The growing challenge of secularism, a deep concern of Pope Benedict XVI, and the contrasting religious attitudes in different countries, were evident in the findings of a recently concluded international poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs under the auspices of Associated Press.
Interviews were conducted between 13-26 May 2005 in ten countries and their results recently made available. The questions covered a wide range of topics, including religion.
The ten countries encompassed Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK), The Americas (US, Canada, Mexico), South Korea and Australia.
Approximately one thousand people in each country were questioned, with four questions pertaining to religion asked. These were:
1. Do you think religious leaders should or should not try to influence government decisions?
2. How important would you say religion is in your own life?
3. Which of the following statements comes closest to expressing what you believe about God? (Six alternatives were provided ranging from "I don't believe in God" to "I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it".)
4. Could you tell me what your religion is, if you have any?
The most striking contrast was between the religious attitudes of Americans and those of several Western European countries. It underlined how secularised many nominally Catholic European countries have become and how relatively religious the US as a whole remains.
In the case of question one, while 37 per cent of Americans agreed that religious leaders should try to influence government decisions, only 12 per cent of French and 17 per cent of Spanish respondents thought so. Other countries polled somewhere between these figures, with Australia at 22 per cent and Italy 30 per cent.
Regarding the second question, 62 per cent of Americans said that religion was "very important" in their lives, whereas only 14 per cent of the French interviewed thought so, 18 per cent of Germans and British, and 19 per cent of Spanish. The other countries' figures ranged between these, with Australia at 26 per cent and Canada at 34 per cent.
Only 14 per cent of Americans thought religion not at all important in their lives (as did Mexicans, with Italians at 19 per cent), whereas for Spain it was 52 per cent, the UK 57 per cent and France 63 per cent (despite 71 per cent of the French and 80 per cent of Spanish, describing themselves as Catholic). Germany and Australia with 46 and 45 per cent respectively, filled middle positions.
In the third question about belief in God, the results were consistent with the first two questions. Only two per cent of Americans (one per cent of Mexicans) did not believe in God at all, whereas for France and South Korea it was 19 per cent, the UK 16 per cent and Australia 11 per cent.
Many people placed themselves in variously half-believing or agnostic categories.
In the case of the US, 70 per cent had no doubts as to God's existence, with 80 per cent for Mexico and 51 per cent for Italy. On the other hand, only 22 per cent of Germans interviewed believed unequivocally in God, with 23 per cent of British, 24 per cent of French and 32 per cent of both Spanish and Australians.
Overall, when one looks at the figures for question four on religious affiliation, it is evident that, in France and Spain at least, religious attitudes bear little relation to the large percentages identifying themselves as Catholic. This is much less the case in predominantly Catholic Mexico and Italy, where the positive religious responses are relatively high.
There are further contrasts in the figures for those of "no religion". The figure for the US is nine per cent, but for Germany it is 31 per cent, for France and the UK 19 per cent, for Spain 17 per cent, while for Australia the figure is a relatively high 24 per cent.
Examining in more detail the Australian figures for each poll question in relation to categories such as male/female, age level, education, income, occupation and religious affiliation, a few contrasts become evident.
On whether religious leaders should try to influence government decisions, there was little variation across most of the categories (with an overall average of 22 per cent support).
Curiously, while 30 per cent of those aged 18-24 agreed that religious leaders should try to influence government decisions, only 17 per cent of those aged over 65 did so. More predictably, while 16 per cent of those with no religion agreed, 39 per cent of those who thought religion very important did so.
Women more religious
On the question of the importance of religion in one's life (combining "very" with "somewhat important"), the figure for women was 62 per cent compared with men at 47 per cent. Catholics at 74 per cent were slightly higher in this regard than Protestants, who totalled 65 per cent.
In the case of belief in God, women polled higher than men, with only six per cent definitely not believing, compared with 15 per cent for men. Regarding clear belief in God, women scored 38 per cent, while the men managed only 27 per cent.
Catholics polled higher than Protestants in this regard, with 42 per cent of Catholics having no doubts compared with 34 per cent for Protestants.
In light of these statistics, it is not surprising that such secularist goals as "same-sex marriage" have been carried in nominally Catholic countries like Spain, whereas there has been more resistance in the United States, where the hold of religion remains far stronger than in Western Europe.
Overall, religious leaders in the countries surveyed will need to re- evangelise their societies if they are to counter the growth of secularism.