Saturday, December 12, 2009

Syncretists 'r us

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just published a report entitled "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths" with the subtitle "Eastern, New Age Beliefs Widespread." The study finds that

large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.

It would appear that a third (35%) of the 72% of Americans who regularly attend religious services attend the services of more than one religion. Nearly half (49%) of those polled report having had a religious or mystical experience that is, a moment of religious or spirital awakening. And nearly two-thirds (65%) express belief in or report having experience with at least one of what Pew classifies as supernatural phenomena: belief in reincarnation, belief in spiritual energy located in physical things, belief in yoga as spiritual practice, belief in the "evil eye," belief in astrology, having been in touch with the dead, consulting a psychic, or experiencing a ghostly encounter. Indeed, 29% of Black Protestants, 28% of Catholics and 25% of the religious unaffiliated believe in reincarnation.

These results are striking - and all are apparently higher than in past surveys, too. Reports of religious experience have more than doubled since 1962. (The connection with the ever more common interreligious marriage is complex: such people attend religious services less, but when they do are more likely to attend more than one kind.) Religiously at least, the US does seem to be a melting pot. This is BeliefNet's land, not Pat Robertson's or Sam Harris' - or even Diana Eck's.

Charles Blow sneers at the Pew results in his column in the Times today: Americans continue to cobble together Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities from a hodgepodge of beliefs — bending dogmas to suit them instead of bending themselves to fit a dogma.

I'm not sure it's as simple as that. Syncretism can be shallow, narcissistic and self-serving but it's quite possible to gesture your way through a single religious tradition without its ever affecting you very deeply, too. (Indeed, such people may be more likely to brandish their tradition as "dogma.") On the other hand at least some of these spiritually polyglot entrepreneurs may be more religiously serious (deeper or needier) than many who coast along in unreflective belief - or unbelief.

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