Contemporary and Social Issues Podcasts

‘The Global God Divide’ – Analyzing Belief in God and Morality: An Interview with the Pew Research Center

In 2019, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey across 34 countries, spanning 6 continents, which was recently published, titled ‘The Global God Divide.’ One of the main subjects which this survey explored was people’s views on whether it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. Of the 38,426 people surveyed, a median of 45% said that it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. The study found vastly differing views on the topic across the countries surveyed. People were also asked about things such as the importance of God, religion, and prayer in their lives. In response to these questions, a median of 61% said that God plays an important role in their lives, 62% said that religion plays an important role in their lives and 53% said that prayer plays an important role in their lives. In order to learn more about the research itself, The Review of Religions spoke with Jacob Poushter who is the Associate Director of Global Attitudes Research at the Pew Research Center. Below is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation between Jacob Poushter and Sarmad Naveed from The Review of Religions Editorial Board.

Sarmad: Mr Poushter, welcome and thank you for taking the time.

Jacob: Thank you for having me today

Sarmad: So I wanted to start off by asking what was the primary motivation behind conducting this study? And what goes into conducting a study of this scale from the time that the idea comes about, to getting the actual results?

Jacob: So this survey was one that we did in 2019 as you mentioned and was across 34 countries, and a little over 38,000 people were interviewed. We conduct surveys usually on an annual basis around the world. The topics that we choose are determined by what we at the Pew Research Center find interesting and that does include other topics on geopolitics, such as the image of the United States, international views of China, views of democracy and other topics that we do on an annual basis. But we also look at questions about morality, questions about values and questions about religion around the world, and we happen to, as a part of this 2019 survey, we were able to ask a couple of questions on religion; the ones that you stated, whether God plays an important role in people’s lives, whether they see God to be necessary in order to be moral and have good values, and a couple of other questions about religious affiliations on this survey. So, to answer your question more simply, we are interested in what people around the world think about these topics. We strive to ask people about these topics on a yearly basis, and in 2019 this is one topic that we thought would be of interest to people around the world. 

Sarmad: Of course the results of this or any given survey are based on the questions that are asked. So with this survey that was conducted, what was the process of formulating questions and how did you decide which questions were going to be asked? And specifically, why ask the question relating the belief in God to morality?

Jacob: So the questions that were on this particular report, were actually questions that we’ve asked in the past. Sometimes, quite often, we ask the question about the importance of religion in people’s lives, basically on a yearly basis to see how people integrate religion into their lives, and how that affects other questions that we ask on this survey. But the question about the belief in God and tying that to morality is actually a question we have asked multiple times over the years and was first asked on a global survey in 2002. The initial, actual question was sort of part of our globalization analysis. We wanted to see how countries around the world differ in what they think about different issues. And on the question of morality and tying it to religion, we did find quite big divides around the world both in 2002 and in 2019 between countries of different sorts of economic development. That is sort of one of the major findings that we put out in this report: that there is a lot of variety in the world on whether people see morality as tied to values. And we do think that this plays a part in the story of globalization around the world, and how people change as their economic outcomes in the individual countries change over time. 

Sarmad: And you mentioned this and touched on it a little bit, but I wanted to ask that in this study that was published, obviously the statistics gathered from various countries are compared with other countries. So what were the reasons for comparing statistics specifically between advanced and emerging or developing economies? And is there a reason why maybe, underdeveloped countries weren’t specifically included in the comparison?

Jacob: So each year when we pick the countries that we are going to survey, there are a lot of things that go on to factor the decision whether we are going to include them in our survey. One is just resources, these public opinion surveys of nationally representative samples, and these countries are quite resource-intensive, let’s say. So, we can only sample a number of countries depending on what type of resources we have. So that’s one limiting factor. We also try to survey in countries that sort of have large populations and relatively large economies and countries where we have surveyed in the past. So, I believe most of the countries we surveyed in 2019 for example, we had also surveyed in previous years, so that’s a big part of the country selection. When it comes to sort of underdeveloped countries, mostly and probably in sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, and South Asia, again, we try to pick countries with relatively large economies, populations and we are limited somewhat in where we can survey in some of the more developing countries. Sometimes it’s a matter of whether there are survey research firms within those countries that we can partner with to do the work. Sometimes it’s a question of whether governments will allow us to ask some of the questions that we have in those countries. So there’s a variety of reasons why we don’t always survey in some of the more underdeveloped countries. But we really do try to be as comprehensive in terms of our country selection. And then to answer your first question, once we do have all those countries, we do see pretty big differences between attitudes in advanced economies and those in developing economies. And so we use that framework to sort of explain why these differences occur. And we do see a very strong connection between the GDP per capita of these countries and whether people say that belief in God is necessary in order to be moral. In other words, as countries are higher on the GDP per capita scale, they are less likely to say that it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral. And those countries that have sort of relatively lower GDP per capita are more likely to say it’s necessary to believe in God and have good values. So there does seem to be an economic connection here and that’s why parts of the research talk about the difference between advanced and developing and emerging economies. 

