Do You Believe In Miracles? Most Americans Do

Read The Pew Study, "Religion Among The Millennials"

A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion showed that a vast majority of Americans, nearly 80%, believe in miracles. The results are from a wider study, "Religion Among the Millennials." Greg Smith from the Pew Forum on Religion talks about the widespread belief in miracles.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

An extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing or accomplishment - that's Merriam Webster's definition of the word, miracle. But it goes on: An event manifesting divine intervention, a wonderful occurrence. And from that alone, you might conclude that our understanding of miracles is murky at best. A new study from Pew complicates things a bit further.

The study shows that young adults, the so-called millennial generation, don't attend church services regularly, are less inclined to express religious preference or affiliation than their elders, but profess widespread belief in the afterlife, in heaven and hell and in miracles. Nearly 80 percent of all Americans, in fact, say they believe in miracles.

So what is your definition? And do you believe? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Here to help us to understand what this Pew survey says is Greg Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GREG SMITH (Senior Researcher, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And how do you account for this apparent discrepancy between great belief in what you would describe as supernatural events, miracles, the afterlife and lack of religious affiliation?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I think what you've hit on here is a belief, a religious belief, a belief in certain supernatural occurrences that is very widespread among the American public across a wide variety of groups. As you mentioned, about eight in 10 people say they believe in miracles. That's true of the young people and older people alike.

CONAN: Yeah, the difference is statistically insignificant, 79 percent.

Mr. SMITH: That's exactly right. And one of the things we see is that even people who are not part of a particular faith, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion, even this groups says they believe in miracles, more than half of the unaffiliated say they believe in miracles. And so what you're seeing here is that - is more evidence of the religious nature of most people in the United States even those including many young people who may not be formally may not be formal members of a particular religious group.

CONAN: Did you define miracle in the survey?

Mr. SMITH: Not in so many words. What we did is we asked people a very straightforward question. Basically, do you agree or disagree that miracles still occur today just as in ancient times?

CONAN: Ah. Well, that gives you some context. Ancient - might that be taken as a word for biblical?

Mr. SMITH: Well, some people might have taken it that way. We don't use that word in our question. But you're right, it does put in a little bit of context that in terms of something that perhaps was common at one point, maybe people think that it doesn't go on anymore, but obviously the survey shows that most people do believe these things still occur.

CONAN: And it was in the context of other questions about heaven and hell in the afterlife?

Mr. SMITH: That's exactly right. It was in the context of a number of questions probing people's belief in things as varied as the existence of things like angels and demons, experience with divine healings and other supernatural phenomena.

CONAN: So if they had deduced from all of that context that you were talking about biblical style, supernatural miracles as opposed to perhaps the more secular variety - the Miracle on Ice, if you will - that's what you were talking about.

Mr. SMITH: That's right. This was definitely in a religious context as opposed to things that are simply unlikely to happen.

CONAN: And did you find that even people who by not going to church, do they define themselves as agnostics or atheists or how does that work out?

Mr. SMITH: Well, that's actually really interesting. We find that about 16 percent of the public is unaffiliated with any particular religion and that's even more common among young people than among the population overall. In fact, nearly one quarter of young people say they're unaffiliated with any particular faith.

CONAN: So that is statistically significant?

Mr. SMITH: It is significant, but the thing is, is that this is a very diverse group. It does include, as you mentioned, atheists and agnostics, people who don't believe in God and for whom religion really is not an important part of their lives at all, people who are quite secular in their outlook. But it also includes a large number of people who, though they are not part of any particular religious group, are nevertheless themselves religious at least to a certain degree.

CONAN: The people who might define themselves as spiritual, if you will.

Mr. SMITH: Spiritual. These are people who say that, you know, when it comes to religion, they're just nothing in particular. They're not Catholics. They're not Protestants. But neither are they atheists or agnostics, they're just nothing in particular. Many of these people go on in later questions to tell us that they are believers, that religion is important to them, that they pray, that they might even attend religious services, so it's a very diverse group.

CONAN: And how does this group of millennials - as we'll use your terminology -how do they compare with those - the generation immediately older than them, I guess, we call them Generation Y?

Mr. SMITH: That's right. Well, it's really interesting. We went into this project, in some ways, to try to answer the question: Are young people today -is the millennial generation less religious or more religious than preceding generations? And what we find is that on a couple of really key measures of people's religiosity, their - the degree to which they're involved with religion - young people are less religious. Most notably, they're much more likely than preceding generations to say they're unaffiliated with any faith.

