New Poll Shows That 1 in 3 Young Jewish Americans Are Not Religious

A new survey on Jewish Americans released just now by the Pew Research Center shows what we’ve come to expect from these reports: They are becoming less religious overall, with Millennial Jews even less religious than their older counterparts:

A Pew Research reanalysis of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey suggests that at that time, 93% of Jews in that study were Jews by religion and 7% were Jews of no religion (after some adjustments to make the NJPS and Pew Research categories as similar as possible). In the new Pew Research survey, 78% of Jews are Jews by religion, and fully 22% are Jews of no religion (including 6% who are atheist, 4% who are agnostic and 12% whose religion is “nothing in particular”). Though the two studies employed different question wording and methodologies and are thus not directly comparable, the magnitude of these differences suggests that Jews of no religion have grown as a share of the Jewish population and the overall U.S. public. The new Pew Research survey finds that approximately 0.5% of U.S. adults — about 1.2 million people — are Jews of no religion.

Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times highlights this change in her report and brings up another relevant point: Non-religious Jews aren’t passing down their religious traditions to their children, meaning the trend is likely to continue:

… the percentage of “Jews of no religion” has grown with each successive generation, peaking with the millennials (those born after 1980), of whom 32 percent say they have no religion.

“It’s very stark,” Alan Cooperman, deputy director of the Pew religion project, said in an interview. “Older Jews are Jews by religion. Younger Jews are Jews of no religion.”

But Jews without religion tend not to raise their children Jewish, so this secular trend has serious consequences for what Jewish leaders call “Jewish continuity.” Of the “Jews of no religion” who have children at home, two-thirds are not raising their children Jewish in any way. This is in contrast to the “Jews with religion,” of whom 93 percent said they are raising their children to have a Jewish identity.

What we’re seeing more than anything else is a rise in secular Judaism as opposed to religious Judaism. It’s the non-religious traditions that are being passed down to the next generation, if that.

The report also shows a rise in Jews who marry non-Jews, another sign that religious faith is taking a backseat to other qualities.

The strangest finding, though, may be just how many Jewish people believe that you can be a Jew while believing that Jesus was the Messiah…

I would jokingly say 34% of Jews didn’t go to Hebrew school… but I don’t think that’s a joke.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/ Q. Quine

    For family reasons, I had to allow my step-kids (millennials) to be raised Jewish. Fortunately, I was also allowed to raise them to think. I can’t know if that is why, but the religious part did not stick.

  • ShoeUnited

    There are Christian Jews, 22% is closer to 1 in 5 or 1 in 4 (depending on how you feel like rounding), and has anybody noticed that there’s a higher trend among Jews to be atheist/agnostic than other religious cultures? Might be my own mind shading things, but it seems to come up a lot. I wonder if it’s just the way ultra orthodox is or the way more liberal teachings are. I don’t know enough about Judaism to judge.

  • Colin Rosenthal

    “What we’re seeing more than anything else is a rise in secular
    Judaism as opposed to religious Judaism. It’s the non-religious
    traditions that are being passed down to the next generation, if that.”

    That depends on various assumptions, doesn’t it? Mainly as to whether the children of secular Jews self-identify as Jews. That secular Jews bring their children up secular while religious Jews bring their children up religious doesn’t strike me as a radically novel observation. There will always be a generational flow from religious-to-secular and a smaller backflow from secular to religious – smaller because (among other things) only those with Jewish mothers will be allowed back in. Presumably, in equilibrium, this will be stabilised by the positive correlation between religiosity and birthrate. I think I feel a bout of mathematical modelling coming on ….

    The question of xtian/messianic Jews is an interesting one. Most Jews, I think, feel that a Jew who rejects Judaism (e.g. an atheist or agnostic) is still a Jew, but that a Jew who embraces a different (and historically antagonistic) religion has so far removed themselves from the Jews as a people that their self-identity as a Jew is disingenuous. However the survey suggests that in the USA, at least, there is a significant minority who disagree.

  • Keyra

    I’m beginning to wonder if PEW is rigged by New Atheists

    • Bitter Lizard

      You are a stupid fucking idiot.

    • ShoeUnited

      There those words again. “New Atheists”

      New Atheists same as the old. Except we don’t obfuscate our language when we’re telling you you’re saying something stupid, stupid.

    • Matt D

      Is there any end to your lies, Keyra, or is it just a habit for you at this point?

  • AxeGrrl

    Based on the recent spate of seemingly Glee-inspired Bar Mitzvahs-gone-viral, this sorta kinda doesn’t seem terribly surprising :)

  • keddaw

    Can we please have two separate words for religious Jew (i.e. someone who has gone through all the religious rituals and identifies as religiously Jewish) and someone who has a (maternal) relative who is Jewish?

    The idiotic conflation of genetic identity and religion leads to people being critical of any aspect of Israeli policy being labelled anti-Semitic and non-religious people being afforded protection they don’t deserve(!?!) under law through various laws designed to protect people based on their beliefs*.

