The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the most reputable and the most often cited source for such research, informed us on Wednesday that Americans are increasingly taking a "build-your-own" approach to religion. I have found anecdotal evidence for this movement for some time so the actual results of real research did not shock me at all.
Large numbers of Americans attend services of traditions other than their own and they are now increasingly blending Christianity with Eastern and New Age beliefs. There has been, the survey reveals, a dramatic increase over the last three decades in the number of people who have had a religious or mystical experience. The U.S. is still considered an overwhelmingly Christian country, in terms of membership and preferences, but there are growing minorities who hold beliefs of the kind found at Buddhist temples or New Age bookstores. 24% of those surveyed believe in reincarnation. 22% of Christians believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation, in case you wondered, is an anti-Christian belief in the light of the most central doctrine of Christian faith: the resurrection.
Here is what I find, in and out of the church. People believe in heaven, the afterlife, reincarnation, etc. They really do believe life does not end with death. But they have no clue about the resurrection. Even in some of the best churches the emphasis is on going to heaven, not being raised with Christ in the final day of history as we know it now.
Significant numbers of Americans now visit numerous places of worship. And this is not just for weddings, funerals or on vacation. People are trying new ways, new religious ideas. 25% of those who go to church say they sometimes attend services at a place where the faith is quite different from their own tradition. Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at Pew Forum, says, "It is as much now the norm as it is the exception for Americans to blend multiple religious beliefs and practices."
Here are some significant numbers from this new research:
About 25% of Americans believe in Eastern or New Age ideas. These include belief in reincarnation, the practice of yoga as a spiritual discipline (not simply for physical and emotional exercise), the idea that spiritual energy is found in things like mountains, trees, crystals and astrology.
About 16% of Americans believe in "the evil eye." This means they believe a person can cast a curse or spell on them. More than 10% of white evangelicals (who attend church weekly) believe this and more than 30% of African-American Protestants believe it.
Roughly 30% of Americans believe they have been in touch with someone who has died. This was 18% a little over a decade ago. This belief is most common about black Protestants and Roman Catholics. Nearly 20% of Americans believe they have been in the presence of a ghost.
Nearly 50% of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, or a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening." This number has doubled since Gallup first asked the same question in 1962. White evangelicals and black Protestants are most likely to have had such a religious experience but 30% of those with no religious affiliation show a strong spiritual bent.
So what should we learn from this data?
First, spiritual hunger is rising and will not simply go away under the fervor of the new atheism.
Second, people are deeply interested in finding faith, regardless of where they find it.
Third, doctrinally orthodox Christianity is in for a serious challenge in the coming decades. Major shifts will challenge important core doctrines such as the resurrection. If we do not get this right we are in for a long period of decline in vital Christian faith.
Americans remain a religious people. The only real question is: "What religion?" The answer seems to be the religion of "mix-and-match" that we make up as we go. Christian ministers, teachers and lay leaders ought to be asking a lot of hard questions but most are just too busy fighting for members and dollars to care, or so it seems to me.
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I think this trend speaks of a hunger for spiritual unity across the boundaries that have traditionally divided people. I’m not saying that Christians can have real spiritual unity with Buddhists. But is the desire to do so categorically bad? I think not. It is part of God’s desire to unite people into his kingdom.
I have noticed similar trends among some younger Christians. They deliberately try to stretch themselves by crossing traditional boundaries. One young woman I know attends a Pentecostal church – not because she accepts their distinctive theology and style of worship, but because she disagrees with it and finds it uncomfortable. It’s a deliberate decision on her part to enlarge the place of her tent (Isaiah 54:2). There is something admirable in that.