Americans Surprisingly Flexible About Religion and Faith

Pew study finds people mix and match their religious beliefs.

ByDan Harris and Wonbo Woo
December 10, 2009, 5:51 PM

Dec. 10, 2009— -- A new poll finds Americans are doing a tremendous amount of personalizing – picking and choosing from a diverse variety of religious traditions. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly six in 10 Americans from all religions blend their faith with New Age and Eastern beliefs, like astrology, reincarnation, and the spiritual – not just physical – benefits of yoga.

"What we're really finding here that we haven't known before is how much Americans mix and match their religious beliefs and practices. That is, how often people who are regular churchgoers also believe in things like astrology and reincarnation," said Alan Cooperman of the Pew Forum. "Individual Americans hold within themselves elements of diverse religious traditions. And they practice in many cases, more than one faith."

Rabbi David Ingber was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, but abandoned Judaism in his 20s. He studied Taoism, martial arts and yoga as part of what he calls his "spiritual journey." After a decade away from the faith, he felt called back to Judaism.

"When I came back to Judaism, in my early 30s, I brought back my experiences that I had had in my 20s."

Ingber became a rabbi and founded a congregation in New York City called Romemu – its slogan is Judaism for mind, body and spirit. He leads his congregation in yoga and incorporates meditation into his services.

"I do think that it's a level of maturity involved in being so secure in your own root tradition that you can dabble, that you can borrow and that you don't feel that it's in some way sacrificing your own identity," Ingber said.

The Pew survey also finds that a quarter of Americans sometimes attend services of a faith or denomination other than their own.

Glenda Somerville was raised in a strict Catholic family -- her father is a Roman Catholic deacon and her mother is deeply religious. Somerville still considers herself a Catholic, but regularly attends Protestant services, and attends retreats and prayer groups with non-Catholics.

"I'm not just Roman Catholic," she said. "I believe in worshiping with other people because I do believe that God embraces all of us -- so I refuse to just ignore other people in their denominations."

Somerville has been particularly moved by the role of women in churches, like Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington, Md., where she often attends Sunday services.

"There are women who are ministers who understand and provide the message from a woman's perspective," she said. "And I don't necessarily get that from Roman Catholic priests."

"I've been in Hindu temples, I've been in Sufi ceremonies, I've participated in various rituals associated with yoga and meditation associated with Buddhism," said Jayne Tear, a member of the Jewish Romemu Center in New York City. "Any place where people are getting in touch with their own sense of the divine. It would be an honor for me to be in the room."

The poll further found that nearly half of the public, 49 percent, report having a "Religious or mystical experience… a spiritual awakening." That's up from 22 percent in 1962.

And 29 percent of Americans say they've felt in touch with someone who died -- that's up from 18 percent in 1996.

America has always had a thriving, competitive religious marketplace. But the pollsters say they're surprised at how much individual religious opening they found, and they're unsure about why it appears to be growing. Intermarriage is one possible contributing factor, but the pollsters don't think that fully explains it.

Ingber has a different thought. "There is a way for those who love God to love God together, and I think that's what we're trying to do now is we're trying to say let's go beyond the labels."

As Tear said, she is proud of her faith, but she believes God is bigger than any one religion.

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