15 December, 2009

Christian New Agers? What the....?

Have you ever, "felt you were in touch with someone who has already died?" Well, 29% of all Americans have! Do you believe "in reincarnation, that people will be reborn in this world again and again?" One-quarter (24%) of Americans believe in reincarnation!

What is quite significant is that as many Christians (29%) as non-Christians (29%) believe they have been in contact with the dead. Also nearly one-quarter of both non-Christians (24%) and Christians (22%) believe in reincarnation.What Christians think or believe about reincarnation is of particular interest, since "traditional orthodoxy" holds to a linear view of history and that the "history of salvation;" began with creation, proceeded through the death and resurrection of Jesus and will continue to the Second Coming at the end of time. The apparent contradiction between a linear and a cyclical understanding of life and history raises all kinds of real questions. Are people "mixing Faiths?" Or are they finding a deeper coherence at the foundations of religious and spiritual experience?

Whatever the case, last week The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life issued a short report titled, Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths: Eastern, New Age Beliefs, Widespread. The report itself is very descriptive of what is going on and who is doing what. Analysis is left to the reader, and here, or in a later post, I will take this up. But now we can look at some of the findings.

Spiritual or Religious Experiences
All respondents were asked, "Would you say that you have ever had a 'religious or mystical experience'-- that is a moment of  sudden religious insight or awakening?" In 2009, half (49%) of all Americans answered "Yes." Just as interesting is the fact that the percentage of Americans having had a "spiritual experience" has risen steadily since 1962, from 22% then  to 49% now; this is almost a thirty percent increase in just under half a century. Just what are these beliefs?

Percentage of those have:                % Total            % Xians
In touch with the dead                           29                     29                     
A ghostly experience                             18                     17
Consulted a psychic                              15                     14

Percentage who believe in:              % Total             % Xians
Spiritual energy in material things           26                       23
Astrology                                             25                       23
Reincarnation                                       24                       22
Yoga as a spiritual experience               23                      21
the "Evil eye," ( E.g. casting curses)       16                      17

From 15-29 % of All Americans and 17-29 % of all Christians hold these "unorthodox" beliefs and / or engage in these practices. In fact, there is no meaningful difference between the two groups. However, survey data are unable to record the exact meanings of these terms in the minds of respondents; nor how they might be combined into worldviews. Whether this is some kind of "cafeteria religion" or growing "syncratism" is unclear. Those who hold to a "strict" view of orthodoxy will be unhappy, defensive and angry about these findings. Those, however, who are open to a serious dialogue of faith with those who appear to differ from themselves, may grow and develop in their understanding of  "ultimate reality," however defined. One example of this kind of examination is found in the mutual influence  of Eastern and Western Christianity with Hinduism and Buddhism in the area of meditation and contemplation; what many Catholics and other Western Christians call "Centering Prayer" or contemplation in the sense used by Thomas Merton and Basil Pennington and as exemplified in the life of Bede Griffith, the British Benedictine who lived for so long in an ashram in India.

The demographics of New Age / Eastern Beliefs.
About one quarter of Americans believe in the Eastern notions of reincarnation (24%) and Yoga (23%). Belief in New age ideas are similarly accepted by about a quarter of the U.S. adult population: A spiritual force or energy present in physical forms (26%), Astrology (25%),and the "Evil Eye," or casting of curses (16%).

Females are  slightly more accepting of these ideas than are males. Blacks and Hispanics are noticeably more accepting of  Eastern / New age beliefs, as are those with some college education or less, Independents and Democrats rather than Republicans, and liberals and moderates more than conservatives.

Age is a very important "predictor" of many things related to culture (values, beliefs, norms), attitudes and behavior in just about all areas of life. This holds true here also. Those aged 18-29 are clearly more accepting of Eastern / New Age beliefs than are those aged 30-49 and 50-64. Those least accepting of these "unorthodox" beliefs are those sixty-five and older. It should be noted that whenever researchers or others speak of  the uniqueness of the younger generation, a common response is, "Well when they settle down, get married, turn thirty, and have kids, they'll be pretty much like the rest us (mature adults. Haha!). However, there is some pretty convincing evidence, that this may no longer be true of the, so-called, Digital Natives born after 1985 (More on this in a later post).

Influence of type of religious community and church attendance (as a measure of "religiosity).
Of more immediate interest here is the complex interconnection between the different responses about these beliefs by denomination and religious participation. It is almost a truism when studying Christian groups in industrialized nations, that level of church attendance is the best single predictor or religious behavior and behavior in many other areas of life.

