Shopping for religion: Pew view

shop for relA Christian friend who knows I am a journalist but tries to love me anyway subscribes to USA Today. After he read Cathy Lynn Grossman’s print and online articles on that latest Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey, he asked if I could explain “how this media-stuff works and how headlines are ‘pitched’ different ways for different audiences.”

Well, Gene, I can’t get more precise than to say that different journalists (or even different stories by the same journalist) address different aspects of of the world of religion–in this case Pew’s complex 22-page report, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” which can be downloaded here.

Both Grossman and Eric Gorski of the Associated Press did what journalists are supposed to do in such cases: let readers know when something newsworthy happens and do the best job they can of telling us what it is and what the heck it means.

If American readers were smarter religion writers could use fancy words like “syncretism” in their headlines. Instead, Gorski’s headline said, “Americans mix and match religions,” while Grossman’s said, “More U.S. Christians mix in ‘Eastern,’ New Age beliefs.”

If we were really smart they could have also referred to “Sheilaism,” the term Habits of the Heart lead author Robert Bellah created to describe contemporary American religiosity, which even way back in 1985 was increasingly “private and diverse.” The term “Sheilaism” came from interviews with a woman named Sheila Larson who subscribed to her own custom-tailored faith:

“I believe in God,” she said. “I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”

Obviously, this is a hot new trend that has been around for a while.

Gorski’s and Grossman’s articles did a good job of hitting the Pew survey highlights:

Of the 72% of Americans who attend religious services at least once a year (excluding holidays, weddings and funerals), 35% say they attend in multiple places, often hop-scotching across denominations.

They are like President Obama, who currently has no home church. He has worshiped at a Baptist church, an Episcopal one and the non-denominational chapel at Camp David.

“Mixing and matching practices and beliefs is as much the norm as it is the exception,” Pew’s Alan Cooperman says. “Are they grazing, sampling, just curious? We really don’t know.”

Reporters need to mention intriguing stuff like the popular belief in “spiritual energy” in mountains or trees and the “evil eye.” If they didn’t we’d blame them for being bland and pointy-headed.

Gorski gave more play to one of the findings I personally found most interesting:

Nearly half of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, or a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” the survey found. That represents a doubling since Gallup asked in 1962.

But surveys are complex documents, and slicing and dicing them is not easy. My Sept. 30 GetReligion post on Trinity College’s American Religious Identification Survey, explored controversies about the reports findings about “nones” and the varied ways these findings were interpreted.

Anyway, Gene, there’s a new survey out, and I think it’s partly out of respect for committed believers like you that reporters like Gorski and Grossman want you to know about its conclusions. Heck, Grossman even quoted evangelical spokesman Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary, who criticized Americans’ “rampant confusion” before reflecting on Christian leaders’ possible culpability in the matter:

“This is a failure of the pulpit as much as of the pew to be clear about what is and is not compatible with Christianity and belief in salvation only through Christ,” Mohler says.

So, Gene, I think these reporters did a decent job of trying to let readers like you know about the survey and some of its main conclusions. Now it’s up to you to do further homework, if you want to, and address these issues as best you can.

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  • Jerry

    Gorski gave more play to one of the findings I personally found most interesting:

    Nearly half of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, or a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” the survey found. That represents a doubling since Gallup asked in 1962.

    Thanks for highlighting this finding. I personally find it highly significant and would like to see it explored further. I’d like to know how such experiences changes a person’s view of God and religion. I hope there’s a followup survey that asks these questions.

  • H. E. Baber

    For someone who doesn’t “get” religion, check out Blow’s column in the NYTimes yesterday at
    Note also the remarks by a number of commenters, including professed atheists and agnostics, who took him to task for his snarky, patronizing, dismissive response to the data in the survey.

    Blow doesn’t “get” that there are at least three separate issues:

    (1) credulity and plain superstition: people uncritically, unreflectively take on “beliefs” because they sound good or interesting–including beliefs that are empirically false (the evil eye) or just plain unintelligible (spiritual energy in mountains and trees).

    (2) participation in a range of different religious practices, including participation in religious services of different denominations.

    (3) mystical experience

    What Blow and others don’t get is that these are three quite different things. (1) is certainly objectionable but probably harmless. There are some real flakes who are effectively non-functional but lots of people believe or half-believe or quasi-believe a variety of silly things that make no difference to their ability to behave reflectively, rationally and critically when it comes to serious matters.

    (2) is surely unobjectionable. Participating in religious ceremonies doesn’t entail affirming any beliefs and participating in the ceremonies of churches with different theological commitments doesn’t mean that one holds inconsistent beliefs.

    (3) is very interesting and I too would like to see it explored. Religious experience doesn’t entail religious belief much less flaky beliefs in paranormal phenomena though it may, for some, motivate religious belief.

