Americans mixing faiths
By Helen T. Gray
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Americans hold a hodgepodge of religious beliefs and practices.
Most (82 percent) of American adults believe in God, according to a recent Harris Poll.
And large numbers believe in miracles (76 percent), heaven (75 percent), that Jesus is God or the son of God (73 percent), in angels (72 percent), the survival of the soul after death (71 percent) and that Jesus was resurrected (70 percent).
But also, 42 percent believe in ghosts, 32 percent in UFOs, 26 percent in astrology, 23 percent in witches and 20 percent in reincarnation.
A recent Pew Forum poll that focused more on religious practices and experiences revealed that "large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, blending elements of diverse traditions." Many blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs.
Nearly half of Americans (49 percent) say they have had a "religious or mystical experience," twice as many as in a 1962 Gallup survey (22 percent).
The polls are a further indication of a continuing trend of organized religion losing influence, and a growing popularity of spirituality, said Tim Miller, a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.
"There has been a decline in institutional religion, but at the same time independent spiritual experiences are going up," he said. "So there is a shift from classic institutional religion into a more diverse and sometimes nebulous spiritual outlook."
A contributing factor is the tremendous explosion of communications technology that enables a vast flow of ideas, he said.
"We used to have a few institutions generally accepted as authoritative," Miller said. "Now when you look at the Internet, you have thousands of people who claim to have authoritative information, so people can read an abundance of different viewpoints.
"And people pick a little of this and a little of that and put together their own points of view. People can convince themselves of practically anything, and they fit things together for themselves."
Henry H. Knight III, Wesleyan studies professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, said the polls reveal a continuation of "large numbers of Christians who tend to reflect whatever seems acceptable in the wider culture, whether or not it is consistent with Christian beliefs or practices."
He said that in recent decades there has been a tendency to distinguish between being spiritual and being religious (participating in organized religion).
"Yet the Pew poll shows clearly that those who regularly attend religious services are most likely to have spiritual experiences," he said. "This would, however, also include the significant minority meeting in alternative venues like house churches, some of which may not be part of regular denominations."
Of those who attend religious services at least once a week, 39 percent say they attend at multiple places, and 28 percent go to services outside their faith.
That so many Christians embrace Eastern or New Age beliefs is a mirror of the wider culture, Knight said.
He agrees with Miller that many Americans select their beliefs and practices "cafeteria style, without concern or awareness that they might be inconsistent."
"Evangelicals seem to be better at maintaining traditional distinctions between Christian and nonChristian beliefs, but even they are not immune from this mix-and-match spirituality," Knight said. "It certainly raises serious questions about the effectiveness of Christian teaching and formation in our churches."