    * Which shows how stupid hate crime legislation is, but that’s another story.

    • Anna

      It’s also fairly bizarre to kowtow to the religious labeling system. If your mother is Jewish, they count you as Jewish, but if your father is Jewish, they do not. The genetics are the same in both instances. Yet mainstream culture seems more than willing to agree with them that the sex of the parent is important.

      • allein

        I’ve always wondered about that…Does it have to do with the fact that a mother can know that she is, in fact, the mother, but there’s always the slight chance the father isn’t really the father?

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          It builds off the fact that for many hundreds of years, rape in Jewish communities was really common (by non-Jews). So in order to keep those kids born of rape as part of the community, the rabbis decreed that lineage was matriarchal, instead of patriarchal as it had been before (and still is in the other Abrahamic religions).

          • allein

            Ah, ok. Thanks.

    • ally

      As someone who was raised by Jewish parents but is now atheist I absolutely agree. I am sick of people insisting that I am still Jewish despite wanting nothing more to do with Judaism.

    • guest

      Jewite? Jewly? Jewligious? Jewborn? Jewman? maJew? Jew-believer? Jewperstitious? relijewous? Jewnetic? Jewmaji?

  • Dorothy

    i’m surprised the numbers are so low. there’s a large jewish population in my city, but it’s almost entirely ‘cultural’ jews. no big deal.

  • Jen

    This is the one that actually worries me a little bit. The great majority of Jews that I know (including the ones who populate half of my family) observe very little beyond the most important holidays, are not strictly Kosher (I avoid sea critters better than they do) and don’t have any problem using electricity on Friday night/Saturdays. HOWEVER, there is a rather specific Jewish cultural identity apart from the religious aspect and losing that is problematic. Losing that would diminish cultural diversity in this country, which is the last thing we need. Because there is already the historical experience of trying to wipe out Jews, politicians in this country seem to have an innate sense not to f@#K with them. I actually think Jews have a better chance of stopping the ‘runaway train’ of fundie christianity than we atheists do.

    • Atheist for human rights

      I stopped being a cultural Jew because I don’t want to be associated with an apartheid state (I.e. Israel)

      • Gus

        Hoo boy, now you’ve gone and done it. But I’m with you on that, FWIW.

    • Atheist for human rights

      I’m against all kinds of tribalism not just religious tribalism but cultural tribalism as well.

    • Anna

      Is there any value in aligning oneself with a religion merely because of culture? What of Jews who don’t believe the religion and don’t have any interest in the rituals or holidays? Politically, it’s useful to have people identifying as Jews simply because they (sometimes) stand up against encroachment of Christianity in government, but there shouldn’t be Christianity in government to begin with. And some Jews are willing to give a pass to “nonsectarian” religion in the public square.

      I guess I’m not convinced of the value of keeping a Jewish identity alive if no one believes the religion it’s based on is true or important, simply for diversity’s sake. To the extent that being Jewish is a cultural identity, it doesn’t seem sustainable in the long-term unless the people involved are willing to invest a lot of effort into raising children in the community. With the rates of intermarriage being what they are, most people who are half or part Jewish don’t have that connection at all.

      • Bitter Lizard

        “Culture” is such a broad term. When it refers to things like music or cuisine I’m all in favor of “cultural diversity”, but when “culture” refers to any sort of morality, like gender roles or anything like that, then “cultural diversity” just means moral relativism, plain and simple.

        • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

          Well, part of Jewish culture is also a reverence for education and knowing things and arguing and learning things. Especially in today’s climate, we really need some cultural medium for passing that along. And yes, I think that raising freethinkers can do that also, but it’s harder without, say, using the story of Abraham arguing with God about Sodom and Gomorrah to show how even the topmost authority can be wrong and you should go with what’s right instead of blindly following orders. Story-telling as a means of cultural transmission is universal for a reason.

          And yes, I’m fully aware that same duo has a lot of ‘blind obedience’ stories too. Cherry-picking is a thing :)

          • Bitter Lizard

            That’s true, Jews are stereotypically known for being disproportionately represented in the sciences, and I suspect there’s truth in that. When people think of “famous Jewish intellectuals”, they’re mostly likely naming a bunch of people–Marx, Freud, Einstein–who weren’t exactly part of theism’s fan club.

            I seem to remember reading that Jews are the most secular ethnicity in the US, but I can’t seem to verify that right now.

            • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

              It wouldn’t shock me if Jews were the most secular ethnicity in the US, but evidence would be nice indeed.

      • Spuddie

        When people start talking trash about Jews, they never make a distinction between those who are observant and those who were raised by a Jewish family.

        Antisemitism is more prevalent than many are comfortable admitting to. Especially online. Holocaust revisionism is alive and well on discussion boards. Antisemitic conspiracy theories always pop up in news sites constantly.

      • Gary

        As a non-religious Jew with children, I’ve really struggled with this question of the value of keeping the Jewish identity alive. For myself and my kids, I’ve basically reduced it to a way of identifying where and who we are from rather than who we are. So being Jewish means, and only means, that it is our heritage. I think this is the way the identity will primarily come to be seen as the religion continues to fade away.

