Newsweek Publishes Poll on Miracles – Brief Article – Statistical Data Included

Kevin Christopher

The May 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek featured an article on miracle claims (“What Miracles Mean” by Kenneth L. Woodward) that incorporated data from a Newsweek poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Woodward touted broad belief in miracles among Americans of several religious persuasions. According to Newsweek, the poll showed that:

* 84 percent of Americans said that God performs miracles;

* 79 percent accept the accounts of miracles in the Bible as accurate;

* 72 percent said that “People who face death in accidents or natural disasters can be saved by a miracle”; and

* Two-thirds of Americans say that they have prayed for a miracle.

A few facts must be noted about this poll. Thirty-six percent of respondents identified themselves as evangelical Christians. As typical estimates place evangelicals to between roughly a quarter to a third of the US population, this group would seem slightly overrepresented. Also, this group answered “yes” to poll questions in much higher percentages than all other groups. Finally, the polling sample was small-752 adults–and allowed for an overall margin of error of +/-4 percent, and as wide a margin as +/-10 percent in the “Non-Christian” category–the group least likely to believe miracle claims. The value of this poll in gauging the American public’s beliefs is questionable, and that makes it all the more frustrating that Woodward framed the results as what adult Americans believe.

Woodward discusses miracle claims as broadly accepted phenomena, interspersing his story with touching photos of people who claim miraculous cures. He sums up: “Miracles will always withhold their meaning from doubters and the merely credulous alike. … As an old Hasidic saying puts it, ‘He who believes all these tales is a fool, but anyone who cannot believe them is a heretic.’ For believer and skeptic alike, that is the paradox inherent in any religious faith.” But stop the presses! Why is the skeptic mired in the paradoxes of religious faith? The burden of proof is on the one making the miracle claim, right?

While 84 percent of poll respondents answered “yes” when asked “Do you believe God performs miracles?” and 79 percent believe that the miracles in the Bible took place, only 48 percent responded “yes” when asked whether they have “personally ever experienced or witnessed what [they] consider to be a miracle.” Remember: this number is spiked high by the 71-percent “yes” response rate of evangelical Christians.

If anything, this poll shows that people are most likely to believe in miracles as hearsay, and far less acquainted with miracles as a personal experience. The most credulous (evangelical Christians) are likely overrepresented and the sample of the least credulous group is particularly inadequate. All of this was hardly worth the time of Newsweek–or its readers.

Kevin Christopher is CSICOP’s Public Relations Director.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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