(CN) — Most Americans say people or society are to blame rather than God for bad things such as the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a groundbreaking survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
In a first-of-its kind survey, Pew attempted to tackle a centuries-old question: If there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?
Researchers decided to conduct the survey of 6,485 U.S. adults between Sept. 20-26, 2021, amid the backdrop of a virus that has killed 5 million people worldwide, racial injustice issues, increased political polarization and natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes.
According to the survey, 61% of respondents say they have thought about the question of why bad things happen at least some, including 23% who said they have mulled the topic a lot.
“It would make sense that people of faith are more likely to view this sort of thing as just out of control of humanity and not sort of the fall of God,” said Frank S. Ravitch, a professor of law and Walter H. Stowers Chair of Law and Religion at Michigan State University.
But John Torpey, a sociology professor at City University of New York, was surprised by the findings.
“It's a reasonable thing, I think, to expect that people would say, ‘God has kind of let us down here. Why is there so much suffering?’” Torpey said.
The survey found that 61% believe suffering exists to allow people to come out stronger.
The survey included Americans of all religious backgrounds including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons and more, but it did not obtain enough responses from these smaller religious groups to report separately on their views.
Ravitch would have liked to see more of a breakdown between the religions.
“In some religions, so for example, Judaism, or some brands of Christianity, questioning is OK, it's not taboo,” he said in an interview. “It's OK to have doubt and then try to work through it. But in other sort of Christian denominations, it's less common to question as an article of faith.”
In a separate set of questions about various religious or spiritual beliefs, 68% said they believe everything happens for a reason.
About seven in 10 adults, 71 percent, agreed with the statement “suffering is mostly a consequence of people’s own actions,” and 69% express support for the statement “suffering is mostly a result of the way society is structured.”
Torpey said this is a contradiction. He wondered how 71% can believe that suffering is a result of one’s own actions, while roughly the same number blames society.
“The second thing about, you know, it's because of the way society’s organized would lift the spirits of socialists,” Torpey said. “If that's the way it was, we would be living in Europe, because that is the way Europeans tend to answer these questions.”
Nearly 58% of the participants said they believe in God and another 32% said they believed in some kind of higher power.
“What's interesting to me is that the number of people who don't believe in any higher power is only 10%,” Ravitch said. “I would have expected given recent surveys about Nones, people who have no religious faith in a higher power, that that number would have been a little higher, maybe 15 or 20%. But what it suggests is that among the Nones is a large group of either agnostics, who may want to see proof of something but they at some level have a spiritual belief, or perhaps people who just don't believe in organized religion.”
Of the 90% of believers, 80% say most of the suffering comes from people rather than God and 56% of the believers believe that God chooses “not to stop the suffering in the world because it is part of a larger plan.”
“Everything happens for a reason is kind of a silly idea, but people hold it,” Torpey said. “They hold that one because it does what [German sociologist Max] Weber says we're all trying to do which is to make meaning out of the chaos.”
The idea that “Satan is responsible for most of the suffering in the world” reflects the views of 44% of all U.S. adults and 48% of believers. Evangelicals and historically Black traditions are especially likely to take this position.
“Past surveys of American Catholics have shown that the blaming of the devil's not as strong as in the Evangelical communities, so yeah, I want to see the breakdown,” Ravitch said. “My guess is that a large percentage of that 48% is Evangelical, or Pentecostal, or maybe stricter mainline Protestants or stricter groups within the Catholic Church. You would not expect to see it in Judaism. You would not expect to see it in Buddhism. You would not expect to see it in Hinduism. You might expect to see it in Islam, depending on which Sunni school you're looking at.”
Relatively few Americans question their religious beliefs because human suffering exists. For example, just 14% of U.S. adults overall affirm the question “sometimes I think the suffering in the world is an indication that there is no God.”
Torpey believes the current mood of the country may contribute to some of the findings and the contradictions he finds in the results.
“I think people are kind of mixed up right now,” Torpey said. “They got rid of Trump, which they clearly wanted to do. … But then we have all these vaccines and things should be going better with the country. There's this inflation, which I’m confident is a temporary phenomenon, but different people disagree about that. So, I think there’s just bad mood for some people right now.”
The survey gave respondents multiple opportunities to express their views on why terrible things happen, both in response to an open-ended question and by reading through a list of possible explanations for suffering and indicating whether each statement describes their views very well, somewhat well, not too well or not at all well. The answers to these questions were not mutually exclusive; respondents could assent to more than one statement and many did, according to Pew.
The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.
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