Baylor University recently published the results of its extensive survey of American religious life. (See What Americans Really Believe, Baylor University Press, 2008.) The numbers speak for themselves.
Let’s start with some easy issues like heaven and the devil. Ninety-two percent of Conservative Protestants believe heaven “absolutely exists” as do 66% of liberal Protestants and 69% of Catholics. And Jews? Only 27% believe there is a heaven. Eighty-eight percent of Conservative Protestants believe Satan “absolutely exits” as do 52% of liberal Protestants and 52% of Catholics. And Jews? Only 8% believe in Satan.
This is not really surprising, though the fact that 27% of Jews believe in heaven was much higher than I would have guessed. Heaven and Hell are just not hot button issues for the vast majority of Jews.
Weekly attendance at religious services was pretty much what one might expect. Fifty-four percent of Conservative Protestants attend church one a week, along with 36% of Liberal Protestants and 41% of Catholics. Jews? Only 13%. Hey, if we don’t believe in heaven and hell why sit through hours of boring liturgy and vapid sermons?
How about talking up your team? Jews are a proud people, maybe we share our love of our religion as much as other Americans? Nope. While forty-four percent of Conservative Protestants, 19% of Liberal Protestants, and 22% of Catholics talk about their faith at least once a month, only 3% of Jews do so. I’m not talking about proselytizing, how about just a positive word every week or two?
OK, I admit that so far I could have predicted the spread without spending a dime on a real survey. But the next item did throw me. When asked if their religion is in “high tension” with prevailing secular attitudes toward pornography, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, living together outside of marriage, gambling, and wearing revealing clothing, 53% of Conservative Protestants, 13% of Liberal Protestants and 37% of Catholics saw their respective faiths as offering an alternative to the rampant obscenity that passes for culture in secular America. And Jews? 0%. Zero. Nada. Not one. That is sad.
No less sad is the Jews’ relationship with spiritual or religious experiences. While 64% of Conservative Protestants, 40% of Liberal and 40% of Catholics claim that they have had a religious or mystical experience. Only 9% of Jews make that claim.
And yet when the Baylor team asked Americans about New Age ideas such as alternative medicine, generic spiritual development, unity with nature, etc. fully 30% of Jews said they are investigating such things while only 8% of Conservative Protestants, 18% of Liberal Protestants, and 12% of Catholics were doing so.
What shall we make of these numbers? To me it says that Judaism is largely irrelevant to Jews. With only 9% finding spiritually moving experiences within the faith, and 30% looking for answers outside of it, Jewish spirituality is moribund at best. And the fact that not a single percent saw Judaism at odds with the greed and grunge that is at the heart of American secular culture says to me that Judaism has abandoned its prophetic heritage, the one aspect of Judaism that, to my mind, makes being Jewish worthwhile.
If Judaism isn’t offering Jews either an alternative culture or a deep spirituality, what is it offering?