By Matthew Weiner and Rev. Bud Heckman, May 4, 2009

Mary Rosenblatt grew up Jewish, she married a Catholic and her children are “exposed to both faiths.” In her adult life, she has become particularly drawn to meditation as practiced by a local Buddhist circle. If she participated in a survey about religious identity, how might she be portrayed?  And what about her kids?

pew-logoThe Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released a survey entitled “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” that attempts to map changes in religious affiliation in the U.S.  It follows on the coattails of the important “U.S Religious Landscape Survey” conducted by the Pew Forum in 2007.  If read in cross-tension with the “American Religious Identification Survey 2008″ released by Trinity College in Hartford, one can begin to see a complex and diverse picture of faith affiliation for Americans, as well as some patterns of change.

One key result is that perhaps as many as six in ten American adults have changed their faith tradition. Nationwide surveys are certainly important, and getting statistics about changing religion is also important. But thinking about the problems with this survey is perhaps as important as the information that it provides.

buddhist-in-washingtonThe first important problem with both surveys is that they do not allow for the likes of Mary Rosenblatt. Is she Jewish, Buddhist, Unaffiliated or Other?  The survey questions assume that she is only one of these, and so asks “What is your religion?” in the singular. Of course, Buddhists, Baha’is, Sikhs and others who think of their “religion” as a faith or those who view themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” might not make it through the early stages of the questions gauntlet either.

(Photo: A Tibetan Buddhist monk at Washington’s National Cathedral, 19 Oct 2007/Jim Young)

Others who because of life circumstance, e.g. inter-marriage, geographic transplantation, or cultural expectations, may think of themselves as being multireligious or somewhere in-between, are equally off the grid. In the ARIS study an unusually high number of Asians were unwilling to identify their religious identification, perhaps because of the imposition of Western presuppositions and categories.

If the first problem is a misunderstanding about how religion is lived out by many Americans, the second problem is that not all religious Americans speak sophisticated English.  In fact, many of those attempted to be questioned for the Pew study were dropped out of the interviewing because there was a language barrier or they “did not confirm their religion.” Scholars of religion and immigration have detected the increase of religiosity amongst new immigrant groups in America: religion serves as an organizing force, houses of worship as community centers, often across religious lines. Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim newcomers, not to mention Latino Christians and Russian Jews, find themselves increasingly identified with their faith tradition when they come here. Yet this segment of the population is largely left out of the Pew survey because of language.

atlanta-mosqueMentioning these other faiths leads to the third major problem. The survey claims to speak for American religious trends, but focuses on Christians. Researchers set aside another 4% before the survey started because they belonged to small groups, other world religions, other faiths, or because they merely moved around within the broad stroke of the unaffiliated.  What would happen if Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Hindus were included in this survey with equal numbers?

(Photo: Mosque in Atlanta, 25 Feb 2007/Tami Chappell)

As the ARIS study is more apt to lead one to discover, after sifting through the weight of the data, there may be more yet hidden from our maps of knowing than heretofore realized.  It shows that the number of people refusing to answer the survey or declaring no religion (atheist, agnostic, or searching) has more than doubled since the 1990′s.  These two categories of people now account for one in five Americans.  And the geographic breakdown shows that this phenomenon, while concentrated in the West and Northeast, is widespread and now is evident even in the deep South.

woman-at-pope-massWith President Obama recently joining an interfaith prayer service the morning after his inauguration, and with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships claiming that they will work with all faiths, national surveys conducted by organizations like the Pew Forum must at least acknowledge that their surveys are about Christian Americans, or reconfigure how they approach their sample audience.

(Photo: Woman attends Mass by Pope Benedict in Washington, 17 April 2008/Jason Reed)

What else can we see in these set of surveys? The growth in unaffiliated respondents is the overriding story.  According to Pew, four of every five becoming unaffiliated reported that they were raised in a religion as a child. But of the former Catholics and former Protestants – where Pew concentrated its analysis of research – few of those who became unaffiliated reported a strong faith as a child.  Further, three-fourths of them cite both the view that “religious people asbeing hypocritical, judgmental, and insincere” and the view that“many religions as being partly true, but none completely true” as factors at play.  And half of them give this outlook as an important reason for having become unaffiliated.

But much remains unknown. Perhaps the most important missing factors are the changes one makes within a faith -say from Jewish Reform to Orthodoxy. These changes are substantial, in terms of how one dresses, who one lives and communicates with and how one lives ones life in both public and private. While the change between a liberal Christian and a liberal Buddhist may go unseen by anyone, the move from Jewish Reform to Jewish Orthodoxy could not be missed by anyone.

rabbis-in-new-yorkLikewise, a person changing from being a Methodist to a Presbyterian because they have moved or married may be captured by the way these surveys are structured, but these moves are often uneventful and give false impressions of the “churn.”

(Phoito: Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis meeting in New York, 21 Nov 2008/Chip East)

In fact, allowing for a picture of the pluralism that may be within the individual and, in some ways, within a tradition is not in the cards yet for the designs of these surveys.  It is a little like looking at a puzzle table in its very early stages.  The pieces are there, and perhaps there are some connections, but it is not clear that they will fit together.  Worse yet, the box cover is not to be found, and whether it provides a picture worth looking at once it is put together is still unclear.