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.

4 Responses to “Belief in miracles climbs in the age of Oprah”

  1. Sherry Weddell says:

    Yes – in the US, even self-proclaimed “atheists” and “agnostics” believe in miracles. What’s really important is that across all religious categories, more Americans believe in miracles than believe in a God of any kind (personal or impersonal force). So we have to always remember that belief in miracles does not necessarily equate believe in a personal God who is the source of love and miracles. Huge numbers of Catholics (nearly 30%) believe in a impersonal God, not the God of the Catholic faith, and within some other faiths, the percentage is even higher. From the Force of Star Wars, the spiritual “energy” of New Age practices, huge numbers of American believe in an impersonal God or kind of universal spirit that is positive and can be the source of miracles. This often bleeds into a kind of quasi-divine view of human nature that can also be the source of miracles. Talking of miracles is a great opportunity to ask people what their experience of God has been so far in their life – have what we call “threshold conversations” which is really a kind of listening evangelization. But be prepared for alot of truly post-modern answers.

  2. Interesting that during the same period the number of people who say they don’t believe in God has grown, as has the number of people who say they adhere to no religion. What a great country!

  3. May I second what Sherry Weddell says? Belief in miracles does not predict specific religious content in the person’s worldview.

    It does require a belief that the cosmos can tolerate miracles.

    I wrote a book called PRAYING FOR OTHERS about the practices of intercessory prayer across traditions. When I was on a local NPR station about it, I expected conflict with religious conservatives.

    I was surprised that those who objected to the book – even to talking about it – were dogmatic “scientistic” skeptics. A miracle-tolerant universe is contrary to their austere religion, and Voltaire’s assertion that a “miracle is the violation of mathematical, divine, immutable, eternal laws” is part of their faith.

  4. Per Smith says:

    “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.’”

    Kevin Dougherty must mean “secularity,” and not “secularism.” The existence of diffuse and polymorphous beliefs in supernatural phenomena can occur along side the full blossoming of “secularism,” which is a political philosophy and not a way of life. If this data showed that the political sphere wasn’t secularizing, as opposed to the personal, it would be evidence of something other than secularism (as Dougherty put it). But it doesn’t. In fact some secularization proponents would argue that as long as this increase in personal spirituality is happening along with a secularization of the public sphere, we are even still marching towards “secularity.” I’m not so sure about that personally but the point is that these findings don’t contradict a good number of secularization theories. As I said, I’m not sure I agree though. Perhaps what we are seeing is a growing, heavily mediated “folk religion,” and if that is the case it’s still bad news for institutionalized religion(s).

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