New York not among the most religious states

You can’t be surprised.

Sure, there are tons of churches and synagogues in New York and lots of religious people to fill them.

imagesBut New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley — make that downstate to upstaters — is home to plenty of non-believers, free-thinkers and a lot of people whose faith is not a top priority in their lives.

Right?

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, New York is the 39th most religious state. The ranking is based on New Yorkers’ answer to one, key question: Whether religion is “very important” in their lives.

Only 46% said yes.

The national average is 56%. Mississippi came in first at 82% — way ahead of Alabama and Arkansas at 74%.

Yes, the top 10 is dominated by the South. Just like college football.

And the least religious state?

I would have guessed Washington state, which came in 36th in religious-ness.

Last place was a tie between neighbors New Hampshire and Vermont, where only 36 percent say religion is very important in their New England lives.

What would the Puritans say?

A little bit of this, a touch of that

Anyone who speaks to real people about religion knows that individual faith is much more complicated than what tradition one belongs to.

People who officially belong to a given denomination often have beliefs that go beyond the boundaries of their identified religion. This has become especially true in recent decades, as people from Judeo-Christian backgrounds have become influenced by eastern spirituality.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life confirms that many people dabble in several different faiths at once or at least add “foreign” practices to their own traditions.

The Pew people say:

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Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

image002Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year’s survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).

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USA TODAY’s Cathy Lynn Grossman explores this spiritual terrain very well. She writes:

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And, according to the survey’s other major finding, devotion to one clear faith is fading.

Of the 72% of Americans who attend religious services at least once a year (excluding holidays, weddings and funerals), 35% say they attend in multiple places, often hop-scotching across denominations.

They are like President Obama, who currently has no home church. He has worshiped at a Baptist church, an Episcopal one, and the non-denominational chapel at Camp David.

“Mixing and matching practices and beliefs is as much the norm as it is the exception,” Pew’s Alan Cooperman says. “Are they grazing, sampling, just curious? We really don’t know.”

Even so, says Pew researcher Greg Smith, “these findings all point toward a spiritual and religious openness — not necessarily a lack of seriousness.”

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Many religious leaders and seminary types, especially those from conservative or traditional camps, will gnash their teeth over these findings. They’ll see this “One from column A, two from column B” approach to spirituality as inauthentic, weak, and a diversion from the practice of their true religion.

But how can they stop it?

The cover story in the December issue of the evangelical monthly Christianity Today is headlined: “Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life: More people than ever doubt that anyone has a corner on truth. So why do Christians keep insisting on the incomparable uniqueness of Christ?”

The author, John Franke, of Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Penn., writes: “Denial of the uniqueness of Jesus as the Life ends up compromising the distinctive Christian teaching that God is triune. Doing so cuts the heart out of Christian witness in the world.”

He concludes:

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As we try to witness to our relativistic world about the uniqueness of Christ, we have to abandon the idea that this is something we can demonstrate with definitive proof, particularly to those who are predisposed to deny this. It is beyond the scope of human ability to produce in others the faith to see Jesus as he is. But it is the church’s calling to continue to bear witness to Jesus and demonstrate the significance of his person for the whole fabric of Christian faith.

The belief that Jesus Christ is none other than God come in the flesh shapes our understanding of every point of distinctive Christian teaching. I’ve argued in a recent book that the diversity of the church is not a problem to be solved but is, in fact, the blessing of God. Indeed, the proper expression of orthodox, biblical faith can only be characterized by plurality. But in the midst of our diversity, we must remain unified on this point—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we fail to stand fast here everything else will be in vain and the Christian church will lose its bearings. We will fail in our missional vocation to be the image of God and the body of Christ in the world.

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Chart: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

1 in 4 people now Muslim

One in 4 people in the world are now Muslim, according to a major new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

A study of more than 200 countries estimates that there are 1.57 billion Muslims. Most estimates have hovered around 1.3 billion.

The finding that is likely to get the most attention: more than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia and about 20% is in the Middle East and North Africa.

The AP’s Eric Gorski frames it well:

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The project, three years in the making, also presents a portrait of the Muslim world that might surprise some. For instance, Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon, China has more Muslims than Syria, Russia has more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined, and Ethiopia has nearly as many Muslims as Afghanistan.
“This whole idea that Muslims are Arabs and Arabs are Muslims is really just obliterated by this report,” said Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University who reviewed an advance copy.

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The world’s largest Muslim nation? Indonesia, with 203 million Muslims (or 13%).

The Sunni-Shia breakdown? 87-90% Sunni, 10-13% Shia

And where does Christianity stand? 2.1 to 2.2 billion followers.

