Tuesday, July 15, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey - Part 2

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey's Summary of Key Findings begins with the assertion that "most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith." The USA Today article about this survey seemed to interpret this as saying that Americans take a "one from column A, one from column B" approach to religion, where Oprah Winfrey is as much a source of spiritual guidance as any religious leader. But after reading through The Pew Form's statements about the survey, I'm not exactly sure what they meant by "non-dogmatic." Did they mean not "following a dogma [that is, the established teachings of a formal religion]," or did they simply mean not "arrogant, stubborn and bigoted"? In the context of a discussion about religion, I would think the former definition would be more appropriate, and certainly USA Today seemed to run with that notion, but Pew may simply have meant that people are tolerant of other religions.

I'd like to look at how some of the questions in the Pew survey mesh with the Jewish undersanding of our religion, considering the points of view of a wide range of organized Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist. If you're not familiar with the differences between these movements, you might want to take a look at Movements of Judaism. I have relied on published statements of principle from the Reform and Conservative movements when I specify what those movements believe.

Let's start with the question that the Pew Forum highlighted: Question 40a, asking people to choose between "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life" or "Many religions can lead to eternal life." Only 5% of Jews chose the former; 82% chose the latter. Compare this with the average across all faiths of 24%/70%. Interestingly, 7% of Jews chose "neither/both equally," an option that was not permitted in the phrasing of the question, though it was volunteered by respondents. The response "both" is probably best in line with traditional Judaism, which does believe that Judaism is the only religion that is objectively correct, but doesn't require people to believe in that religion to have eternal life. The Talmud quite clearly says "the righteous of all nations have a place in the World to Come." Frankly, I was surprised that any Jews picked the former. I suppose that, given only two choices ("neither/both equally" was volunteered by respondents, but not offered as a choice), a small percentage thought that the "one true faith" aspect was more important than the "many paths lead to heaven" aspect. And it's not just the Orthodox who thought that their religion was the "one true faith" -- 5% of Conservative and 3% of Reform gave this answer.

The Forum also highlighted Question 40b: "There is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion," or "There is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion." Again, a very low percentage of Jews (6%) picked the former, while the overwhelming majority (89%) picked the latter. I'm not at all surprised by this result, given that the Talmud itself is a collection of variant opinions about the way to interpret the Torah. The Talmud reached final conclusions about the issues it raised, but different issues have come up since then, and different sources have reached different conclusions. It is generally understood, even in the most Orthodox communities, that different rulings on Jewish law are legitimate (albeit not necessarily what G-d intended), and that a person is obligated to follow his own rabbi's conclusion, even if some other rabbi has come to another conclusion. There is, of course, a limit to the range of opinions that would be considered legitimate disagreements within the eyes of even the more liberal branches of Judaism, but when the question says "true," does it mean "what G-d intended" or simply "within the range that G-d allows"? It's worth noting that another question (10b) asks whether there are clear and absolute standards for right and wrong, and 63% of Jews agreed (either mostly or completely) that there are clear and absolute standards.

Another important result, in the Forum's opinion, was 40c, which asks whether religion should preserve traditional beliefs and practices, adjust them to new circumstances, or adopt modern beliefs and practices. Anybody who has seen Fiddler on the Roof would be surprised to see how low Jews were on the "preserve tradition" side of things (26%, compared to a nationwide average of 44%). Actually, I was rather surprised at how high the attachment to tradition was. The choices rather closely track the three largest movements of Judaism, yet the answers seem to skew to the right of expressed denomination preferences. Orthodoxy holds that the religion should not change, yet the "Orthodox" answer (preserve tradition) received 26% of responses while Orthodoxy represented less than 18% of respondents. Conservative Judaism describes its greatest strenth as its ability to "integrate tradition with modernity," yet the "Conservative" answer (adjust tradition) received 46% of responses while only 32% of respondents were Conservative. Reform Judaism describes its greatest contribution as its ability to "introduce innovation while preserving tradition," yet the "Reform" answer (adopt modernity) received the lowest percentage of responses (19%) while Reform Judaism had the highest percentage of respondents (46%).

