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Scholar on Pew survey: Religious swinging isn’t a good thing

December 14, 2009

The B.U. religion scholar Stephen Prothero addresses the recent Pew survey in Friday’s Houses of Worship column in the WSJ.

A new Pew study, released last week, shows that Americans are swingers as well as switchers, flirting with religious beliefs and practices other than their own without officially changing their religious affiliation. Catholic leaders have long denounced “Cafeteria Catholics” for going down the line and picking and choosing the Catholic beliefs and practices they choose to uphold. According to this new study, Americans as a group are now bellying up to what my Boston University colleague John Berthrong has referred to as the “divine deli.”

The survey has some stats about people dabbling in various religions and believing in concepts that contradict their own faith such as astrology and reincarnation. After seven years reporting on religion, this doesn’t surprise me too much. But I find it interesting to read Prothero’s reaction to the “divine deli.” (For those of you unfamiliar with him, Prothero a few years back wrote a book called Religious Literacy that highlighted our embarrassing ignorance about the world’s faith traditions. And here in this column he revisits his frustration with that ignorance, noting that most Americans cannot name the four Gospels and are largely clueless about Islam.)

As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can’t help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred. Harvard philosopher George Santayana once observed that “American life is a powerful solvent,” capable of neutralizing new ideas into banal clichés. I worry that this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world’s religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2009 12:15 pm

    I agree that sampling from various religions can lead to a very superficial belief system. Rabbi Gelbermann, who began The New Seminary, an interfaith seminary, has a motto which begins: “Never instead of, but only in addition to . . .” meaning that a person needs to keep a foundation in the religion of their birth and then add to it from other religious beliefs and practices that increase a person’s relationship to God. People have been raised with certain archetypes that are the basis of their grounding. When people would object to his fruit salad advice, he would say, “What’s wrong with fruit salad?”

  2. December 27, 2009 2:46 pm

    I have to agree that not sticking to a faith can be bad, as it not only confuses you. It confuses everyone around you as well. When others see you switching faiths constantly it might give them the impression that nothing seems to be holy. Unfortunately, in our modern, relativist, pluralistic, multifaith/multicultural society that’s often the case.

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