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Belief in miracles climbs in the age of Oprah

These days, it may seem like a miracle that people still believe in miracles.

But even as more people appear to be turning away from organized religion, a new study finds that the number of Americans who definitely believe in religious miracles increased 22 percent in the past two decades, with 55 percent now certain of this supernatural phenomenon.

Overall, some four in five Americans believe miracles definitely or probably occur, researcher Robert Martin of Pennsylvania State University reported at the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association in Denver.

While beliefs in heaven and hell have remained steady in recent decades, the increased belief in miracles crosses all religious traditions, with the strongest gains reported by those who attend services infrequently, Martin reported.

So why this new interest in religious miracles at a time when the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has been increasing?

Think Oprah.

Spirituality rising

The increasing belief in miracles would seem to run counter to a culture undergoing rapid technological change, where science is ascendant in individual lives. At the same time, academic trends such as the growth of historical biblical criticism tend to cast added doubt on many of the accounts of miracles in the Bible.

In an article in Bibliotheca sacra on “Three Centuries of Objections to Biblical Miracles,” the Rev. Mark J. Larson recounts some of these arguments by philosophers. Voltaire, Larson noted, said that a “miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws.” David Hume called belief in miracles “a superstitious delusion.”

“The intellectual winds of the last three centuries have blown in a direction contrary to belief in miracles,” Larson concluded.

Yet the spiritual winds appear to be blowing in a different direction now.

A 2010 Pew Research Center report found 79 percent of Americans, including 78 percent ages 18 to 29, believe in miracles. In the 2003 National Study of Youth and Religion, 91 percent of respondents said they definitely or maybe believe in the possibility of divine miracles from God.

Penn State’s Martin analyzed General Social Survey data from 1991 to 2008. He found the belief in miracles is growing in recent years. Nearly 73 percent of American adults in 1991 believed that miracles definitely or probably existed, compared to 78 percent in 2008. The percentage who “definitely” believed in miracles rose from 45 percent in 1991 to 55 percent in 2008.

Service attendance is the strongest predictor of belief in miracles, and demographic groups such as women and evangelical and black Protestants retain relatively strong beliefs in the existence of miracles. But the greatest growth appears to be coming on the periphery of organized religion.

One striking finding, for example, was that marginal attenders across faith lines strengthened their belief in miracles over the past two decades.

“Evangelical, mainline, and black Protestants as well as Catholics, so long as they attended religious services once a year or more but less than once a month, all experienced a strengthening in their belief in miracles,” Martin reported.

Even among respondents with no religious affiliation, the percentages who believe in miracles increased from 32 percent in 1991 to 42 percent in 2008.

It is not being driven by any one generation, but seems to be more of a larger cultural shift, according to Martin.

Touched by angels

What is contributing to this spiritual awakening about miracles among Americans Martin says are not considered overtly “religious” by traditional standards?

One potential explanation, according to Martin, is the cultural preoccupation with miracles promoted in non-dogmatic ways by a series of popular television programs such as “Touched by an Angel” and best-selling books such as the “Left Behind” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series.

No one, Martin and other researchers point out, may have done more for this spiritual phenomenon than Oprah Winfrey, who with her extraordinarily popular television show and other ventures made accounts of the miraculous a regular part of the lives of millions of Americans.

Whatever the cause, what the evidence on miracles and other research on personal spirituality also indicates to researchers is the persistence of transcendent beliefs even as fewer Americans identify with a particular religious group.

“There’s still this profound interest in spiritual things,” Baylor University sociologist Kevin Dougherty said. “And beyond this being a cosmic force, it has relevance in individual’s lives.”

In the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, 23 percent of respondents said they witnessed a miraculous physical healing and 16 percent said they received a miraculous healing.

And in the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, three-quarters of respondents said they prayed to God to receive healing from an illness or injury; more than five in six respondents prayed for someone else’s healing.

What is most telling about this unceasing belief in miracles, Dougherty said, is that it is another indicator that “as a society, as Americans in general. (We) are not in this uniform march toward secularism.”

That trend in itself, when compared to the dramatic declines in religious practice in much of Europe, may be considered by some a small miracle.

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