WASHINGTON — Heaven is no longer viewed as an exclusive place by many Americans, according to a new survey from Baylor University.
When researchers polled U.S. adults about who (and how many) will get into heaven, 54 percent of respondents said at least half of average Americans will make it through the Pearly Gates.
More than a quarter of those surveyed — 29 percent — said they had no opinion about the fate of the average American, a figure that mirrored those who thought “half or more” of nonreligious people would make it into heaven.
Rodney Stark, co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion in Waco, Texas, said the findings represent a marked difference from earlier studies.
“I think that it’s really just a … broadening because of the cultural experiences of diversity,” said Stark, author of the new book “What Americans Really Believe,” which details the study’s findings on topics ranging from belief in guardian angels to the practices of “irreligious” people.
“I know that when we did studies like this back in the ‘60s, the notion that only Christians could go to heaven, for example, was much more extensive than it is now.”
The finding that many aren’t sure about other people’s eternal destination is particularly meaningful, the scholars said.
“It’s kind of a good, American middle ground,” said Stark. “Two generations ago, it would have been 'definitely not.’"
Researchers found that while 72 percent of respondents said at least half of Christians will make it into heaven, the figures were lower for other faiths: Jews (46 percent), Buddhists (37 percent) and Muslims (34 percent).
“I think what you’re seeing is a real level of religious tolerance,” said Stark. “It’s probably going to be higher 10 years from now.”
The study, based on data collected last fall, also revealed that while 11 percent of the national sample said they had “no religion,” they may not correctly be termed “irreligious.”
Researchers found that 20 percent of those reporting “no religion” said they have attended church, 56 percent said they had prayed, and 32 percent said they prayed “several times a week or more.”
The survey’s findings, like some from a recent (and larger) Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, indicate a variegated religious picture of the United States that may challenge popular stereotypes and demonstrate openness to people of other faiths.
“It’s kind of a complicated landscape,” said Byron Johnson, co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. “It’s much more complicated than I think people understand.”
Another example of the expanding image of U.S. religiosity is in findings about mystical and religious experiences. Researcher Christopher Bader, for example, was surprised to learn that 55 percent of respondents said they had been “protected from harm by a guardian angel.”
Though scholars don’t know if people were referring to the actual sighting of an angel or a lucky near-miss car accident, they were struck by the range of people who acknowledged some experience of this kind.
Among other findings, the survey showed that:
Widows and widowers are some of the biggest tithers, with 17.6 percent giving 10 percent or more of their income to the church, compared to 8.6 percent of nonwidowed people.
People attending large churches (with more than 1,000 in the congregation) are more likely to tithe, attend worship services weekly and believe that heaven and hell “absolutely” exist.
Those who attend stricter churches — those tending to differ from secular society on issues such as abortion and homosexual behavior — are more likely to tithe, attend worship services weekly and share their faith with others than attenders of less strict churches.