Monday, January 11, 2010

The Emergence of a New Religious Landscape

Last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of its new poll which showed that increasing numbers of Americans are now mixing religious practices. Even more of us are practicing than one religion.

The survey, accurate to within two percentage points, showed that 35% of all American adults attend religious services at more than one place and 24% of these attend services for faiths different from their main affiliation.

I have some quibbles, several actually, with the survey methodology and wish that the questionnaire had been worded somewhat differently. Despite these problems (which I'll get to below) the results of this poll show a remarkable shift in the religious activities of Americans, perhaps even the emergence of a new religious landscape.

In 1962, for example, only 22% of those surveyed reported having ever had a religious or mystical experience; now nearly half (49%) of survey respondents say they have had such an experience. This result is uniform across many demographic groups; approximately half of all Americans, whether they are conservative, liberal, young or old now say they have had religious or mystical experiences.

The demographic uniformity does not extend into all parts of the data, though, and here is where I think the investigators erred in designing their questionnaire.

The survey reports that while 23% of all Americans consider yoga to be not just exercise but a spiritual practice, only 15% of political conservatives are in this group. Nearly one in four liberals (39%), though, agree that yoga is part of their spiritual practice and not just a form of exercise.

Tables scattered throughout the report lump together areas of religious or spiritual practice that do not necessarily have anything to do with one another, calling yoga a "supernatural belief," for example. Also, no mention at all is made of Buddhism, relegating this major
spiritual practice for many Americans to a category known only as "other."

Although the questionnaire itself didn't mislead respondents with strange wording about "supernatural" beliefs, it also didn't explicitly ask about spiritual practices that go outside the survey-designer's apparently pre-conceived notion of what constitutes a religious or spiritual practice.

I think the problem in this survey arises in the way the questions were phrased. The survey asks about "attendance at religious services," as if this is the only way to participate in a religion or have a spiritual practice. I would venture to guess that those of us who consider our yoga practice as central to our spiritual life, would not say we "attend religious services" when we go to a yoga class - or even go to our own mats each morning at home.

I have a bit more to say about this topic, but it will have to wait for future blog posts. Stay tuned!

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