Originally created 08/01/98

South's still a bastion of religion



The South remains a religious bastion where nearly everyone believes in God and one in two people think prayer heals, according to a University of North Carolina poll.

The poll showed Southerners are more religious than people who live outside the South.

"In the South, religion is upper case," said Samuel S. Hill, a professor of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion in the South. "It's God, capital G, Christ, capital C, and Prayer, capital P."

The poll was conducted this spring by the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina's main campus in Chapel Hill.

By the numbers

Based on telephone interviews with 844 adults in 12 Southern states and 413 adults in the rest of the United States, the poll had an error margin of 4 percentage points for the Southerners surveyed and 5 percentage points for those questioned outside the region.

The poll results show 88 percent of Southerners believe in God, compared with 78 percent of non-Southerners. Ninety percent of Southerners believe in answered prayers, compared with 80 percent of non-Southerners, according to the survey. And it showed that 46 percent of Southerners believe they have been healed by prayer, compared to 28 percent of non-Southerners.

While Southerners differed from people outside the region in the intensity of their religious convictions, Southerners and non-Southerners shared common convictions on other issues raised in the poll. Most do not believe in ghosts or think stars can chart their future, and a majority in both groups rejected the notion of reincarnation.

People who move to the South become more religious, said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at UNC whose survey of religious identity will be published in September. He found that people who moved to the South have the second-highest level of religiosity, after native Southerners.

"There must be something about the South as a cultural environment that encourages higher levels of religiosity," Dr. Smith said.

Strength of family

The Rev. Coy Hinton, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Augusta, said that in the South there are a lot of very active churches and families remain strong.

"(But) I'm not sure that explains the phenomenon," said the Rev. Hinton, who has lived his whole life in the South.

Although the Southern states are not the most churched -- Utah is -- Dr. Marty Baker, pastor of Stevens Creek Community Church, pointed to three reasons he thinks the South is more religious: poverty, simplicity of life and the gravitational pull between black families and church.

He was one of nine children in a mill town family.

When life is really hard, people turn to God. "(The family was) poor, but they honored and revered God and looked forward to a better place in heaven," he said.Simplicity causes people to hunger for God. It is through simplicity that people experience God's power and presence, he said. "It goes along with the hospitality, openness and friendliness (of the South)."

The black culture is more churched than the white, he said. If a black wants to be a leader in society, the person has to be a leader at church first, he said.