Survey: Americans mostly unafraid, but Catholics seem a bit jumpy

Survey: Americans mostly unafraid, but Catholics seem a bit jumpy March 26, 2020

Catholics, it turns out, are the fraidy cats of American religious demographics.

This was one interesting finding of the Chapman Survey of American Fears, which was published recently on the Association of Religion Data Archives. The survey queried about a thousand people per year (2014 to 2018) about their fears — from marginal to terrifying — and has been releasing data from it periodically since.

“Catholics are more afraid in almost every scenario compared to Protestants or the religiously unaffiliated,” wrote Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University, in a report on the survey (‘Does Religion Impact What People Are Afraid Of?’). “I cannot find a single instance when Catholics are significantly less afraid of something than a ‘none’ [people unaffiliated with any religion]. And there are many instances where Catholics show a much higher level of fear than Protestants (Hell, Satan, Technology). For reasons I can’t fully explain, Catholics are a concerned bunch.”

(The chart below clearly shows how apprehensive Catholics generally are compared to Protestants and “nones.”

fear religion americans survey catholics

Whereas the study found that for some religiously devout Americans of any faith, their piety and regular churchgoing seem to have a significant calming effect on their fears, but for Catholics, Burge wrote, devotion “unequivocally” doesn’t appear to insulate them from fear at all.

“[The survey model] predicts that a Catholic who never attends Mass has a total of sixteen fears. That’s not statistically different from a Catholic who attends Mass more than once a week,” Burge explained. “However, the same is not true for Protestants. Among Protestants who never attend church, their total number of fears is no different than Catholics at just about sixteen. However, as a Protestant increases their frequency of worship attendance their total number of fears begins to decline.”

Data from the study, which queried people about 53 common fears, including the threat of nuclear war, hypodermic needles, flying, an impending economic collapse and of relevance now, pandemics.

“[The survey] also included a host of questions about religious belief, behavior and belonging that helps us understand how religion mitigates or exacerbates feelings of fear,” Burge explained.

In fact, the survey revealed, faith’s effect on fear kind of depends, as is often the case in life, on our individual psyches and on the unique factors involved in any apprehensive scenario.

One cause (or cure) of fearfulness doesn’t fit all.

Burge said the survey data cannot conclusively identify how exactly religiosity may affect a person’s sense of fear. Unsurprisingly, it’s complicated.

“But, what [the data] has made clear to me is this: two people can see the same thing happen and one can be paralyzed with anxiety, while the other can shrug their shoulders and go about their day,” Burge pointed out. “And, the data cannot tell us what people do with that feeling of uncertainty – some my lick the floor, while others may hoard toilet paper.”

Still, the data is a fascinating trove of information about Americans’ fearfulness or relative lack of it and seems to imply some potentially important truths about people — truths that must wait for another study and another day to more fulsomely analyze.

Here are some summaries of select survey data that I found particularly interesting:

  • Religiosity: The largest plurality of respondents, 39 percent, claim to be “somewhat religious,” with another 18 percent saying they are “very” religious and 19 percent “not too.” Of remaining respondents, 23.9 percent are “not at all” religious.
  • Church attendance: The largest group, 29.8 percent, said they only attend religion-related events (e.g., weddings, funeral, holidays), followed by weekly churchgoers (16.8 percent) and, close behind, the “never”-churchers (15.9 percent). Smatterings attend from once or twice a year to several times a week.
  • Bible belief: The two largest pluralities were represented by those who believe the Bible should be believed but not always “literally, word-for-word” (32 percent), and those who believe it’s just an ancient book of history and myth (30.1 percent). The Bible thumpers represent a relatively inconsequential group statistically speaking.
  • Devil belief: The largest plurality of respondents in this category, 43 percent, said they believe that the Devil/Satan exists.
  • Existence of Hell: A full 58 percent said they believe God “definitely exists,” whereas only 37.5 percent of those surveyed said they believe Hell is real.
  • Future fears: Respondents expressed moderate fear or concern about a lot of potentialities, like unemployment, natural disasters, climate change and pandemics, but they seemed especially worried about the possibility of not having enough money at some point. Nearly 33 percent said they were “very afraid” of that scenario.
  • Disaster apathy: Oddly, while respondents were concerned about a variety of potential disaster scenarios, from weather to meter strikes to virulent epidemics, they told surveyors they had done very little to prepare for any. Encouragingly, 40.7 percent said they feel guilty about their cavalier lack of planning.
  • Xenophobia: Despite the abject alarm sounded by President Donald Trump and his followers about non-white immigration ruining the nation’s purported cultural purity, three-fourths of survey respondents said they didn’t care if whites eventually became a minority in the United States.

In general, the survey indicated that Americans are pretty reasonable and unflustered by most of the actualities of life, good and bad. Respondents’ answers to questions were generally rational and level-headed, although, as I noted before, the survey revealed Catholics to be a little knee-jerk jumpier than others.

For example, as expected among reasonable people, 86 percent of the respondents claimed they aren’t at all afraid of Zombies or other demons of the mind. Seventy-seven percent aren’t even slightly concerned about ghosts, and 64 percent have zero worry about any impending apocalypse or Armageddon event, as depicted in the Bible.

But, despite everything, most Americans continue to fervently believe an invisible divinity rules the universe and orchestrates their day-to-day lives.

Who says human beings are consistent?

Graphic/Chapman University Survey

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