Religion à la Carte – Threat or Menace?*
December 11, 2009 11:44 AM   Subscribe

A major survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A strong majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, including majorities of nearly every religious tradition, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. (.pdf of full report (268 pages) or watch the video of Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo giving an overview of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and talking about some of its key findings.)

on commodification of religion and "a la carte" religion:
“As capitalism became the dominant logic system for social relations, religious beliefs, practices, and symbols first became commodities, and then later signs and abstract signifiers that modern consumers use to signal to others seemingly vital elements of their identity and status, but which have no actual ties to the religion’s practices, community, and its demands for social justice. In effect, the hegemony of commodification trains people to relate to all culture as cultural products; that is, commodities, which may be bought and sold on the free market. Consumers choose their religion, enjoy it, and once it has served its purpose—usually to achieve self-fulfillment—they discard it.”

- Scott Klein - The Morality and Politics of Consumer Religion: How Consumer Religion Fuels the Culture Wars in the United States
... but,
“[...] many anthropologists, on both sides of the Atlantic, have personally expressed to me strong reservations about ever employing the word syncretism. If asked why they hold this view, they are often unable to articulate a specific reason. Some, however, did express one or both of the following objections: (1) syncretism is a pejorative term, one that derides mixture, and/or (2) syncretism presupposes "purity" in the traditions that combine. Both of these reservations will be considered below, but it is the broad disagreement within the anthropological community on the appropriateness of the very term syncretism that has stimulated this inquiry. Such ambivalence reflects basic uncertainties about how to conceptualize cultural mixture.”

- Charles Stewart - Syncretism and Its Synonyms: Reflections on Cultural Mixture
posted by ServSci (37 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Mod note: Fixed the links.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:56 AM on December 11, 2009

thank you.
posted by ServSci at 11:59 AM on December 11, 2009

People's willingness to accept the equality of other religions enhances my belief that many if not most religious people do not literally believe any of the core supernatural tenets of their religion, and instead regard the faith as a means of feeling part of a community and of a tradition, while they recognise the same sentiment in people of other traditions. It is an encouraging thought!
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2009 [10 favorites]

many if not most religious people do not literally believe any of the core supernatural tenets of their religion, and instead regard the faith as a means of feeling part of a community and of a tradition

These aren't necessarily incompatible concepts.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:09 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you literally believe the core supernatural tenets, then (for most religions) other people must be literally wrong.
posted by DU at 12:15 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

AdamCSnider, that is true, but if one were to believe that the supernatural tenets of one's religion were literally true, one would be much more inclined to dismiss a contradictory religion as not being a path to salvation. Indeed it is a recurring motif in major religions that those who continue to worship incorrectly or who have faith in false supernatural tenets are frowned upon by the superior beings.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 12:15 PM on December 11, 2009

Okay, this conclusion is useless. It completely equates the difference between denominations within the same broad tradition and differences between entirely different traditions. So if you ask a Southern Baptist whether "their" "tradition" is the only way to eternal life, and they happen to think that the those in the General Association of Regular Baptists will go to heaven too (and I highly doubt you're going to find more than a tiny fraction of SBs who would answer that in the negative), the survey records this as if they think that more than one religious tradition is valid.

This would tend to lead one to think that there is a far, far higher degree of religious relativism than is almost certainly the case. Most evangelicals are willing to extend recognition of validity to most other evangelicals, even those who the survey would call a different "religious tradition." Many are willing to include all Protestants, and a fair number will include Christians of every stripe, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. But I highly doubt that fifty-seven percent of evangelicals think that non-Christians can go to heaven, and the survey really doesn't bring the necessary rigor to support this conclusion.

The raw numbers about religious affiliation, religious retention, and demographic data I grant without qualm. But it doesn't appear to me that his survey could possibly support the conclusion that most Americans are completely ambivalent about the exclusivity of their own religion. You'd need a far grittier way of distinguishing between religious traditions--and grouping them together--before such a claim would even approach validity.
posted by valkyryn at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2009 [8 favorites]

Awesome title! Sums it up brilliantly.

"Syncretism" has been the rule rather than the exception, wherever people of different religious traditions had any contact at all, for millennia. Identifying it with capitalism and consumerism is spitting in the face and the faiths of all of our ancestors. Religious mixing is responsible for the origin of all the major religions whose hierarchies (but not adherents apparently) now abhor it.

It's only from the point of view of someone who has an interest in essentializing a religious tradition, isolating a "pure" core and protecting it from "alien" accretions, that a term like "syncretism," (taken as derogatory anyway), is even meaningful.
posted by edheil at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is why I always question whether or not people truly believe in hell. If you truly and honestly believed that I'm bound for eternal torment - how can you call yourself a decent person if you don't spend 100% of your limited time here on Earth trying to convince me otherwise? And I'm just a random stranger! What about your kids? If I believed in Hell, honestly believed in it, I wouldn't let my kids out of the house. Of course, I think Hell was invented by the church and people who claim to believe in it don't, otherwise their lives would be very, very different.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:21 PM on December 11, 2009

"If you literally believe the core supernatural tenets, then (for most religions) other people must be literally wrong."

It's all about who gets to decide what the "core supernatural tenets" really are.

