Wednesday, June 25, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey - Part 1

According to USA Today, the recent the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey indicates that most Americans have abanded traditional doctrine in favor of vague, fuzzy, "pick one from column A and one from column B" spirituality. However, as I looked through the detailed results of the survey, I found that the notion of "traditional doctrine" in the survey is very biased toward the doctrines of Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. Many of the "traditional doctrines" that Americans are rejecting are not doctrines of Judaism at all -- certainly not doctrines of the liberal movements of Judaism, but in many cases not even the doctrines of Orthodox Judaism! I am also concerned that the answers the survey received Jews may be skewed against traditional religion of any kind because of the way Jews classify ourselves. In this post, I'll focus on the classification issue; I will get into the details of the survey and how the questions compare to Jewish doctrine in a later post.

The Pew survey classified people's religion based on self-identification with a two-part question, the first part asking about broad religious affiliation and the second part narrowing in on specific denomination. The first question asked:

What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?

Now, in my experience, if you ask this question of a person of Jewish ancestry who has never had any religious education and never seen the inside of a synagogue (except to attend a wedding or bar mitzvah), that person will usually describe himself as Jewish. A gentile with similar lack of religious background, however, is more likely to describe himself as athiest, agnostic or nothing in particular. As a result, this question is bound to skew the Jewish responses against religious belief and doctrine, because non-religious Jews identify themselves as Jews while non-religious gentiles identify themselves as non-religious.

If the answer to the first question was "Jewish," the follow-up question was:
Which Jewish group do you identify with most closely? Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or something else?

Now, non-religious Jews who are asked this question often identify themselves as "Reform," even if they never belonged to a Reform synagogue in their lives. They do this because they perceive Reform Judaism as the least religious movement, which is not a fair reflection on the movement as a whole, but is a common misconception.

So what do we see in this survey? 1.7% of those surveyed identified themselves as Jews. About 40% of the Jews identified themselves as Reform (0.7% of all people surveyed). About 30% of the Jews (0.5% of all people) identified themselves as Conservative. Less than 0.3% of people surveyed (less than 20% of the Jews) identified themselves as Orthodox. The rest gave other answers, including "Reconstructionist" (an actual but small religious movement of Judaism), "Just Jewish," "Culturally Jewish," "Don't Know," and "Other." With the exception of "Reconstructionist," the rest of these, 10% of Jews responding, are simply not religious. They are people who, if they were gentiles, would probably have called themselves "nothing in particular." In addition, it is quite likely that many of that 40% who called themselves Reform are also really "nothing in particular," but calling themselves Reform because it's a better fit than Conservative or Orthodox (the only other options offered).

As a result, the Jewish answers on this survey are bound to be strongly skewed against anything religious. Yet the results of this survey present Jews as a single block, unfairly skewing all of the results for Jews in this survey toward non-religious answers. Keep this in mind as we look at the detailed survey results in the next post, coming soon...

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king at the time I wrote this post, but may be removed by the publishers at any time: