Tara Isabella Burton: From ‘Cafeteria Catholics’ to New Age Nones, Religion Is Getting Very Personal

According to a Pew Research survey, many people believe that “spiritual energy can be located in physical things.” Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Do you believe astrology governs your love life? Do you think some people have extraordinary powers of perception that allow them to predict the future? Do you hold that some items – such as crystals – possess special spiritual energy? Do you believe in the concept of past lives?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you’re far from alone. According to an October Pew Research Center poll, about 62 percent of Americans believe in at least one of four beliefs the poll classifies as “New Age.”

The poll’s methodology lends itself to criticism — reincarnation, for example, is part of some well-established organized religious traditions, such as Hinduism, and hardly a New Age concept — but the numbers are nevertheless strikingly high.

Striking, too, is the consistency of these beliefs across religious lines. About 6 in 10 religious “nones” affirmed at least one New Age belief, including a full 78 percent of those who believe in “nothing in particular.” Sixty-one percent said “spiritual energy can be located in physical things” and 51 percent affirmed reincarnation.

The same ratio held for self-identified Christians, with Catholics and members of historically black Protestant churches expressing greater belief in New Age ideas – 70 percent and 72 percent, respectively — than other groups. Fewer than half, or 47 percent, of evangelical Christians did.

The least likely to affirm any of these beliefs were committed atheists; just 22 percent said they believed in any at all.

“Six-in-ten Christians, ‘nones’ hold at least on New Age belief.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

The poll received relatively little media attention at the time. But the data it represents tells us much about how complicated it has become to know what a person of any given religious identity actually believes. What does it mean to self-identify as a Catholic if 36 percent of American Catholics do also affirm the reality of reincarnation, a concept completely at odds with traditional Catholic doctrine?

What does it mean to proclaim oneself an atheist, and yet believe – as 11 percent of atheists say they do – in “spiritual energy”?

Two truths help explain this seeming discrepancy. The first is the degree to which religious faith should be seen as a marker of social identity as much as a metaphysical system. To be a “cultural Catholic,” say, or a “cultural Jew” is to align with a group as much as it is to assent to a set of philosophical or spiritual propositions, and to say you are one or the other is increasingly more about your chosen community than about what you believe.

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Source: Religion News Service