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Poll Reveals Religion is Integral Part of Virginians’ Lives

A Roanoke College Poll conducted by The Institute for Policy and Opinion Research has found that religion is an integral part of the lives of most Virginians. Daily prayer, frequent attendance at services, and reading scripture or holy books is common for Virginia residents. In addition, clergy are regarded highly in comparison to some other professions.

 The poll includes interviews with 600 Virginia residents between October 3 and October 15, 2011. The poll has a margin of error of +4 percent. The survey asked residents of the Old Dominion about their beliefs, practices, and views of the afterlife.

Basic Religious Beliefs

An overwhelming majority of Virginians (94%) believe in God, and 72% of the believers see God as a person with whom people can have a relationship. A large majority of respondents are Protestant (68%) or Roman Catholic (13%). More than 90 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Christian. The largest Protestant denominations are Baptist (42%) and Methodist (17%). More than half (57%) of the Christians are “born again” or evangelical.

The percentages of the religions in which respondents were raised when they were children track very closely with their current faiths in overall numbers, but there is some fluidity in affiliation as 24 percent report that they practiced another religion between childhood and the present day. More than two-thirds (69%) are official members of a church or house of worship.

Most respondents (58%) would like to see their religion preserve its traditional beliefs and practices while 22 percent prefer that their religion adopt modern beliefs and practices.

Religious Practices

A majority of Virginians (70%) believe that their holy book (Bible for Christians, Torah for Jews, Koran for Muslims, etc.) is the Word of God, and nearly half of those (48%) believe it should be taken literally word for word. More than half of the respondents attend services daily (6%) or weekly (49%), and even higher numbers pray daily (80%) or weekly (11%). More than half of those who pray believe they receive a definite answer to a specific prayer request regularly (37% daily; 20% weekly). More than half (57%) read Scripture or a holy book at least weekly, and a third (34%) have at least weekly religious discussions with non-believers or people from other religious backgrounds. Not surprisingly, then, 71 percent of respondents say that religion is very important in their life and half (50%) say that their faith provides meaning for their life all of the time (31% say most of the time).

With regard to guidance in life, 23 percent of respondents say their religious beliefs are most influential in matters of government and public affairs, and 41 percent say religion is the most important factor in determining questions of right and wrong. When asked to recall the most difficult time in their life, more than two-thirds of Virginians (70%) say that the experience strengthened their faith and 61 percent say their faith helped them a great deal during that time.

Clergy are very well-respected, with 55 percent of those interviewed rating their honesty and ethical standards as high, compared to military officers (54%), teachers (48%), doctors (46%), and elected officials (7%). Only 22 percent say that scandals involving clergy over the past several years have weakened their trust in organized religion; for most (66%) such scandals made no difference.

Most respondents think that miracles still occur (83%) and that angels and demons are active in the world (75%). Three-fourths (75%) think that there are clear and absolute standards for right and wrong. One-third (33%) thinks that natural disasters are a warning from God to repent and change practices; fewer (17%) view the attacks of September 11, 2001 in that way. Two-thirds (68%) disagree with the statement that religion causes more problems in the society than it solves.

Just less than half (42%) have experienced or witnessed divine healing.  Two-thirds (66%) have experienced or witnessed religious intolerance. Believers tend to see a conflict between being a devout religious person and living in a modern society (52%), while 22% of non-believers see a conflict between themselves and living in a society in which most people are religious.

The Afterlife 

A strong majority of Virginia residents (80%) believe in life after death.  Even more (87%) believe in heaven, and nearly as many (79%) believe in hell. Most say that these beliefs have a strong effect on how they live their life (67% regarding belief in heaven; 60% regarding belief in hell). Less than half (41%) think it is possible to have contact with others after they have died, and just less than half (48%) think there will be pets in heaven.

While most Virginians (79%) think it is possible to lead a good life even if you do not believe in God, only 29 percent think one can go to heaven if they do not believe in God. Among Christians, just one-third (32%) think a person can go to heaven if they do not believe that Jesus is the Savior. Respondents generally say that life is more difficult (39%), rather than easier (18%), for those who do not believe in God.

Comparisons with National Data

Several questions in the poll were asked in 2007 in a national survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Religious Landscape Study. In general, the Virginia sample was more likely to be Christian and born again/evangelical (57% born again in the Virginia sample; 44% in the Pew sample). For many of the comparable questions, then, Virginians are about 15 percent higher on the “more religious” response. This is true both for beliefs and practices. For a few questions (read Scripture at least weekly, have prayers answered, and belief in hell) those differences were even greater.


“America’s version of Jeffersonian “Christendom” seems to be alive and well in Virginia,” said Dr. Paul Hinlicky, Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College. “Official non-establishment has led to the flourishing of a version of Christianity which stresses inwardness and otherworldliness.”

“Non-Christian Americans behave in much the same ways that Christian Americans behave in terms of daily or weekly religious practices and in terms of foundational beliefs about God and about death, etc.,” Dr. Eric Rothgery, an assistant professor in the religion and philosophy department at Roanoke College. “Religious Americans have much more in common than most suspect, and there is tremendous room for common ground if members of religious communities would take the time to learn about one another’s traditions and get to know one another. As in other polls the representation of non-Christians, especially Muslims, is lower than expected. This is an artifact of polling that is common across many such surveys.”

A copy of the questionnaire and all frequencies may be found at:

For additional information, contact Dr. Wilson directly or contact the Public Relations Office at (540) 375-2282.

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