The survey also had a series of questions (30, 31, 32) about belief in G-d or a universal spirit. Ten percent of Jews said that they don't believe in G-d at all, the highest of any religious group other than Buddhism (which, I gather, doesn't have a god anyway). I suspect that this reflects the fact that, as I said in the last post, Jewish identity is both a religion and a culture, and cultural Jews tend to identify as Jewish in religious surveys to a greater degree than non-religious gentiles would identify as Christian/Catholic/etc. More than half of those who do no believe in G-d self-identified as "Reform," which again probably reflects the fact that non-religious Jews commonly, if erroneously, identify themselves as Reform. I was a little surprised, though, to see that 5% of Conservative Jews said they didn't believe in G-d.

Half of Jews said that they believe G-d is an impersonal force, rather than a person that you can have a relationship with, the highest of any religious tradition other than Hindu. This notion of G-d as an impersonal force is actually a major point of theology in the small Reconstructionist movement of Judaism, though it has worked its way into the Reform and Conservative movements. The Conservative movement's statement of principles explicitly leaves open both options. The Reform movement's statement of principles is a bit vague about the nature of G-d, and leaves the option to "differ in our understanding of the Divine presence."

The survey also asked several questions about life after death (33, 34, 35, 36), which is an area where Judaism differs significantly from Christianity. It is a common misconception, often repeated in the media, that Judaism doesn't belief in the afterlife. On the contrary, Orthodoxy is quite clear that there is an afterlife. The Conservative view is vague but affirms that our connection to G-d extends beyond the grave. The Reform statement of principles doesn't talk about death at all.

So what did the survey say Jews actually believe? Out of all religious groups surveyed, Jews had the lowest level of belief in life after death (39%) and the highest level of disbelief in life after death (45%, tied with Jehovah's Witnesses). This probably reflects the common misconception, combined with the lack of emphasis on these subjects in Hebrew schools and synagogues, and the large number of essentially non-religious respondents (see the previous question). The belief in Heaven roughly parallels the belief in afterlife generally (38% yes/ 48% no), but the belief in Hell is much lower (22% yes / 69% no), probably reflecting the fact that eternal punishment is not part of Jewish tradition. Actually, I was surprised at how high the numbers for Hell were, given the traditional teachings on this point, which are rather clear that infinite punishment for finite sin is not consistent with G-d's aspects of justice or mercy.

The survey also inquires whether people believe the Bible is the word of G-d (37, 38), and whether it should be taken literally. I found it interesting that, for Jews, the survey replaced the word "Bible" with "Torah." Our Jewish Bible has somewhat different contents than the Christian one, but we still call it the Bible. I think both traditional Judiasm and traditional Christianity agree that only the Torah (the first five books, which are the same for both Judaism and Christianity) came directly from G-d, dictated by G-d to Moses, while the rest was produced by people inspired by G-d, so the distinction seems a bit odd.

In any case, only 10% of Jews thought the Torah was the word of G-d, taken literally word-for-word; 25% thought it was the word of G-d but not to be taken literally; another 2% just said it was the word of G-d; 53% said it was written by men and not the word of G-d. These low numbers for belief in the Torah don't particularly surprise me. The biblical critical theory has practically become a point of theology for the Reform and Conservative movements, though neither movement goes so far as to claim in its statement of principles that the Bible was written by human beings. I have heard biblical criticism preached from the pulpit by both Reform and Conservative rabbis, and I have attended Reform and Conservative Torah studies that talk about the "contradictions" in the Bible, and problems arising from "combination of different sources." Given that Reform and Conservative respondents make up about 75% of the Jews in this survey, frankly I'm surprised that only 53% said the Torah was the work of man.

The low number of Jews who take the Torah literally also doesn't particularly surprise me. Even Orthodox Jews understand that the Hebrew language is rich with metaphor, that the world is not square just because the Torah speaks of its "four corners," that G-d doesn't have a body even though the Bible speaks of His "face," "arm," "hand" and "finger," and so forth. It is also a standard point of Jewish theology that "the Torah speaks in the language of man," which means that many concepts are oversimplified or figurative. This understanding might well lead even the most hardline Orthodox Jew to say that the Torah is the word of G-d but not to be "taken literally, word for word," as the question puts it.

Those are some of the major points in the survey. I have some notes about many of the other questions, and may address them in a future post if I have the time, but I wanted to get this online finally!

I used the following sources to confirm my understanding of the Reform and Conservative movements' positions on certain of these matters: