Survey illuminates views of atheists and believers

Times Staff Writer

This has been a busy week in the faith community -- a time of national meetings, grappling with divisive issues and the release of a public opinion poll on perceptions about “radical Christianity.”

The nationwide survey by the Ventura-based Barna Group reported that 56% of atheists and agnostics believe that “radical Christianity is just as threatening in America as is radical Islam.”

The independent marketing firm, which has tracked trends relating to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984, looked at the beliefs of agnostics and atheists and compared them to believers over a two-year period.


The survey of 1,055 people indicated that atheists and agnostics tend to be younger and are more often male and single. Six percent of those 61 and older identified themselves as atheist or agnostic; 9% of those 42 to 60, 14% of those 23 to 41 and 19% of people 18 to 22 also identified themselves as atheist or agnostic.

Researchers found that people without faith are less likely to be registered to vote than believers (78% versus 89%), and less likely to help a poor or homeless person (41% versus 61%) even though they are more likely to be college graduates and make more money than believers.

About 9% of Americans identify themselves as having no faith, the survey said.

But agnostics, atheists and believers also had some things in common: Both were equally likely to consider themselves “good citizens” and “reliable and loyal” people who put their families first.

The survey also found that “no-faith” Americans typically donated $200 to charities in 2006, far less than the amount given by “active-faith” adults, who typically contributed $1,500.

“Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics,” the study said.

The findings were based on a series of nationwide telephone surveys between January 2005 and January 2007. The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.


Baptists seek repentance

Unlike its prior annual meetings that have stressed winning converts, the emphasis at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention’s session in San Antonio was a call for repentance and “evangelism with integrity.”

“Do you know why our baptisms continue to languish in a day and time when people are receptive to the Gospel, in a day and time when people can be reached and they will listen?” asked the Rev. Frank S. Page, president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. “It’s because we’ve not been right before God.”

Page, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., urged nearly 9,000 “messengers” or delegates attending the two-day meeting, which was streamed on the Internet, to seek God for transformation.

“I have seen factionalism that deeply disturbs me and I have asked Baptists across this land, ‘Though we have serious, sometimes significant differences, would you take my hand and work with me in the winning of the lost to Jesus and the winning of this world to Christ?’ ” he said. “Would you do that with me?”

Thousands inside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center responded with thunderous applause.

Church statistics indicate that baptisms in 2006 dropped nearly 2% from 2005 in the 16.3- million-member denomination. The 364,826 baptisms for the year fell short of the 1 million goal set by Page’s predecessor in 2004.


In an open letter to fellow Southern Baptists before the convention, Page urged them to join him in a “serious time of prayer for spiritual awakening, spiritual renewal and spiritual revival.”

Specifically, he asked Southern Baptists to ponder a verse from 2 Chronicles as they pray: “ ... and if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Page added, “Those we do win to Christ, seek to disciple them. Make sure their decisions were truly heartfelt and not simply transitory or shallow.... We must couple it with a serious call to discipleship,” he said.

During the convention, Page also expressed concern at the increasing secularization of society and what he called “aggressive atheism.”

Touching on a sensitive subject, leaders expressed their moral outrage about child sexual abuse and called on churches to take steps to help prevent it.

“We renounce individuals, churches or other religious bodies that cover up, ignore or otherwise contribute to or condone the abuse of children,” said the nonbinding resolution adopted at the meeting. The denomination’s executive committee was asked to report next year about the feasibility of creating a database of known sex offenders.


Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses today convene their second in a series of 12 district conventions in Long Beach.

About 140,000 delegates from Southern California and Nevada are taking part in the series, which will continue through September.

The theme for this year’s meetings is “Follow the Christ.” Sessions are in English and Spanish.

“Christ is the model to follow,” said Robert R. Avila, presiding overseer of Laguna Niguel Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Christ’s example contributes to a happy, successful family life.”

An overseer is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ equivalent of a pastor.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in one God, and that Jesus is God’s first creation, who was used by God to create everything else. They do not believe in the deity of Christ, his bodily resurrection or the Trinity.

They are politically neutral, believing their allegiance belongs to God.

The group, which claims 1 million adherents in the United States and 6.7 million worldwide, is hosting 287 conventions in 75 U.S. cities from June through September.