  • Dave

    HE Baber: The evil eye is not empirically false; it is impossible to verify. Not the same thing.

    Spiritual energy in mountains and trees are intelligible in the context of a pantheistic or panentheistic world view.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Polls on religion are very tricky things. You can never be sure whether people are telling the pollster what they really feel or believe. Or are they parroting what they know is te “religiously” correct modern thing to say: One must certainly never admit to being against churches having priestesses.
    The polled also frequently have no idea about their deep subconscious attitude to many religious issues. They answer one way–then see it put into practice and are totally repelled by the result either on the parish level or because of its tremendous detrimental effects on society.
    In America Tradition gets short shrift, but a Tradition survives, not because of the enforcement powers of religious leaders, but because many religious and moral Traditions are more rooted in our psyches than modern Americans dare face.
    One need only look at the disintegration going on in some mainstream Protestant churches– which are doing everything right according to media poll results– to see how valueless media polls on religion can sometimes be.

  • dalea

    How was ‘different religion’ defined here? It seems to be self determined. Thus one person could regard Baptists and Methodists as different religions while another could see them as the same. The Pew Survey is not real clear on this.

    Also, why are beliefs in reincarnation described as Eastern when it is clearly a part of European Indiginous religion?

  • Brian Walden

    I saw this in print over the weekend and hoped GR would cover it. While I don’t think anyone would argue that there’s a lot of syncretism going on, the article failed to look deeper into many of the survey answers.

    The first thing I notice, was what dalea already said. The survey seems to count different Christian sects as different religions, but I would think most Christians would consider them all the same religion (arguments over who’s a Christian and who isn’t not withstanding). The biggest thing that jumped out to me was this bullet point:

    The percentage of people who call themselves Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation, and so many people declined any religious label that the “Nones,” now 15% of the USA, are the third-largest “religious” group after Catholics and Baptists, according to the American Religious Identification Survey last March.

    It’s hard to figure out what that even means. If all Christians are the same religion, then “Nones” might be the second largest group. But if you’re gonna split up Christianity into denominations, why aren’t Baptists split into Southern Baptists, the Baptist World Alliance, and other groups? And why aren’t the “Nones” further divided – I’d think there’s a big difference between someone who believes all that exists in the world is material, someone who believes in some fashion of Creator but subscribes to no particular religion, and someone who denies a Creator-God but still holds spiritual beliefs that don’t fit into any particular category.

    The same type of thinking holds true with switching from one denomination to another – I doubt most Christians would consider switching from one denomination to another to be changing religions. The statistic that more than half of Americans have switched religions sounds a bit high in this sense.

    The next question I had is how many of the practices that supposedly mix religions don’t actually deny any of the tenets of that persons religion? For example, depending on what exactly someone believes about the evil eye I can see how people might believe it exists without violating their belief system. And for attending other groups services, many denominations have open communions – does going to another service actually go against any rules?

    Is mixing religions syncretism if it doesn’t actually violate one’s own religion?

  • H. E. Baber

    The author’s take on the data seems to be that syncretism is not a good thing and that people mix and match religious beliefs and practices because they’re ignorant–most Americans can’t name all 4 Gospels, etc.

    Let’s consider an alternative reading. People are turning to Eastern religions and commercialized New Age crappola because churches have failed us. About half of Americans according to this survey have had a religious or mystical experience. But churches are embarrassed or flat out opposed to religious experience and liturgical churches have assiduously stripped out every bit of the numinous out of their liturgy in order to “build community” and use liturgy as a teaching tool for nagging us to be nice.

    But let’s not stop there. Ever since the Reformation, church policy-makers have worked overtime to kill folk religion–to strip out all the remnants of paganism: the cults of the saints, the ceremonies, the fun stuff and, on top of that, to make religion more edifying, more nagging, more concerned with ethical issues. They’ve taken away the good stuff and increased the bad stuff so of course people are dropping out. And if the folk can’t get Christianized folk religion they’ll appropriate bits and pieces or other religions or make it up themselves.

    The author of this piece, and Blow for different reasons, blame people for their ignorance. I’d be interested if anyone reporting on this pins the blame where I’d argue it belongs–on the churches which in their blind arrogance refuse to speak to people’s desires and needs.

  • dalea

    Brian says:

    For example, depending on what exactly someone believes about the evil eye I can see how people might believe it exists without violating their belief system.

    The authors unfamiliarity with magical terms is showing here. The term evil eye is an example of the general phenomena known as cursing. Which is a provable phenomena. Parents curse their children all the time with statements like you will never be able to… Until the child internalizes the curse and acts according to its boundaries. It is not about an actual eye that is evil, it is about a process of producing changes in another person.

    What is going on in the study and the articles is a failure to distinguish between religion and magic. Sometimes they are distinct as with the evil eye example. Other times they coexist as with the spiritual energy in trees and places, a motif in Shinto and Wicca.