Religious and Non-Religious People: A Survey of their Dreams

People who are not Christian and not religiously observant report higher dream recall and a higher frequency of most typical dreams. That’s one of the initial findings from a study I’m doing on the demographics of dreaming, based on survey results from 2992 American adults.  Most religious traditions regard dreams as spiritually significant.  But the people who are most engaged with their dreams in present-day America tend to be those who are not affiliated with mainstream Christianity and who rarely or never attend worship services.

Compared to Protestant and Catholic Christians, people who answered “Other/None” to the question of their religious affiliation reported the highest frequency of dreams of chasing, sexuality, falling, flying, and being able to control their dreams.  Similarly, people who never attend religious worship services have higher dream recall and higher frequencies of many types of dreams as compared to people who attend worship services once a week or more.  These findings are consistent with the results presented in chapter 3 of my 2008 book American Dreamers:

“Non-religious people report more of every type of dream, especially sexual dreams.” (91)

That finding came from a survey in 2007 of 705 American adults.  The appearance of the same pattern in the 2010 survey suggests the correlation may be worth pursuing for the new light it can shed on the psychology of religion.

The new survey has the advantage of including narrative dream reports from many of the participants.  I’m just beginning to sift through this data using word searches and other methods of analysis.

Here are a couple of short nightmares from the “Other/None” people who never attend worship services:

“I often have nightmares about spaceships, or unknown forces coming across a horizon, often with a sense of impending doom. The anticipation of death lasts and lasts and lasts…eventually i wake up.”

“I was being chased by a huge blob monster that looked like purple jello. I shot it with a rifle, but it broke up into several monsters. I ran into a house that looked like a Disney castle, and it swallowed the house.”

Here are two from Born-again Christians:

“I was falling in a fast freefall with no end in sight and as I went further I know I was trying to scream but only a low gutteral sound was coming out. I heard myself make that noise and sat up sweating and scared.”

“I was chased and attacked by demons. I tried to “rebuke” them in the name of Christ, as I’ve heard you should do in real life if ever confronted by demons, but they just kept coming toward me. They were hitting me, throwing me around and otherwise tormenting me. I woke up in a cold sweat; only time I can remember that happening. I was a teenager at the time, but I was so freaked out, I woke up my mother. She came and slept in my bed the rest of the night.”

6 Replies to “Religious and Non-Religious People: A Survey of their Dreams”

  1. Kelly, does this research reflect on dreams withing Jewish and Muslim communities? Dreams and dreamwork are important aspects of Islam, and historically Judaism, especially in Kabbalistic circles. In light of this, I’m curious to know how Jews and Muslims compare to Christians and “Spiritual but not religious” types or “others” in terms of how well they remember their dreams.

    1. The survey didn’t gather quite that much detail. There were 131 Jewish participants, 49 female and 82 male, which is enough to warrant further study. Everyone else, whether Muslim, Hindu, or atheist, was lumped into the “other/none” category on this question. However, people’s answers to other questions about religion–how often they attend worship services, whether they consider themselves more spiritual than religious”–allow different angles on this general topic. I’ll take a look at the patterns for the Jewish participants and post the results later this week.

  2. Very interesting research. I am really puzzled on what it’s implications are…Hmm, maybe, religious people suppress their subconscious more? Or don’t need to dream a lot, because they are already daydreaming a lot by talking to imaginary friends?

    1. Those are two good possibilities. In the 2007/2008 study I sided with the former: the close connection between religious piety and political conservatism suggested that dreams would not be of much interest to people who are highly committed to traditional belief systems. Your latter explanation is more speculative but may have merit. At the extremes, you have mystics like Ramakrishna for whom dreaming diminishes in importance because their waking visions are so all-consuming. For ordinary American Christians, maybe prayer serves some kind of dreaming function?

  3. The answer is not that dreams are not as interesting to religious people due to conservative views, it’s that their conservative views keep them in a more balanced state of mind. Dreams are often a sign of emotional problems. If someone is supported by strong beliefs and their families or communities they are less likely to have emotional issues.

    1. Your comment reminds me of a key idea from one of my graduate school mentors, Peter Homans. In studying Freud, Jung, and the origins of modern psychology, Homans said that people who were comfortable in the common culture (e.g., their family, community, social norms) usually did not seek out psychological insights. On the other hand, people who feel marginal in the common culture tend to be more open to psychological perspectives. Homans said there is a tension between the common culture and analytic access, which may account for why people who are religiously/politically conservative tend not to be interested in dreams, while progressives and liberals take more notice of dreams. Having said that, I would not endorse the idea that “dreams are often a sign of emotional problems.” People with emotional problems may express them in their dreams, but dreams themselves are not necessarily symptomatic or pathological.

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