Sarmad: I see, now as it was mentioned, just a bit over 38,000 people were surveyed and the results of this survey are based upon their responses. But, what was the total number of people who you actually initially contacted and then ended up with this number, just over 38,000 people? And how did you find people’s willingness to respond or speak on this subject because you know for some people this can be a very personal matter, a very sensitive matter. So, did you find that people very generally open and willing or initially reserved and sort of reluctant to speak on the subject?

Jacob: People are generally pretty open and willing to talk to us on a variety of topics, once we sort of make that first initiation of talking with them. The surveys that we conduct are basically done in two ways. They’re either done with face-to-face interviews, so interviewers actually go to people’s homes and talk with them for anywhere up to 45 minutes on the topics that we set out to ask them about, which again you know this is one of them on morality and values but also comes to questions of Geopolitics and questions of views of democracy etc. So the face-to-face interviews, generally those have a response rate between a quarter and two-thirds of people who we contact are willing to talk to us, it’s relatively higher for face-to-face interviewing. On telephone interviews, it varies by country, but it can be as low as a 5% response rate for telephone surveys because people are much less likely to pick up the phone and talk with interviewers than they are if someone were to knock on your door and wanted to talk to you about these issues. But, generally from the notes that I have from our vendors, there wasn’t really a lot of reluctance to talk about these issues. Not many people refused to talk about these things and they seemed pretty open to talking about what religion means to them in their lives and how important prayer is, and whether God and morality can be sort of tied together. So overall, that’s not always the case; there are some questions they get a little – some more pushback, those tend to be more on international relations topics. But when it comes to topics that talk about how people feel about values in their own lives, we generally get pretty good responses to that in our surveys. 

Sarmad: That’s really interesting. And I also wanted to ask, do you have statistics on which religions those who were surveyed actually belonged to, whether or not they were practising or non-practising of any given faith or no faith at all?

Jacob: Yes, so we actually do, I don’t have it in front of me the exact percentages in each country which said they were part of a religion. But we do ask again in every survey what people identify as in terms of religious affiliations. So, it obviously depends on the country we are talking about. If we are talking about the U.S., it’s mostly people who are Christian or unaffiliated, in other words, people who say they are Atheists, Agnostic or have no religion in particular. In Europe it’s sort of similar; most people are either Christian or unaffiliated. In a place like Nigeria for example, it’s about half Muslim and half Christian. And it sort of depends on what countries we are talking about. Other countries like Indonesia, it’s almost 100% that say they are Muslim, or the Philippines where almost 100% say they are Christian. So yes, we do have those data points and we do find that generally there are differences on the basic question on whether it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral by religious affiliation. In general, those countries that have high levels of religiosity, like Indonesia, like South Africa, like India, are more likely to say that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral, regardless of religious affiliation. But in some of the more advanced economies, it tends to be those who have a religious affiliation, which is usually Christian, are more likely to say that it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values and those who are unaffiliated than those who say they are Atheists or Agnostics. So there are really some differences when it comes to religious affiliations on these questions which makes sense when you think about it overall.

Sarmad: But is it that when you approach, for example, respondents, that you’re approaching them trying to have an equal number of respondents from any given religion, or is it just after you’ve approached someone at random, that you find out that this is their religion or this is their religious affiliation?

Jacob: Right, we don’t really pre-screen for religion. The only country where it actually really does matter to get the right amounts of people is sort of Nigeria because it’s so equally split between Christians and Muslims and they have differences of opinions on a lot of issues. Most of the other countries, because we’re doing nationally representative surveys, to begin with, we get a good mix of religions based on what we already know about those countries. So the religious affiliation question is asked at the end of the survey because it is something that does factor into how people think about various things that we ask about so we want to know about it, but we don’t screen people based on their religion. I mean you can do that but because we look for nationally representative samples, the religious affiliations that we get tend to be in line with what we know about the overall religious affiliation of the country, but it does vary depending on how many people we sampled and other factors.

Sarmad: Do you think that perhaps, if pre-screening was done and the survey was based upon an equal number of people being surveyed across varying religions or non-religious beliefs, do you think that the statistics could possibly change in that scenario?

Jacob: Well, whenever you screen people into categories before you do a survey, you will probably get different results. Our view is that nationally representative samples that sort of mirror the demographics of the countries, on sort of basic demographics of gender, education, income, age, those kinds of things, are the best way to get a truly nationally representative survey, and then from there you can go on and sort of dig down with crosstabs. Basically, you can run one question by another and sort of see how it comes out, based on those other variables that you ask about, such as religion, such as belief in God in order to be moral. So, if you do set out to sample equal groups, you will get different results than sort of a nationally representative survey, but we’ve always been under the view that the nationally representative survey is the best way to sort of build these things and then from there you can go on and talk about the sub-groups.

Sarmad: Ok. Now coming to this specific study that’s been mentioned, one of the primary themes is the relationship between the belief in God and morality. Now when it comes to the actual concept of morality, the understanding can be very wide-ranging and in some cases subjective. So what did the research define as morality when the question was being posed to others.

