"It's Just the Way It Is":Of Spiritual Salad Bars, Spiritual Bazaars, Spiritual Shopping, and Spiritual Seeking

By Phillip Luke Sinitiere

As many readers are no doubt already aware, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released the second report of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Part one dealt with religious affiliation, and part two covers beliefs, practices, social, and political views.

Part of the second report's summary reads as follows:

A major survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. This openness to a range of religious viewpoints is in line with the great diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice that exists in the United States, as documented in a survey of more than 35,000 Americans that comprehensively examines the country’s religious landscape.

This is not to suggest that Americans do not take religion seriously. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey also shows that more than half of Americans rank the importance of religion very highly in their lives, attend religious services regularly and pray daily. Furthermore, a plurality of adults who are affiliated with a religion want their religion to preserve its traditional beliefs and practices rather than either adjust to new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices. Moreover, significant minorities across nearly all religious traditions see a conflict between being a devout person and living in a modern society.

The Landscape Survey confirms the close link between Americans' religious affiliation, beliefs and practices, on the one hand, and their social and political attitudes, on the other. Indeed, the survey demonstrates that the social and political fault lines in American society run through, as well as alongside, religious traditions. The relationship between politics and religion in the United States is particularly strong with respect to political ideology and views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, with the more religiously committed adherents across several religious traditions expressing more conservative political views. On other issues included in the survey, such as environmental protection, foreign affairs, and the proper size and role of government, differences based on religion tend to be smaller.

One of my hometown newspapers, the Houston Chronicle, ran a story on the Pew Report, observing, "Texas appears to be more religious than the nation as a whole, according to the survey, with 47 percent of Texans saying they attend church once a week, compared to 39 percent of Americans. Moreover, 77 percent of Texans say they have an absolutely certain belief in God, compared to 71 percent of people nationwide."

As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas.

On a more serious note, the point of this post is to highlight the early impressions, observations, and interpretations of the data. I find it interesting that in response to both reports commentators and analysts find evidence of and for a religious economy. (See Kelly Baker's previous post on the report, as well as thoughts offered by Luke Harlow and Randall Stephens.)

Writing about the first report, Susan Jacoby calls the U.S. a spiritual bazaar, while Chester Gillis prefers to write about seekers and shoppers, as does Martin Marty.

Kelly Baker's blogpost cited above quotes the Jacoby and Gillis analyses so I won't post those here. However, Marty's thoughts, originally part of a Sightings piece, correspond nicely to those offered by Jacoby and Gillis.

According to Marty:

Shopping and switching accelerate long term trends. Centuries ago, evangelists in staid New England lured established Congregationalists into becoming ecstatic Baptists; advertising, luring, and changing has long gone on since. Here is Emerging Trends, June, 1980: "LESS THAN HALF REMAIN IN SAME DENOMINATION. Princeton, N.J. Fewer than half of U.S. adults [43 percent] say they have always been a member of their present religion, or denomination, as determined by a recent Gallup survey.

Is that good or bad? It's certainly inevitable. Mobility, the tangle of mass university experience, inter-marriage, advertising, competition, perhaps a dose of pick-and-choose egocentrism, "fulfilling…boutique church-going desires" (Wall Street Journal, March 1), valid or superficial judgments on the religious affiliation one is leaving, and profound spiritual searches all go into the "switching" and "changing" mix. Together they assure that those who cover American religious life will not run out of puzzling and exciting subject matter, as they switch subjects and change attitudes themselves.

Most, I presume, will agree that a religious economy exists in America, or at least consider using the marketplace metaphor to help explain the dynamics of religion in the U.S. It is not the only interpretive grid of course, and there are other meaningful metaphors to use. Nevertheless, as I read responses to and interpretations of the report it struck me that many used economic terms and ideas to explain religious affiliation and non-affiliation. Religious economy, or at least some configuration of the marketplace approach, apparently has staying power.

I end with the observation of Rice sociologist Michael Lindsay about the second report, quoted in the Houston Chronicle article: "Religion in American is like a spiritual salad bar. Americans pick and choose their beliefs and religious practices in a custom-designed faith system. I don't have a judgment call on whether it's good or bad. It's just the way it is."

[More religion humor found here.]


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