Americans hold a hodgepodge of religious beliefs and practices. Most (82 percent) of American adults believe in God, according to a recent Harris Poll.
And large numbers believe in miracles (76 percent), heaven (75 percent), that Jesus is God or the son of God (73 percent), in angels (72 percent), the survival of the soul after death (71 percent) and that Jesus was resurrected (70 percent).
But also 42 percent believe in ghosts, 32 percent in UFOs, 26 percent in astrology, 23 percent in witches and 20 percent in reincarnation.
A recent Pew Forum poll that focused more on religious practices and experiences revealed that "large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, blending elements of diverse traditions." Many blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs.
More than a third (35 percent) of the public overall say they regularly (9 percent) or occasionally (26 percent) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24 percent) say they sometimes attend services of a faith different from their own.
Of those who attend religious services at least once a week, 39 percent say they attend at multiple places, and 28 percent go to services outside their faith.
Nearly half of Americans (49 percent) say they have had a "religious or mystical experience," twice as many as those responding in a 1962 Gallup survey (22 percent).
And 65 percent say they believe in or have experienced at least one of these supernatural phenomena: belief in reincarnation, belief in spiritual energy located in physical things, belief in yoga as a spiritual practice, belief in "the evil eye" (casting curses or evil spells), belief in astrology, having been in touch with the dead, having consulted a psychic or having experienced a ghostly encounter. Thirty-five percent of the public say they have not experienced any of these.
The polls are a further indication of a continuing trend of organized religion losing its grip, and a growing popularity of spirituality, said Tim Miller, professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.
"There has been a decline in institutional religion, but at the same time independent spiritual experiences are going up," he said. "So there is a shift from classic institutional religion into a more diverse and sometimes nebulous spiritual outlook."
A contributing factor is the tremendous explosion of communications technology that enables a vast flow of ideas, he said.
"We used to have a few institutions generally accepted as authoritative," Miller said. "Now when you look at the Internet, you have thousands of people who claim to have authoritative information, so people can read an abundance of different viewpoints.
"And people pick a little of this and a little of that and put together their own points of view. People can convince themselves of practically anything, and they fit things together for themselves."
Also, he said, it has become more acceptable to adopt unconventional beliefs.
Miller found it surprising from the Pew poll that quite a few people attend religious services in different places, even outside their faith.
"I know a couple who goes to a traditional church, but their daughter is a Hare Krishna, and they attend both services," he said.
Henry H. Knight III, Wesleyan studies professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, said the polls revealed a continuation of "large numbers of Christians who tend to reflect whatever seems acceptable in the wider culture, whether or not it is consistent with Christian beliefs or practices."
He said that in recent decades there has been a tendency for some to distinguish between being spiritual and being religious, meaning participating in organized religion.
"Yet the Pew poll shows clearly that those who regularly attend religious services are most likely to have spiritual experiences," he said. "This would, however, also include the significant minority meeting in alternative venues like house churches, some of which may not be part of regular denominations."
That so many Christians embrace Eastern or New Age beliefs further shows how much they mirror the population as a whole, Knight said.
He agrees with Miller that many Americans select their beliefs and practices "cafeteria style, without concern or awareness that they might be inconsistent."
"Evangelicals seem to be better at maintaining traditional distinctions between Christian and non-Christian beliefs, but even they are not immune from this mix-and-match spirituality," Knight said. "It certainly raises serious questions about the effectiveness of Christian teaching and formation in our churches."
But he noted that Christians who are most regular in worship attendance are least likely to embrace Eastern or New Age beliefs.
What difference this mixture of beliefs and practices makes in how people live their lives is a question the polls do not cover, he said.
"In my view," he said, "this in the end is what really matters."
FOR MORE ON THE POLLS
Go to these Web sites:
www.pewforum.org and click on "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths"
www.harrisinteractive.com, click on news, then the Harris Poll and look for "What People Do and Do Not Believe In"