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Survey: Americans mix and match religions

Thursday, December 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

When it comes to religion, many Americans like the mix-and-match, build-your-own approach.

Large numbers attend services of traditions other than their own and blend Christianity with Eastern and New Age beliefs, a survey finds.

The report Wednesday from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also shows tremendous growth over the past three decades in the number of Americans who say they have had a religious or mystical experience.

Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities say they hold beliefs of the sort found at Buddhist temples or New Age bookstores. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed overall and 22 percent of Christians say they believe in reincarnation, the idea that people will be reborn in this world again and again.

As for the significant numbers who visit more than one place of worship, it's not just an rare visit while on vacation or for special events like weddings and funerals.

One-third of Americans say they regularly or occasionally attend religious services at more than one place. One-quarter say they sometimes attend services of a faith different from their own.

"It is as much now the norm as it is the exception for Americans to blend multiple religious beliefs and practices," said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

Among the report's other findings:

  • About 1 in 4 Americans believe in Eastern or New Age ideas, including reincarnation (which is part of Buddhism and Hinduism); yoga as a spiritual practice; spiritual energy in things like mountains, trees and crystals; and astrology.
  • About 16 percent of Americans believe in the "evil eye" — that certain people can cast curses or spells. More than 1 in 10 white evangelicals who attend church weekly and 3 in 10 black Protestants believe in the phenomenon, which can be found in Islam, Judaism and traditional African beliefs.
  • Roughly 3 in 10 Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has died — up from 18 percent in 1996. The belief is most common among black Protestants and Catholics. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans say they have been in the presence of a ghost.
  • Three in 10 Protestants say they attend multiple types of religious services, including services at Protestant denominations different from their own. Almost 1 in 5 Protestants indicate they also attend non-Protestant services. About 1 in 5 Catholics say they also attend non-Catholic services.
  • Nearly half of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, or a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening," the survey found. That represents a doubling since Gallup asked in 1962.

White evangelicals and black Protestants are most likely to say they have had a religious or mystical experience. Yet even those unaffiliated with any religion show a strong spiritual bent. Three in 10 reported having such an experience.

D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion, said the results illustrate what he calls the "playlist effect" in contemporary American religious practice.

"The way we personalize our iPhones, we also personalize our religious lives," he said.

That so many Christians believe in astrology and reincarnation might trouble Christian leaders already concerned about professed believers who take what they need from the faith and leave the rest.

The build-your-own-religion findings show that "culture and pop culture and the Internet are probably more powerful teachers than Sunday school teachers," said Scott Thumma, a sociologist at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.

The survey of more than 4,000 adults was conducted by phone in August; the total sample size has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.


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