Losing our religions

According to the survey, 16.1 percent of the population describe themselves as unaffiliated with any organized religion, making it the fourth largest "religious group" in the nation after Evangelical Protestants, with 26.3 percent of the population, Catholics, at 23.9 percent and mainline Protestants, with 18.1 percent.

This group of unaffiliated is further broken down into atheists, agnostics and those who describe themselves as "nothing in particular" - the largest of the three subgroups.

For Jews, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. In our own population surveys over the past decade, we have witnessed dwindling numbers. It's become a hand-wringing cri de Coeur, that if something is not done, whatever that something may turn out to be, we as Jews are going to disappear.

And yet, members of our tribe describe themselves as less connected to Jewish institutions like synagogues and community centers, less likely to give to Jewish charities and less connected to Israel. Those things that once resonated strongly as "musts" for a previous generation have become optional at best for more newly minted models of American Jews.

But the Pew survey, unlike our own population surveys, made me pause. What if what we as Jews are experiencing isn't unique? What if all of us are losing our religions?

If you pay attention to electoral politics at all, you would think everyone in America is deeply, abidingly religious. And the religious right, whether Southern and evangelical or Orthodox in New Square, can vote as blocks and become forces in their own right.

But the Pew survey suggests that that many of us, Jew and non-Jew, are not as connected to religion as the nightly news would portray.

We Jews have a tendency to look at our dwindling numbers in isolation. However, this study suggests that what we are experiencing, the general population is, too. It makes me pause to wonder what forces are at play that are pushing Americans in general into the camps the fervently religious and the self-described category of "nothing in particular?"

"There's an old expression in the study of Jews, that 'What the Christians do, the Jews then do,'" says Steven M. Cohen, a noted sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who served as a consultant on using the data from the 2000 Jewish Population Survey conducted by United Jewish Communities.

"American Jews reflect larger American patterns," he says.
While the number of Jews who participated in the Pew study is small - fewer than 700 - there is no reason, according to Cohen, to consider the sample suspect. Statistical validity consists of two issues, where the sample reflects the existing universe out there, according to Cohen and if the sample is table if you perform the study again.

"There is probably no bias in the sample," he said. "It's probably as unbiased as you can get because it's a national sample."

According to researchers at Pew, it isn't clear who exactly this larger unaffiliated group is. "They tell us they are religious but not affiliated," says Gre Smith a research fellow with the Pew Forum. "It could indicate a few things. They could be younger. It could be that they don't have family, that they are not married yet and that they may come back to religion later in life."

Of the unaffiliated he says, seven out of 10 are under the age of 50. Again this seems to square with what Jewish surveys have found of our own young. They might call themselves "Jewish" but they ways that they live, don't necessarily seem all that Jewish to previous generations' biases and definitions of what that means.

What the survey on the whole found about Jews in comparison to other groups is that we are older, wealthier and better educated than members of other religions. It's almost as if accepting American measures of success goes hand in hand with relinquishing the things that tied us to being Jews.

"Jews aren't as strict in how the practice - on measures of attendance, reading Torah, daily prayer - compared to other religions," Smith says.

The Pew Forum will be looking more deeply, including how some of these issues play out between the different segments of Jewish populations. It will be interesting to see what they find. For now, I'd say they've given us a very unusual mirror to peer into. Usually the one we choose reflects back only a picture of ourselves. The Pew Forum has given us instead a picture refracted through the diverse lens that is the American religious landscape.

Marla Cohen is the editor of the Rockland Jewish Reporter.


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