Context – A Commentary on the Interaction of Religion and Culture, Jan. 1, 2003
New Year’s turn is a good time to do some counting, reporting, and assessing. Get ready for some worthwhile and revealing numbering. And get ready, if convinced, to conclude that we are not as ornerily, or delightfully, diverse as often pictured. Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey (GSS) at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, on religious diversity in America:
“The magnitude and nature of America’s religious diversity should not be exaggerated. It has become common for the recent and projected growth of alternative religions and their current prominence to be described as revolutionary and as having transformed American society. Diana Eck writes of ‘a new multireligious America’ in which `the religious landscape of America has changed radically in the past 30 years.’ The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches in 1998 switched their basis for estimating non-Judeo-Christian religions and showed one-year gains of 6- to 72-fold for Muslims, Hindus, New Religionists, and Sikhs and described these totally artificial gains as ‘a vivid example of that accelerating rate of change’ in America’s religious profile. The Muslim population is commonly overestimated by a factor of three or four and there are assertions that Muslims outnumber the third largest denomination in the United States-Methodists (Smith, 2001). Impressive as the actual changes in nontraditional religions have been, they cannot match these and many related claims about the growth and size of these religions.”
Smith puts numbers in perspective: “Non-Judeo-Christian religions make up a small, but growing, share of America’s religious mosaic. In 1973-1980, the GSS indicated that they accounted for 0.8 percent of the adult population. This grew to 1.3 percent in 1981-1990 and 2.6 percent in 1990-2000. Similarly, the American Religious Identity Surveys put the non-Judeo-Christian religions at 1.5 percent in 1990 and 2.4 percent in 2001.
“Three faiths, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, account for about half the people following other religions. According to GSS, these three religions totaled 0.4 percent in 1973-1980, 0.7 percent in 1981-1990, and 1.1 percent in 1991-2000.
Do you have to revise numbers estimates after this by Smith? “From the 1970s to the present, non-Judeo-Christian faiths grew about 3-4 fold. But even given their rapid rate of growth, their absolute size remains small. The 1998-2000 GSS find that only 2.7 percent of adults are followers of nontraditional religions (even counting those with mixed Christian/non-Judeo-Christian faiths, the non/interdenominational, and those with `personal religions’). This indicates that non-Judeo-Christian religions are much smaller than frequently cited high-end estimates and have hardly transformed the religious landscape as much as often portrayed.
“There are several reasons why the size and prominence of these religions have sometimes been exaggerated. First, as R. Stephen Warner has noted, these faiths are not only `increasingly numerous,’ but also are `increasingly visible.’ New temples, celebrity converts to Buddhism, turbaned-Sikhs, and visits by the Dalai Lama create an impression of prominence beyond the actual size of these groups.
“Second, elements of the emerging religions have attracted the interest of many more Americans than have been won over as genuine adherents. Thomas A. Tweed described `night-stand’ Buddhists who adopt some trappings of the faith. Similarly, as John Ankerberg and John Weldon have noted about Hinduism, `In all its forms, Hinduism has influenced tens of millions of people in America. By itself Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation, a form of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, has over three million graduates.’ Plus `the New Age movement, with a collective following in the millions, has been powerfully influenced by Hinduism.’”
Concludes Smith: “America has always been a religiously diverse nation and recent changes in immigration patterns as well as indigenous religious developments have increased that diversity. While Americans still overwhelmingly adhere to their traditional faiths, the United States is home to all of the world’s religions and non-Judeo-Christian religions make up a small, but growing, share of America’s religious mosaic.”