The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world, but American views often defy categorization and contradict the teachings of their faith, according to a huge survey released Monday.
The survey of 36,000 people by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life - unprecedented in the combination of the number of people interviewed and the breadth of questions asked - reveals that Americans view their own and others' religious identity through a much broader lens than previously understood:
70% of those claiming religious affiliations believe multiple religions can lead a person to salvation, while 68 percent say there is more than one way to interpret the teachings of their religion.
57% of evangelical Christians say that multiple religions can lead to salvation, though nary an evangelical theologian or minister would be likely to say that.
58% of Catholics believe society should accept homosexuality, a view that is greatly at odds with U.S. Catholic bishops, including those in the Bay Area.
12% of Eastern Orthodox Christians say they speak in tongues once a week, though it is largely a Pentecostal practice that is not in Orthodox liturgy.
21% of self-defined atheists believe in God - leading scholars to think that these atheists see how they identify themselves as a position against organized religion, not divinity.
The unusual hodgepodge of often contradictory beliefs and practices underscored the distinct and diverse nature of the American religious tradition, which has about 5,000 denominations among Christians alone.
"Religion in the United States has increasingly become a matter of personal choice, as opposed to the community they grew up in," said Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass. "Categories are not as strong as they have been in the past."
Some believe the survey's findings illuminate superficiality in American faith practice.
"Religion in America is 3,000 miles wide, but it's only 3 inches deep," said Professor D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist and religion demographer at Rice University. "The issue is not that Americans don't believe in anything. It's that they believe in practically everything. It's possible for Americans to hold together contradictory beliefs at the same time."
The survey found that there are Catholics who meditate, while Lindsay said other surveys have found Protestants who pray to the Virgin Mary. Few link religion, politics
Much has been made in recent years of the nexus between religion and politics. But the survey found that is largely overstated. Only 14 percent of the total population - and 28 percent of evangelical Christians, often depicted in political terms - say that religion most influences their political thinking. Personal experience was cited by 34 percent, the largest percentage of people.
The survey findings take on greater significance, in part, given that religion is a defining characteristic of living in the United States - an unusually religious nation.
About 92 percent of Americans believe in God. Over 83 percent claim affiliation to a specific Christian denomination, such as Church of God in Christ, or to a non-Christian religion, such as Buddhism. (A further 6 percent say they are religious, but have no specific affiliation.)
Different from other nations
Those percentages are substantially higher than what is found in most developed, capitalist or industrial nations. Scholars say what the survey reveals is the great diversity of American religions, as well as the diversity of thought within them.
Those figures hold true even when accounting for states like California that are less religious than the rest of the country. Californians report lower figures than the national average when it comes to belief in God (62 versus 71 percent), weekly church attendance (33 versus 39 percent), and the importance of religion in one's life (48 versus 56 percent).
Residents of Northeastern states like Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts are even less religious than Californians.
The Pew Forum, established in 2001, is a project of the Pew Research Center and works to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.
Religion scholars say America's religious diversity is in part the result of not having an official state religion, as England and Iran do with the Church of England and Islam, respectively. It's also the result, in part, of 1965 laws that broadened the pool of immigrants. And those trends have a particularly pronounced effect in the Bay Area.
The Bay Area now has numerous Sikh gurdwaras, Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. The region has an unusually high concentration of Buddhist centers, representing various ethnic traditions as well as more American hybrid practices. And there are always new religious traditions emerging here.
Those beliefs blend into a region that has an array of Jewish synagogues as well as a slew of churches that span the American religious diaspora, from evangelicals to mainline Protestants to Catholics, who account for 30 percent of Californians.
It's the norm, particularly in the Bay Area, for Americans to work with or study with those of different faiths. But several scholars who read the study - or were involved in it - said the often counterintuitive results revealed another ongoing theme in American religion: Many believers may know little about the true practices of their own faith, much less others.
So the fact that Americans largely see multiple religions leading to salvation may not reveal a trait of true understanding, but possibly naivete.
"If it's ignorance, it's not very encouraging," said Johnson, the director for Center for the Study of Global Christianity. "But if people are becoming more informed and appreciating other religions and Christian traditions, then I think it's positive. In the end, it's probably a combination of both." Flexible faiths
Americans are not dogmatic about religion. Percent from various subgroups who agree
that ... Many religions can lead to eternal life
Total affiliated 70
Evangelical churches 57
Mainline churches 83
Historically black churches 59
Orthodox Christian 72
Jehovah's Witness 16
... There is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion
Total affiliated 68
Evangelical churches 53
Mainline churches 82
Historically black churches 57
Orthodox Christian 68
Jehovah's Witness 18
Source: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life