As I mentioned, one-quarter of young people today are not part of a formal religion, that's double the rate that we saw among young people in 1970s and 1980s. However, the survey also shows, as we talked about with respect to miracles, that on other measures, on other indicators of people's religious belief, their spirituality, young people are much less distinctive. You know, they're just as likely as their elders to believe in an afterlife, to believe in heaven and hell, and they're just as likely as previous generations to pray regularly or to place importance on religion in their lives.

CONAN: And that suggests - I mean, that it is significant that now a quarter define themselves as having no particular religious affiliation. Nevertheless, three-quarters do and that's an overwhelming majority.

Mr. SMITH: That's right. And the importance of affiliation or lack thereof is seen on other measures as well. We know, for instance, that people who are unaffiliated with any particular faith are quite different than people who do belong to a religion in a number of ways. They're less likely, obviously, to attend church. They're less likely to be believers. They're also more likely to be politically liberal and Democratic.

And we see that even among this generation of young people that this lack of affiliation has consequences for other indicators of their approach to life and society and culture.

CONAN: And when you break it out further, obviously, you're looking at age differences and political leanings as well. Do you go onto further elements of, well, what does it say about their economic status, for example?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I'm not sure what it - that it necessarily has an impact on their economic status, and of course many young adults today are still making their way in life. But what we do see is that both age, both membership in this millennial generation and people's personal religious affiliation, religious background, they can pull young people in multiple directions.

For instance, young people are less affiliated with a religion, but among people who - among young people who are affiliated with a faith, they exhibit roughly comparable levels of religious attendance and other beliefs as older members of those same faiths.

CONAN: Would it be a big stretch to think that these numbers tend to conform, get closer as people get older, in other words, that this millennial generation in 10, 15 years time will be largely indistinguishable from their elders?

Mr. SMITH: In some ways, yes, but in other ways, no. What we see is that on many measures of religious commitment, things like prayer, things like belief in God, things like attendance at worship services, these things all do increase as people get older. And so part of the differences that we see between young people and older people today are in part a reflection of the fact that people who are older today have become more religious as they age. However, that's not true of religious affiliation. When we look back over time, generations tend to remain affiliated or unaffiliated at the same rate at which they start.

CONAN: We're talking with Greg Smith, author of the Pew report, "Religion Among the Millennials," about the finding in particular that 79 percent of that generation, 80 percent of the American public at large, believes in miracles. So, how do you define that and do you believe? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's go first to Anne(ph), Anne calling us from Palo Alto.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. I've been out of college from many, many years. I've forgotten an awful lot of things I learned there, but there's one thing that has stuck in my mind way since then. It was in an ethics course that I was taking at Cornell, and the professor mentioned his concept of a miracle in this way: that if it's - that it's purely subjective, that if there's a plane crash and let's say 99 people die, the family of the one person who survived will say, it's a miracle. The parents of the other 99 are certainly not thinking in terms of miracles. So that has really stuck with me. And, you know, I've had very unusual things happen to me - I'm sure all of us have - that just seemed to be unbelievable coincidences. I could choose to call them miracles, but I choose not to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANNE: And mainly because that is just so upmost in my mind, that it's just such a subjective term.

CONAN: So, it sounds like, Anne, we can count you both in the 20 percent and not of the millennial generation.

ANNE: Definitely not in the millennial generation, absolutely not. No. But it's a very interesting topic, so I'm glad I was able to contribute a little bit to it.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.

ANNE: Thank you. I enjoy your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ANNE: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Email from Karen(ph) in St. Paul: Did your guest just say the question was: Do you believe in miracles, that miracles happen just as they did in ancient times? If you don't believe miracles have ever happened, you'd have to answer yes to that question. They don't happen now just as they didn't happen in the past. Have you consider the people maybe answering the question that way?

Mr. SMITH: Well, I suppose that's possible. But I think it - I think - I guess, the way I would approach this, if I fell into that category, I think I would say, no, I disagree. I don't think miracles occur, nor do I think they occurred in past times. I would say, as a point of clarification...

CONAN: You weren't just interviewing the students of syntax in other words?

Mr. SMITH: No, no, that's right. And I do think that one thing that's important to point out is that this indicator, belief in miracles, is very consistent with many, many other items in our surveys, things like: do you believe in the existence of heaven, do you believe in the existence of hell, do you believe that angels and demons are active in the world.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SMITH: We find comparably large numbers of people expressing belief in all of these kinds of supernatural phenomena, so in that respect these responses about miracles are quite expected and consistent.

