CHICAGO -- In what has been called the most comprehensive survey of the nation's faith since a seminal study in 1968, Baylor University sociologists reported yesterday that Americans aren't losing religion, but they're defining their spiritual lives differently.
As a result, researchers say, millions of pious people have slipped below the radar of most religious surveys, misleading scholars to sound the secular alarm too soon.
"People might not have a denomination, but they have a congregation," said one of the survey's authors, Kevin Dougherty, citing studies that contend the number of nonreligious Americans has doubled in the past decade. "It is not evidence of rising secularization, but how researchers ask about religious affiliation."
The Baylor Religion Survey, the first in a series of studies funded by a grant of nearly a quarter- million dollars from the John Templeton Foundation, queried 1,721 Americans on topics ranging from the existence of God to the reality of Bigfoot.
The survey probed spending habits on religious merchandise, literary taste and self-proclaimed labels. It also asked how people pray and what they perceive to be God's personality and politics.
In assessing religious behaviors and attitudes, researchers asked, "With what religious family do you most closely identify?" Even if respondents answered "none," some later provided names and addresses for where they worshiped.
Dougherty attributed the discrepancy in survey results to a failure to recognize the rise of nondenominational evangelical churches, making it more difficult for worshipers there to find a label that fits.
But Barry Kosmin, lead investigator for the American Religious Identification Survey, which queried 50,000 Americans in 1990 and 115,000 people in 2001, said the term "religious family" is confusing. His studies found the number of "nonreligious" Americans jumped from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001.
"I'm a little incredulous and skeptical," Kosmin said. "If someone is born-again, they're very unlikely to say they have no religion. There's a logic to it."
Nearly a third of the participants in the Baylor survey identified themselves as evangelical Protestants by affiliation or said they attended an evangelical house of worship. More than 22 percent called themselves mainline Protestant and more than 21 percent labeled themselves Catholic.
But while many surveys stop at the question of whether God exists, the Baylor survey posed 29 questions about God's character and behavior and found that Americans believed in four images of God: authoritarian, benevolent, critical and distant.
Researchers found that 31 percent of the respondents believe God is both judgmental and highly engaged in worldly affairs.
"A person's view of God" directly affects how an individual sees the world and interacts with others in society, said Byron Johnson, a sociology professor and co-director of Baylor's Institute for the Studies of Religion.
Catholic and mainline Protestant participants opted for a distant God. White evangelical or black Protestant Southerners described God as authoritarian - highly engaged and angry.
Midwesterners lean toward highly engaged but not so angry - a benevolent God.
Other questions that strayed from previous studies examined Americans' beliefs in phenomena that defy scientific explanation, including haunted houses, UFOs, prophetic dreams and monsters.
Manya A. Brachear writes for the Chicago Tribune.