Here’s an interesting “trailer” from the Pew people:

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These findings on the world Muslim population lay the foundation for a forthcoming study by the Pew Forum, scheduled to be released in 2010, that will estimate growth rates among Muslim populations worldwide and project Muslim populations into the future. The Pew Forum plans to launch a similar study of global Christianity in 2010 as well. The Pew Forum also plans to conduct in-depth public opinion surveys on the intersection of religion and public life around the world, starting with a 19-country survey of sub-Saharan Africa scheduled to be released later this year. These forthcoming studies are part of a larger effort – the Global Religious Futures Project, jointly funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation – that aims to increase people’s understanding of religion around the world.

New study: Support drops for legal abortion

Support for legal abortion is slipping, according to a new study from the Pew Forum on Religin & Public Life.

The percentage of Americans who believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases passed 60 percent at several points during the last decade, but now has dropped to 47%.

And the percentage of people who believe that abortion should be ILLEGAL in all or most cases had risen in the last year from 41% to 45%.

image02So we’re now looking at almost a dead heat: 47% in support of legal abortion, 45% against.

The study suggests that opposition to abortion among conservatives has strengthened during a Democratic presidency, while liberals have gotten complacent on the issue.

The percentage of liberal Democrats saying that abortion is a “critical” issue has fallen sharply from 34% in March 06 to 8% in August 09.

The Pew people say:

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The timing of this shift in attitudes on abortion suggests it could be connected to Obama’s election. The decline in support for legal abortion first appeared in polls in the spring of 2009. Overall, roughly three-in-ten (29%) think Obama will handle the abortion issue about right as president. One-in-five Americans (19%) worry that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights, while very few (4%) express the opposite concern that Obama will not go far enough to support abortion rights. Concern about Obama’s handling of abortion is especially evident on the right; fully half of conservative Republicans (52%) worry that Obama will go too far in supporting abortion rights. However, nearly one-in-five political independents (18%) also worry that Obama will go too far in support of abortion rights.

Catching up on 9/11

It’s been a few days since I posted, as I’ve been trying to transition to my new life as a GA — general assignments — reporter.

I’ve been busy roaming around around, talking to people about the war in Afghanistan. Should we increase troops, pull the troops out or what? My story is out today, on the anniversary of 9/11 (which I’ll get to in a moment).

I have to say that I really appreciate the many emails and phone calls I’ve gotten from people about the demise of the religion beat here at LoHud/The Journal News. It means a lot to hear that people appreciated my coverage of religion for the last 12-plus years.

I understand that people feel it’s a mistake for LoHud/TJN to stop covering religion. But I also understand the very difficult challenges facing this business. We’re cutting back in many ares and trying to do other things well. Sometimes, there are no easy answers.

This is a tough week for me because the Religion Newswriters Association is holding its annual conference, in Minneapolis this year, and I’m not there. I’ve been to 8 or 9 conferences and  really enjoyed getting to know a group of reporters dedicated to covering religion as best they could.

It’s a smaller gathering this year, as many newspapers have been cutting out their religion coverage. The Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson, who is in Minneapolis, writes on his blog about the religion beat being “endangered” (and has a few nice words to say about me).

So today it’s 9/11.

It was in the days after the attacks — and the weeks and months — that many people wrote and said that religion coverage was especially important to highlight and explain everything happening in the world today.

And explain we did.

Much of the coverage has focused, of course, on Islam, which was still a pretty mysterious (world) religion to most people before the attacks. I think it’s safe to say that people who want to know something about Islam now do.

Covering Islam has been no easy task for most journalists in this country. Why? We talk to and write about Muslims in America, who often see the world very differently from Muslims in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan or Iraq.

Many of the outrageous things we read about Muslims in the world — people being stoned, people being arrested for converting, a woman facing trial for wearing pants — are outrageous to Muslims who live and work in the U.S. And I can tell you, American Muslims are beyond tired of having to explain and apologize for the actions of people far, far away.

A new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows that Americans, by and large, see Muslims as facing a great deal of discrimination — more than any group in society other than gays and lesbians.

Forty-five percent of the public says Islam is no more likely to encourage violence than other religions. Thirty-eight percent say that Islam is more likely to encourage violence.

But which Islam are we taking about? How it’s practiced in Pakistan or in Ohio?

A surprise to me: 45 percent of Americans say they know a Muslim personally. I would have expected 20 percent or something like that.

But get this: Only 41 percent of those polled could identify the name Muslims use for God (Allah) and their holy book (the Koran). I mean, what have you been doing for the last eight years?

Regardless, if you want to relive the emotions that Americans felt after 9/11 and the many questions that people asked, check out some of the video excerpts and interviews that made up the PBS special “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.”

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, the prominent theologian from NY, said this:

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What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be, all we can appeal to. It’s our safety net. … But here, the more you show your humanity, the more you’re hated. I’ve never seen anything like this. And I saw it.

