WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 (UPI) -- The terror attacks on Sept. 11 have brought about a dramatic rise in the number of Americans believing that religion is becoming more important, according to a new national survey released Thursday.
A November poll, conducted on a sample group of 1,500 people, showed researchers of the Princeton Survey Research Associates who were commissioned by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that the influence of faith on American life was growing, rating a 78 percent. This compares with 37 percent in March. It even exceeds the previously highest figure, which was 69 percent in 1959.
In a companion report on religion in American public life, titled "Lift Every Voice," the Pew authors wrote, "The conclusion that religion is experiencing a comeback around the country must come as a surprise to ordinary Americans who were never aware that religion had gone away.
"After all, over 90 percent of Americans have consistently reported a belief in God since the advent of scientific polling in the mid-1930s and nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) call religion very important."
The report went on, "It is not that Americans become more religious. Even the initial rise in the number of those praying and attending worship services following Sept. 11 has returned to normal levels.
"But while Americans have not fundamentally altered their personal religious practices, they have changed their perceptions about religion's importance in American life."
Like a previously released poll by the Barna research group, the Pew survey shows a remarkable stability in the religiosity of Americans.
Actually, the figure of those saying that religion was very important in their personal lives has slipped slightly from 64 percent in March to 61 percent in November; on the other hand, to 23 percent in March and 24 percent in April religion was "fairly important."
The Pew analysts stressed one important phenomenon, however: Those who had already been very religious before Sept. 11, have become even more so now.
Of the "very religious," 56 percent said in November that they were praying more. Of the "fairly religious," 35 percent, gave this answer, while only 10 percent of the "not very religious" reported a more intensive prayer life.
Overall, 44 percent of all respondents reported to be praying more, a marked drop from 59 percent immediately after the terror attacks on New York and Washington.
The other remarkable result of the new Pew survey is a drastic change in the Americans' perception of their Muslim fellow-countrymen.
In November, 59 percent had a favorable opinion of them, compared with 45 percent in March. However, "Islam remains largely unknown to most Americans, especially the older and less-educated people," the pollsters reported.
While 44 percent of those under age 30 say they know at least something about the Islamic faith, just 27 percent of those 65 and older can say the same thing.
Furthermore, 59 percent of college graduates felt that they had some knowledge of that religion.
Knowledge of Islam influences attitudes toward American Muslims positively. Of those who said they knew something about this faith, 73 percent expressed favorable views of U.S. Muslims.
Similarly, those informed about Islam are more inclined to believe that it has much in common with their own religion (48 percent), whereas of those knowing not much or nothing about it, 58 percent thought it didn't.
Nevertheless, even the respondents claiming some knowledge of Islam, 46 percent, said that it was very different from their faith.
Least inclined to concede much common ground between Islam and their faith were white evangelicals (21 percent) and African-Americans (25 percent).
One remarkable change in attitude occurred among conservative Republicans, whose acceptance of Muslim-Americans had been lower in March (35 percent) than that of people of any other political orientation.
In November, 64 percent of conservative Republicans voiced a positive opinion of Muslims, making them the most tolerant group after the liberal Democrats (68 percent).
While Muslim Americans have risen in public opinion after the terror attacks on Manhattan and Washington, Christians and Jews are still being held in the highest esteem.
Interestingly, Roman Catholics are now the most popular religious group, with a 78 percent favorable rating (March: 74 percent). They are followed by Protestants (77 percent) and Jews (75 percent).
In the "Lift Every Voice" report, the Pew authors wrote, "No self-respecting commentary on religion in America can refrain from citing Alexis de Tocqueville." After visiting the United States 170 ago this French traveler wrote: "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions ...
"I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion -- for who can search the human heart? -- but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.
"This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society."