The Changing Face of Religion in America

April 27, 2017 | Rabbi Judy Ginsburgh

Earlier this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Dr. Diana Butler Bass speak on two different occasions.  She is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.   Her latest book is called “Grounded: Finding God in the World, a Spiritual Revolution.”

During her talks, she discussed statistics about religion today.  In a poll taken in 1960, only 2 percent of the American population said they were unaffiliated and did not identify with any religion.  In 2015, a similar poll was taken and almost 28 percent of the American population said they were unaffiliated and did not identify with any religion.  Dr. Bass also pointed out that up until 2012, the majority of the people in the United States identified religiously as White Protestants.  By 2012, America was becoming a diverse religious place to be.  We were seeing a decline in such things as “Jewish neighborhoods”.  No longer did people of similar religion and culture live in the same areas of town.  Christians lived next to Jews who lived next to Hindus and so on.  Neighborhoods were also no longer black or white, but instead a diverse mixture of people from all races, cultures and religious backgrounds.

In 2012, no one religious group made up a majority of the “pie chart.”  Even the White Protestants, who previously held the majority position made up less than 50% of our total religious American demographic.  During this 50 plus year span of time from 1960 to 2012, the Jews steadily occupied about 1 to 2% of the religious population in America.  Dr. Bass’ conclusion is that, with no one religion having a majority of the population, American religion is no longer as diverse as it once was…but is instead, becoming pluralistic.  We are intermingling, we are talking more, people feel more at ease to explore, share and question (something we Jews have always done).  As far as religion goes in America today, we have moved from diverse to pluralistic.

Dr. Bass also pointed out that less and less of our younger generations are affiliated with a religious institution.  However, just because there is a decline in institutional religion, this does not mean that we are not connecting with personal spiritual experiences.  The majority of our younger generation claims to feeling “spiritual” as opposed to “religious.”  There has been a steady rise in the number of people who admit to having had a “spiritual” experience.  In the 60’s about 24 percent of the population said they had gone through a spiritual experience. In 2009, about 50% of the population admitted to having had a spiritual experience.  Statisticians speculate that today, in 2017, that percentage would increase even further to about 54%.  In this present time, more and more people are experiencing something spiritual.

So, what does this mean for our congregations?  How are we, as clergy and congregational leaders, supposed to continue to keep our congregations vital and meaningful and engage our younger generations?  Dr. Bass suggests that we help our congregants to see the wonder of our world…the beauty and awe that exists all around us.  When people were asked where they felt most spiritual (especially the younger generation), the most common answer was in nature.  Not in a synagogue, not in a church, not in the safety of our homes, but outside soaking in the awesome power of God.  

Our Jewish camps continue to grow stronger and reach more young Jews than ever before.  They get it.  This may be the key to reaching our younger generation.  While at camp, they feel a spiritual connection with nature and they experience the awesomeness of God.  They want to make a difference in the world and social justice, fairness and equality are of the utmost importance.  These things are all at the forefront of our Jewish camp movement.  Our younger Jews do not need a special building to be able to feel God’s presence.  They do not need a particular prayer book in order to pray.  They feel God everywhere.  God is no longer a man in the sky with a long robe and a beard.  In our modern world, a distant God who lives in heaven will no longer do.  This distant God is being replaced by a more intimate, spiritual God. God is in a sunset, a rainbow, an ocean wave, a baby’s cry.  God is present in our joy and in our suffering. God is essence…..God is energy….God is beauty…God is love….God is healing…God is strength….God IS!  Dr. Bass states that the only God that makes sense today is a God of compassion and empathy who shares the life of the world.  

God is truly everywhere.  God is in each one of us.  God is here, with all of us, in our world…we need only look around to see it.  Amen.

I will be continuing this discussion of God and spirituality at our congregational Torah study.  These are some of the questions we will discuss:

Are you “spiritual” or “religious” and how do you define these two terms?  How and why do you pray? How do you personally see God?  How does God affect your life?  Where is God?  Do generations relate to God differently?  If so, why?  I invite you to consider these questions and feel free to share your feelings privately or in community.  These are questions that need to be answered by each of us in order for us to continue on our most fulfilling religious or spiritual journey.