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As a scholar of American religion, one of my favorite things to do is to think about the ways we sort Americans based on religion. Is it by self-identified religious affiliation? The church or synagogue or mosque one attends? A set of beliefs? A set of practices? Some mixture of the two? Scholars and observers of American religion have done this in different ways over the years.

Well, now we’ve got a new model out. The Pew Research Center came out with a new set of religious typologies last week. It’s their effort to better understand where Americans are at with religion and where we might be heading next. It brings a novel approach, according to the typologies’ creators.

The researchers wanted to move away from using how people self-identify—say, by denomination—and instead look at “the beliefs and behaviors that cut across many denominations.”

To accomplish this, the survey looked at mixture of religious/spiritual beliefs and practices. Based on the results of their initial survey, researchers identified different clusters of similarities.

They used these clusters to first divide Americans into three categories—highly religious, somewhat religious, and non-religious. They then broke those categories down into seven typologies: Sunday Stalwarts, God-and-Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religion Resisters, and Solidly Secular. You can read the full descriptions of each type here.

I’m usually a big fan of the Pew Research Center but I have to admit that, so far, I’m a bit skeptical of these new designations—mostly because it doesn’t quite seem to match up with my own experience.

See, I took the quiz that Pew included with their report. I took it four times and landed in Solidly Secular every time. I was really confused. The Solidly Secular contingent is at the least religious end of the spectrum. But I kept landing there, in the least religious of all of the categories, despite the fact that I identify as Christian and am an active and engaged member of my church.

Sure, my religious beliefs put me on the liberal end of the spectrum but does that really make me any less religious? Something about the typologies didn’t seem to be quite right. And in reading the descriptions of each typology, I didn’t really think any of the categories were a match for me or for anyone I knew.

So what was going on? Why did I keep ending up in the least religious category despite being a practicing Christian? I’ve got a few guesses so far. I think the start of the problem might be with the report’s main three categories: highly religious, somewhat religious, and non-religious. The report seems to define “highly religious” in fairly traditional/conservative terms—belief in God “as described in the Bible,” a literal reading of the Bible, etc. The researchers also seem to group together those who share the same conservative views on social issues in the highly religious categories, which might also skew the results. Either way, these typologies don’t quite grasp the rich religious lives of those who don’t necessarily adhere to traditional forms of Christianity or who have left fundamental religion in search of something else.

At this point, the typologies leave me with more questions than answers. And I’m wondering if going forward, we’ll need to reimagine our religious typologies as the American religious landscape shifts. In trying to explain our current religious makeup, Pew still places too much emphasis on a traditional alignment of religious beliefs and practices and not enough on the new ways people are interacting with religion and the ways religious belief is changing. There is also too much emphasis on Christian beliefs and practices that might rule out otherwise religiously active people.

I really think our religious typologies are even more complex than Pew is ready to admit.

Despite the fact that I am currently quite skeptical about these new designations, I am curious to hear what all of you readers think and where you fall based on the quiz and typology descriptions. Do Pew’s new typologies resonate with you or do you find them lacking? And how do these categories map onto your own experience with religion and the church?

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

5 Comments

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    I chuckled with this … Pew Research doesn’t help very much while they continue to define “religious” in traditional categories, even as “religious” undergoes considerable reconfiguration. I haven’t take the “test,” but I suspect that I’d end up where you are, even as I am fully and gratefully a Christian. Pew needs to do a better job of assessing the currents of the time, simply because those who are “solidly secular” are, in my experience, at least, some of the most religious and thoughtful people I have the pleasure of knowing. Yet, given its history and the money behind it, it’s clearly self-serving for Pew to maintain the traditional standards of measurement. Thanks for this insightful piece. Long live historians. Keep up the good work.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Interesting. I took the test numerous times, to see how changing the answers affects the final categorization.

    If, as you claim, you are an (1)active and (2)engaged member of a church (which are 2 of the 16 questions), then your answers to the other 14 questions must be really skewed toward secular humanist answers to get to the “Solidly Secular” group.

    I suspect the quiz may be rather accurate. Apart from people on this site, there just aren’t may people who consider themselves Christian yet fully ascribe to a Secular Humanist and Cultural Marxist worldview.

    No offfense, but people like you simply do not exist outside of denominational bureaucracies or academia. To put it more charitably, you’re kind of a unicorn.

  • George E says:

    Schadenfreude. I must confess, that was my reaction to your post. It seems like The Twelve is generally defining out us orthodox, and now Pew has tested you outside the tribe.

    You note your objection to the bible question. Think about it this way: The apostles (and their amanuenses) wrote the bible (which the Holy Spirit uses as a vehicle for inspiration). The early church leadership looked at the textual contributions and said: These describe our religion, and we’ll leave out other writings which may be valuable but just don’t fit the standards. So that approved collection, the bible, became our constitution. Except that it doesn’t get to be amended. Amending it, or contorting it a la Ginsburg, places you outside the tribe.

    As Marty implied, you have your tribe within denominational institutions and academia. It just seems you’re just not in the orthodox church tribe.

  • Cheryl Scherr says:

    I am very liberal, a progressive but I came out as a Sunday stalwart. Hmm….

  • Ann says:

    I also came out a Sunday Stalwart (and I took it multiple times). But I didn’t think the questions were well phrased or thought through at all. Like the questions “do you believe in heaven/hell?”- well, yes? But certainly not in the way the author probably defines those words. I guess- I didn’t feel like most of the questions fulfilled their purpose. Too many of them left me struggling to find the multiple choice that fit me and I begrudgingly picked an answer but was left with that feeling of, but, but, but I want to explain why I chose that!

    Honestly, I think denomination (or lack thereof) is a much better way to parsing out where people are. Perhaps Catholicism is such a big tent that it might need to be divided up further but I feel like the fact that I’m Episcopalian pretty much sums me up. I like traditional liturgy & I’m progressive in my theology (although probably conservative within the Episcopal tent).

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