Jacob: So our view is that these concepts are up to the respondent to determine what morality means. Now we do go through a pretty intense translation process for our surveys, to try to make sure that the source English, we come up with the questions in English and then we try to translate it to the various languages where we survey. I believe in this 2019 survey was over 80 languages that the survey was translated into. So we try to make sure that those translations are at least equivalent across the languages in which we survey. But that can be a little difficult too because individual perceptions of what morality mean could differ based on language, could differ based on education, could differ based on upbringing, on religious affiliation, but we do our best to try to make sure that we follow those guidelines to make the translations as equal as possible, but in the end, it is up to the respondent, it’s up to the person we ask to sort of determine what this question means to them. We don’t want to push them in any particular way, we want them to answer not knowing the question beforehand and not thinking that they have to respond in a way as what the interviewer wants or what they think other people would want them to answer; we want them to answer as true as possible to what they think, and that’s often just their own personal views, their own personal interpretation of the question, and that’s alright.

Sarmad: So, actually my next question is also sort of similar because you know when we’re talking about the role of God and the role of prayer in people’s lives. Sort of the same thing, how did the research define God and prayer because some people may believe in, for example, a supreme being or a higher power, positive energy or some people may believe in one God or believe in many gods, so that definition can vary. And similarly, with prayer, it can take various forms, such as communal prayer or it can be as simple as saying a prayer before eating or going to sleep. So, was that defined in any way by the research when posing the question? And how is it ensured then that the respondents understood these terms in the same manner as they were being asked?

Jacob: Right, so I mean there are some variations between countries on how we define God. For example in Japan, the concept of God does not translate very well, and so there is a bit more generic version of it for that country, but in most of the other countries, we were able to define God as something. And when it comes to prayer, we’re very specific on what we mean, so we can ask a question, for example, on whether prayer is an important part of your daily life, and when we say prayer there it’s a sort of generic version of prayer, it’s not specific to any type of prayer, so people can again interpret it in the way that they think is most relevant to what they believe and what they say. But we also have prayer questions that when we really want to dig down into how often people pray and what type of prayer they’re engaged in, we can do a little more digging. So in Muslim countries, we often ask the question on whether people pray five times a day or more, or less, or once a week or whatever. In some of the other countries that we survey, we ask about prayer on a daily basis, but we also ask about religious attendance, do you go to services outside of sort of like major events like weddings and funerals. So there are variations across the countries but we do try to keep as steady as possible, but we do know that there are individual variations within some of the countries in terms of how these concepts are translated and that’s done in concert with the local vendors that we work with. We have people on the ground in every single one of these countries who knows the language, knows the culture and can sort of guide us in a way to make those questions as equivalent as possible across cultures. But in the end, there are going to be some differences, even if you translate something exactly the same into 80 different languages because of the differences in culture and the differences in religiosity within those countries.

Sarmad: So you sort of touched on it going back to the question on defining what God means – that it can vary based on the area and the country in which the question is being asked. Could you elaborate on that a bit more, maybe with some examples of how that does vary and what those different definitions are?

Jacob: In the most part it tries to, again, I mentioned Japan as an example that’s a little different, but in most countries, the concept of God does equate across countries and we can use it in those countries. I don’t have individual examples because I’m not versed in all the languages that we survey in so I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was said, but we do have that information if you’d like to share it with your readers where we could say exactly how this was translated in each of the countries that we survey, but I don’t have an overall assessment of how they varied by country because I just don’t have the language skills, let’s say, to understand how that is. But we do have what we call a translation vendor which does help us sort of determine whether the concepts that we come up with are similar across time and I will also say too, that the main question on whether it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values, was developed in 2002 and we really haven’t changed the translation for most of the countries over the years because we try to be consistent, not just across the countries, but also every year in which we survey, so that when we see changes over time, we can be assured that the changes didn’t happen because of the change in translation, but they happened because there was actually change in the sentiment of these countries.

Sarmad: I see, that makes sense. As you mentioned, having these conversations and these questions asked in so many different countries around the world, there’s so much data, so many statistics and it really is an interesting study and there’s so much that can be spoken of, but just to end off here, I wanted to ask you which of the results actually stood out to you the most and was there anything that surprised you?

Jacob: Well I think the variation between countries on whether it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral is quite astounding. When you think about 96% of Filipinos and 96% of Indonesians say that it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, compared to only 9% of Swedes, a country that’s fairly not religious. So the differences between countries on that one question are really quite fascinating to see how pervasive they are and over time they haven’t really changed much, so you know it was the case 5 years ago when we asked this last that those in the Philippines and Indonesia were more likely to say it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, compared to those in Sweden and Netherlands, Australia. So, those differences, those global divides on morality and religion are still around and I think it’s important to note how different, different countries think about this fundamental question, and it’s not the only question where we see divisions like this, but we rarely see divisions on the spectrum of responses that are from so high to so low across the countries that we survey.

Sarmad: It really is interesting as you mentioned and this study was indeed very thought-provoking. Mr Pousher, again I wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, Assalamo Alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu!

Readers can click on the links to access the full report by Pew Research Center about ‘The Global God Divide’.