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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?