Bible storytelling on radio and in schools."

Widespread desertion of institutional religion has caused not only the well-publicized membership losses and financial crises of the so-called mainline denominations, but has led to wrenching reappraisals within the much-criticized national and world church councils that are dependent on them. Critics of the councils -- as of the churches themselves -- often say they are more political than spiritual.

Commenting recently on the future of the ecumenical movement as it has long been defined by these organizations, General Secretary Konrad Raiser of the World Council of Churches called for a new and different ecumenism that "moves beyond church-centeredness and opens up to all who confess God and are with us on the way to justice, peace and the integrity of creation."

This might include those millions of unorganized believers identified by the ISSP study.

Mr. Raiser admitted that the future of organized religion was unclear to him.

"For the time being," he said, "we have no real alternative to basing the conciliar movement on historical church structures -- but we must remain open to communities that do not live according to our rules and patterns."

G; Frank Somerville covers religion for The Baltimore Sun.

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