    • Gary

      What we need is to be appreciating diversity based on innate characteristics rather than manufactured ones.

  • the moother

    The nice thing about Judaism is that it doesn’t deal in threats of eternal damnation. Also, jews can have “community” without having to invoke imaginary friends or pretending to be holier than thou.

    Both these factors make it incredibly easy to she’d superstition.

  • C Peterson

    As somebody who has spent most of my life in science and academia, areas which are overrepresented by Jewish people, I can say that (since the 1970s) almost none of the many Jews I know or have known were religious at all, and well over half were atheists. I’m surprised only that the number is as low as 1-in-3 in this poll- a result I can only assume is related to the continued existence of fundie Jewish communities in the U.S.

    • Anna

      AFAIK, most Jews in the United States are Reform Jews. I guess they’re Jews by religion, but it’s such a watered-down form of religion that it’s hard to compare to Protestantism or Catholicism. Even for Reform Jews, belief in the supernatural seems to be optional. You don’t really need to have specific beliefs about deities to be involved in a Reform synagogue.

      • AskAnAtheistBecky

        Reform Jews *can* be intimately and actively tied to the synagogue community. It is definitely different from orthodoxy, but more than watered-down I’d say it’s a progressive, alternately developed form of Jewish practice. (Bias acknowledged, full disclosure: was active reform Jew for most of childhood, adolescence, thru mid-20s)

    • Gary

      Deep in the stats is a finding that 39% of Jews who say they are Jews by religion don’t go to synagogue. I think this is a sign that many Jews identify as being of the Jewish religion even though they aren’t religious. In my opinion, this is the result of the term “Jewish” having both ethnic and religious meanings. I’m a non-religious Jew and when I am asked my religion, my first inclination is to say Jewish.

      • Gary

        Correction, 61% of Jews who say they are Jews by religion don’t go to synagogue (it’s rising as we speak!).

      • Soren

        Same with me and being Hindu. I notice that a lot of my friends do the same.

  • https://twitter.com/atheist_in_nc Heisenberg

    I like that Judaism teaches the whole culture. The synagogues teach the original language, and they take a much more academic approach to the scriptures than evangelicals do. I bought the Jewish Study Bible a year ago, and the notes in it very clearly talk about the Exodus myth and the Documentary Hypothesis.

  • Gus

    The divide between Jewish ethnicity and Jewish religion is certainly interesting territory. When you’ve put a focus on one hand on education and reason, but on the other hand you’ve got some of the dumbest and most difficult religious rules to follow, this result is almost inevitable. I wonder though if it’s really changed that much, or if it’s just the willingness of younger secular Jews to describe it that way.

    I also wonder about the other side of the spectrum, the extreme conservative Jews. We hear so much about them in the media lately that I wonder if they’re growing or if we’re just hearing about them because they’re bumping up against hipsters in Brooklyn. I have a friend who lives a ways west of NYC who tells me there’s a large Orthodox enclave there and they act like fundamentalist Christian Republicans: they send their kids to strictly religious schools, then turn up and vote down every bit of public school funding leaving the public schools there a complete wreck. I hope that the secular contingent keeps growing faster than the Orthodox and speaks out against them.

    • benanov

      “The divide between Jewish ethnicity and Jewish religion is certainly interesting territory.”

      It is, but IMO it’s most ‘interesting’ because most of the Jewish people I know prefer to conflate the two. Teasing apart the distinction is quite difficult. It doesn’t help those that are only one or the other (ethnic Jews that are a different religion or none; or converts/children of converts) that most non-Jews (of either distinction) will happily reinforce that thought through sheer ignorance. I’ve done it myself a few times.

      It’s the same with religious Jews that do not keep kosher.

    • Spuddie

      “I hope that the secular contingent keeps growing faster than the Orthodox and speaks out against them.”

      In most cases Ultra-Orthodox families engage in their own version of Quiverfull. Demographically overwhelming others in a community with large is how they get their way. What is extra infuriating to many is their heavy dependence on public assistance. Since the Ultra-Orthodox do not attend college or attend only divinity school, they tend to avoid good paying work. Not only do they obnoxiously barrel through public government to the detriment of others, they get the rest of the community to subsidize it.

  • anon 101

    You really should read “Shall the religious inherit the earth” by Eric Kaufmann. While liberal Judaism is indeed dying the ultra-orthodox are growing exponetially. The fundies are gonna be the face of Judaism in the future.

  • guest

    I’m thinking of becoming a secular jew. For the lox and bagels.

  • bob

    Maybe the reason is because anti-semitism is dying? Judaism was created as a way of keeping a tribe distinct after they had been conquered by another tribe. Persecution under the romans just strengthened this feeling of otherness. But in America, jews are mostly accepted now, so there is no reason to fiecrcely cling to their identity. They are being assimilated into the melting pot.
    If I’m right, jews in other countries with more persecution would have much higher levels of religiousity.


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