The Pew Study reported the following regular church attendance figures for Americans (not counting attending just for weddings, funerals or "special occasions"):

38 %  attend religious services weekly or more often
34 %  attend once or twice a month or a few times a year
27 %  seldom or never attend  religious services

About one-fifth of all  Protestants and one-third of all Catholics accept these Eastern / New Age beliefs. However, there are some major differences within each tradition based on frequency of attendance at religious services (and racial/ethnic background).

Evangelical Protestants who attend church weekly or more often, are least likely (5-11 %) of all categories to accept New Age or Eastern beliefs. Mainline Protestants accept New Age / Eastern  beliefs at about the same rate (10-27%) as the total population. Those attending less than weekly are more accepting of these beliefs  than "all Protestants" and the total population. Mainline Protestants who attend at least weekly, are the least likely Mainliners to accept New Age / Eastern beliefs but they are still about twice as likely to accept them as their Evangelical peers. Black Protestants are very similar to the "less attending" white Mainline Protestants.

Over all, Catholics are the most likely to accept New Age / Eastern beliefs with "Spiritual Energy" and "Astrology"each  at (29%), followed by "reincarnation" (28%), "Yoga" (27%) belief in the "Evil Eye" and curses at (17%). These percentages are very much influenced by Hispanic Catholic acceptance  (E.g. belief in the Evil Eye) and White Catholics who seldom attend services. The "most religious" Catholics (weekly or more attendance), are noticeably more likely than weekly attending Mainline Protestants or Evangelical Protestants to accept New age / Eastern beliefs.

Summary Comparison of Catholics (RC), Mainline Protestants (ML) and Evangelical Protestants (Evangel).

RC    ML   Evangel

21%  12%    5%        believe in reincarnation
19%  15%   12%       believe in Yoga as a spiritual practice
22%  14%   10%       believe spiritual energy's in trees,crystals, etc.
16%  15%     8%       believe in Astrology
11%    8%   11%       belive in efficacy of the "Evil Eye," curses, etc.

The Unaffiliated.

Finally, the Unaffiliated are the most likely to accept New Age / Eastern beliefs. They are only slightly more likely than "all Catholics" (White-non-Hispanic + Hispanics) to accept New Age / Eastern beliefs.

So what can we conclude from all these statistics?

First, it is not only the "Goddless" Unafiliated who believe in New Age / Eastern beliefs.
Second, Christians from all the major traditions accept some or all  these beliefs.
Third, generally the more strict the religious category, the less likely is there acceptance of these beliefs.
Forth, Those who are most frequent church attenders are least likely to accept these beliefs
Fifth, whether this "mixing of Faiths is a sign of growing "secularization" remains an open question.
Sixth, whether we are in an age of increasing "syncratism" as conservative contend is an open question.
Seventh, it is possible that this is an opening to global religious / philosophical understanding and experience.
Eight, these "mixed" experiences may provide a foundation for a global ethic fostering universal  human rights.
Ninth, those who are open to dialogue with "the other" may find truth also exists in "the other."
Tenth, those who are "seekers after certainty" may exert power to prevent a search for deeper truth.

Like so many other things in life, openness to new ideas and ways might be risky but also an opportunity rather than a danger or a problem. I wonder how courageous each of us, and the whole human community will be to accept this the adventure. Just as we Christians must be open to dialogue and experience with diverse others, so too must secular humanists, agnostics and atheists, followers of other religions and philosophies have the courage to dialogue for the benefit of our common humanity.


  1. Dr. S,
    This is a very interesting and relevant post for me because I espouse influence from eastern religion because it allows me to understand my primary faith (a matter of the heart and the head), Christianity, in a clearer and more concise way.

    Buddhism teaches respect for life and others (loving-kindness) in a way that is lost in the bad news of the afterlife-brand Christianity. Merton, as you mentioned in this post, was very centered in conversation with Buddhist masters (See his work, "Zen and the Birds of Appetite") and may of employed some of their methods in his own spiritual quest.

    Inter-faith dialog is a must for the preservation of the sacred otherness and "moreness" that all religious traditions represent.

  2. This is much too late, but thanks Seth. You are correct, Merton, even more Bede Griffiths, integrated Eastern practices into their own lives.

    At the very least, other Faiths present various pictures and insights into ultimate reality we call God. take, for example, the statue by Michelangelo, Looking down from heaven you get one picture, rear and front views give you different pictures. But they are all David. So too, the story about the men and the elephant. Which "angle" may be "best" is a question of Faith.


Comments most welcome.