CONAN: Even after at least several organized religions - I don't know who would qualify as many or most - but at least several say they have questions about the existence of hell. Heaven, they're pretty sure about.

Mr. SMITH: Well, you know, one of the things that's interesting that we consistently find in our surveys is that most people believe in both heaven and hell. However, very consistently, we find more people saying they believe in heaven than say they believe in the existence of hell.

CONAN: We're talking about miracles with Greg Smith. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Matthew(ph). Matthew with us from Santa Cruz in California.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hey, there. How are you? I just wanted to make the point that, you know, when it comes to origin of life theories, whether you're a biblical creationist or whether you're an evolutionist, truly, each of these beliefs is truly unbelievable. And I want to make the point that, you know, no matter what we believe about miracles, the origin of life truly is a miracle. And therefore when it comes to thinking about these things, really, the events that had to occur in order for life to come about go in the miracle category.

You know, for inanimate matter, chemicals and physics to just be responsible for a human being in the end, looking back and contemplating their own nonexistence at some point, is truly miraculous if you're truthful about it.

CONAN: I believe Saint Eric Idle of Monty Python put it: You might want to consider how amazingly unlikely is your birth.

MATTHEW: Indeed. Indeed. Indeed.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matthew.

MATTHEW: Have a great day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Will(ph). Will with us from Binghamton, New York.

BILL (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: You're on the air.

BILL: Oh, yeah. Hi. I wanted to make a comment in terms of my experience with things that are - seem unlikely to happen. That they - and I think nowadays that they tend to be sort of - at least in my experience - they seem to be less sort of tied into belief systems. And so they're not so - they're more subjectively defined, like the woman said earlier, and...

CONAN: Well, how would you - is there something that you would define as a miracle in that sense?

BILL: Well, yes. Like I told the woman who I talked to when I called up, she -I said that I had met my wife when I decided I was ready to meet my wife. And so we're, you know, we're married, and so that's sort of a miracle to me. And I don't...

CONAN: That as your prepared your mind for this possibility, the possibility manifested itself.

BILL: Yes, exactly. I mean, I suppose this, sort of, is along the lines of spirituality and law of attraction and quantum physics and stuff like that.

CONAN: Nah, it was just pheromones.

BILL: What's that?

CONAN: I was just - pheromones, but I'm just joking. Go ahead.

BILL: Oh, well, yeah. I mean, it could have been a combination of everything. And I guess if it's something that you experience based upon your perspective mind. I have no religious, sort of, upbringing whatsoever. I've chosen to, I guess, quote, unquote, you know, "be spiritual or connected with a universal presence" or something like that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BILL: So that's my, you know, that's the framework within which I am experiencing the thing that we can call a miracle or whatever, so...

CONAN: Well, Bill, we wish you and your wife well. Thank you very much for the phone call.

BILL: Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure, no problem. Here's an email from Mara(ph). I think the definition of miracles needs to be widened if we are to really understand what my generation believes. I know that I and many spiritual people I know believe we are able to manifest when we put our energy toward. And some people might call these miracles.

So I wonder, did people define miracle? I mean, did they add any notes on these surveys of how they define miracle?

Mr. SMITH: Well, you know, we don't have any notes or comments from people about what exactly any one individual might have had in mind. But I do think that what we're hearing in some of the comments and what's also consistent with a lot of our data are that many Americans - young people, but also older people - have quite an open, quite a diverse set of approaches in their approach to religion. They - people still, you know, eight in 10 people still identify themselves as Christians, people attend religious services, people do some of the things that we might think of as traditional in the religious realm. But we've got lots of survey research that shows that people experience spiritual phenomena in a variety of ways. They believe in a number of spiritual phenomena, even those that might or might not be, you know, sanctioned by their traditions.

CONAN: By their traditional - yeah. And just briefly, how does this accord with, I don't know, do you do surveys in other countries, in Europe and other countries as well? How does this accord that even the least religious of American generations, well, still 75 percent, identified themselves with one religion or another?

Mr. SMITH: Well, we've done surveys in other countries and there's been lots of survey research done all around the world. And one of things that we know is that the United States really does stand out for much of the rest of the Western or industrialized world for its high levels of religious belief and practice.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate your time.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, author of the report "Religion Among the Millennials." You can find a link to the report at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, a Lone Star State edition of the Political Junkie. Ken Rudin joins us to preview the Texas gubernatorial primary. Be with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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