To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It’s an offense against the reality of what happened — an offense against our humanity — to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic explanations. “Oh, it’s American foreign policy. It is the arrival into our shores of the Palestinian-Israeli fight. It is globalization. It is the cultural wars. It is American imperialism.” All of that is proposed by the “Yes, but” brigade who got to work immediately after the explosion. It is obscene and irresponsible, because we were facing an attack, a hatred of humanity which is what we all have in common. It’s our line of defense, our only one. And now that was gone. …

The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don’t know what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes, they were. They believed. This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere, it would be a terrible thing, but … it is the sincerity, it is the free will. I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center. This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. …

What’s the message to Catholics of the Notre Dame controversy?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone who is a church-going Catholic and who has a child graduating from Notre Dame in two weeks.

This person was trying to get a handle on what it really means that more than 50 bishops and other influential Catholics are furious that Notre Dame — Catholic U — is honoring the President of the United States at commencement services.

The only conclusion that one can draw, he said, is that abortion is the only issue that matters these days in the Catholic world. Period. Case closed.

But if this is so, he said, the church needs to come out and say so, directly and clearly, so that Catholics understand what is going on and can decide where they stand.

Because Notre Dame — which has a chapel in every dorm — is, in fact, honoring our pro-choice president and because most bishops have said nothing about it, the signals being received by most Catholics are decidedly unclear, he told me.

If you read Mary Ann Glendon’s letter to Notre Dame, explaining why she won’t accept an honor on the same stage as Obama, she seems to think that the church’s position is clear. She refers to “the very serious problems raised by Notre Dame’s decision—in disregard of the settled position of the U.S. bishops—to honor a prominent and uncompromising opponent of the Church’s position on issues involving fundamental principles of justice.”

If you haven’t heard about the Pew Forum’s recent poll on this question….they found that half of Catholics had not even heard about the Obama at ND controversy (including 32% of regular Mass-goers).

Of those who had, 54 percent agree with the decision to honor Obama, and 33 percent disagree.

Breaking things down by Mass attendance, those who attend weekly disagree with the invite to Obama by 45% to 37%, with 18% undecided. Those who attend less often support the invite 56% to 23%, with 21% undecided.

The weekend line-up

Today: Archbishop Dolan visited Ground Zero.

As he walked out, he said he felt an “overwhelming sadness at the horror, suffering and pain that the site still carries.”

Tomorrow: Joel Osteen at Yankee Stadium. Will he fill more seats than the Yankees?

Sunday: I’m speaking at Maryknoll at 2:30 p.m. about covering the religion beat.

Monday: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life releases a major study on people who switch faiths.

A ministry too many people can use

Last night, I went to St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Yorktown Heights to visit the EARN program.

It’s not catechesis.

It’s a networking group for people who are looking for jobs. There were more than 50 people there.

St. Patrick’s started the EARN program 20 years ago this month, when a lot of local employers started throwing around the term “downsizing.”

EARN has continued to meet every month since then, even during good times.

These are not good times.

I’m writing about EARN — a ministry of St. Patrick’s — for tomorrow’s FaithBeat column.

By the way, if there is one thing that people of different faiths can agree on, it’s that our top national priority is fixing the economy.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life explains further.

African Americans are more religious

African Americans are more religious than other Americans, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has found.

No surprise, really. The “black church” has been a seminal institution in the black community since the days of slavery, offering spiritual and material sustenance through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the northern migration and on and on.

The Pew Forum has a very detailed breakdown HERE.

87% of African Americans belong to a religious group. 79% say that religion is very important in their lives (compared to 56% for all Americans).

Also, 88% are certain that God exists, 76% pray at least daily and 53% go to church at least once a week.

The church breakdown: 78% of African Americans are Protestants and 59% belong to the historically black churches. 5% are Catholic, 1% Jehovah’s Witness, 1% Muslim.

12% are unaffiliated (compared with 16% overall).

This is interesting: When it comes to politics, only 23% of African Americans describe themselves as liberal. 32% say they’re conservative, and 36% moderate.

46% of African Americans say homosexuality should be discouraged (compared to 40% overall).

Here are some findings on opposition to abortion (straight from the Pew Forum):

Breaking down the new Congress (by religion)

In terms of religious affiliations, the incoming 111th Congress looks, more or less, like America.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has charted the religions of current and incoming congresspeople and senators.

From Pew:

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“Collectively, Protestants account for more than half (54.7%) of the 111th Congress, about the same proportion as their share of the U.S. adult population (51.3%). But American Protestantism is very diverse and encompasses more than a dozen major denominational families, such as Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, all with unique beliefs, practices and histories. When these Protestant denominational families are considered as separate religious groups, Catholics are the single largest religious group in the 111th Congress. Catholics, who account for nearly one-quarter of the U.S. adult population, make up about 30% of Congress. Indeed, the number of Catholics in Congress is two-and-a-half times the size of the next largest religious group, Baptists, who make up about 12% of the members.”

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Very interesting stuff.

Here’s some of Pew’s findings: