June 22, 2010

Public Sees a Future Full of Promise and Peril

Section 3: War, Terrorism and Global Trends

The public sees the next 40 years as a time of violent conflict, both globally and in the United States. Fully 58% see another world war as definite or probable over the next 40 years. Nearly as many (53%) expect the United States to face a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons.

Opinions about America’s future role in the world are mixed: 53% say the United States will be less important in the world than it is today while 40% say it will be more important. At the same time, 49% say China will definitely or probably not overtake the United States as the world’s main superpower, while 46% say it will.

Notably, opinions about the U.S. role in the world – and whether China will overtake the United States as the main superpower – are associated with optimism about the nation’s future. An overwhelming majority (81%) among those who predict the U.S. will be more important in the future are optimistic about the future of the United States. But among those who say the nation will be less important in the future, just 46% express optimism.

On a very different subject, the public is divided over whether Jesus Christ will return to earth by 2050. About four-in-ten (41%) expect Jesus Christ to return while slightly more (46%) say this will definitely or probably not happen. Opinions about the return of Jesus Christ are little changed from 1999 when 44% said it would definitely or probably happen.

Most Americans do not expect the adoption of a single global currency in the next 40 years. And while the survey finds that the public sees many potential dangers looming in the decades ahead, there is not widespread concern about the possibility that an asteroid will collide with earth. Fewer than one-third (31%) say an asteroid will definitely or probably hit earth, which is unchanged from 1999.

Apocalypse Soon?

The expectation that there will be another world war by 2050 is more common among younger and less educated Americans than among those in other groups. Fully 68% of those younger than 30 predict another world war; that compares with 56% of those ages 30 and older. And while 69% of those with no more than a high school education say another world war is at least probable, that view is shared by just 48% of those with a college education.

At the same time, young people are a bit less likely than older Americans to predict that the United States will face a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons. Those under 30 are the only age group in which fewer than half (46%) say such an attack is at least probable. As with expectations about another world war, those with a high school education or less are more likely than college graduates to predict a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States (57% vs. 46%).

Jesus Christ’s Return

As expected, predictions about whether Jesus Christ will return to earth in the next 40 years divide along religious lines. Fully 58% of white evangelical Christians say Jesus Christ will definitely or probably return to earth in this period, by far the highest percentage in any religious group. Only about a third of Catholics (32%), and even fewer white mainline Protestants (27%) and the religiously unaffiliated (20%) predict Jesus Christ’s return to earth.

In addition, those with no college experience (59%) are much more likely than those with some college experience (35%) and college graduates (19%) to expect Jesus Christ’s return. By region, those in the South (52%) are the most likely to predict a Second Coming by 2050.

On a related subject, 65% of Americans say that religion in the United States will be about as important as it is now in 40 years; 30% say religion will become less important. Majorities across all religious groups, including the unaffiliated, see religion continuing to be about as important as it is now in the coming decades.