If you scratch the surface of "core supernatural tenets" you find that they tend to be a thin whitewash pasted over the corpses of disagreement and diversity of the past.

E.g. it's a lie that heresies arose as a corruption of a pristine Christian orthodoxy. In fact, orthodoxy is the result of one group in a pluralistic community managing to attack and suppress all its competitors.

The same turns out to be true of just about any tradition of whose origins we have adequate knowledge.

Cause that's how humans work.
posted by edheil at 12:22 PM on December 11, 2009

I think most "believers" are simply adhering to Pascal's Wager and are just afraid to stop believing. The core supernatural tenets aren't that important to them.
posted by rocket88 at 12:34 PM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

this ABC news story specifically mentions astrology, reincarnation, and yoga as the most common elements of mixture. I'm not sure how clear the average person is on the lineage of these ideas, or if it would matter to them how incompatible they might be with their religion in terms of institutional affliation.

I speak to alot of people who seem comfortable with the spirituality/religion (personal/institutional) distinction.
posted by ServSci at 12:41 PM on December 11, 2009

I think most "believers" are simply adhering to Pascal's Wager and are just afraid to stop believing. The core supernatural tenets aren't that important to them.

Wanna bet?
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:58 PM on December 11, 2009

I think most "believers" are simply adhering to Pascal's Wager and are just afraid to stop believing.

I understand Journey reached a similar conclusion.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:59 PM on December 11, 2009 [11 favorites]

Okay, this conclusion is useless.


If you ask an evangelical Christian whether a Muslim is going to heaven and the evangelical Christian says "Yes," my money is on the likelihood that the follow-up statement would be, "Of course Jesus can save members of any religion" and not "Of course all paths lead to the top of the mountain!"

To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. To a pluralist with a survey, every ambiguity is a WIN.
posted by jefficator at 1:04 PM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you truly and honestly believed that I'm bound for eternal torment - how can you call yourself a decent person if you don't spend 100% of your limited time here on Earth trying to convince me otherwise?

Have you met an evangelical Christian? Seriously, have you never had someone walk up to you and say, "Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?" This is pretty much what differentiates an evangelical from a straight up Christian; they evangelize.

Rightly or wrongly, evangelical Christians (or evangelical Buddhist or whomever with their beliefs--and I have met evangelical Buddhists) believe that it is their duty to convert you to Christianity and have you profess the belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

They spend quite a bit of time, money, and effort finding new people to convert. So, say what you might about evangelical Christians, they really do believe you're bound for Hell and they really do want to do just about anything in their power to get you to become Christian and save yourself from what they view as both a terrible and preventable fate.
posted by librarylis at 1:20 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Elsewhere, a study from the Pew Pew Pew Forum suggests that many people feel that opposing forces need to be destroyed, ideally, with lasers.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:50 PM on December 11, 2009 [8 favorites]

I find a la carte religious belief fascinating because at some point it ends up coming down to "I believe whatever it feels good to believe", which is absolutely maddening to comprehend being okay with.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:13 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you truly and honestly believed that I'm bound for eternal torment - how can you call yourself a decent person if you don't spend 100% of your limited time here on Earth trying to convince me otherwise?

I honestly don't follow. I think you might be making assumptions about Hell and how you end up in Hell that don't jive with my tradition's concepts. I think it would be useful, in conversation, to unpack those assumptions.

In what you might call mystical Catholicism - which, on this point, is official church doctrine though perhaps subscribed to by a minority of adherents - Heaven and Hell aren't places. They are spiritual states. Some have even suggested that they're the same spiritual state - basked in the glory of God - with different experiences between those who love God and those who reject God.

I'm usually a pretty concrete skeptical realist. My intellectual conception of God is very cosmicy and New Agey and quasi-Spinozan. But if Heaven exists, I believe it will be merely an eternity of experiencing the deep joy that religion brings me; and if Hell exists, it will be merely an eternity of experiencing the lack of communion with God. While for me personally that would be very painful, the possibility of others experiencing it doesn't produce in me the same urgency as would some physical, mortal danger -- particularly because it is those persons' own outlooks on God and religion that will directly cause whatever anguish they experience.
posted by jock@law at 2:15 PM on December 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

if Hell exists, it will be merely an eternity of experiencing the lack of communion with God.

I'm really sorry if this seems disrespectful. I really don't intend it to be. The stance you describe reminds me of something, though, which prompted me to try to find it online, and now to share it, just in case people are unaware of it.

In the movie the Prophecy, Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen) describes hell almost precisely that way. Sorry this clip contains all the Viggo material from the movie. For the relevant bit go to 4:15 of the clip. Anyway, the The clip is here... The main bad guy is Gabriel (Christopher Walken)... maybe you should just rent the movie.
posted by ServSci at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2009

Bad, or badass?
posted by cortex at 2:47 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wait, wait, Lucifer in Prophecy was Viggo Mortensen? I knew he looked familiar!
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:51 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

But if Heaven exists, I believe it will be merely an eternity of experiencing the deep joy that religion brings me; and if Hell exists, it will be merely an eternity of experiencing the lack of communion with God.

But, after you die, how will you experience anything eternally?
posted by defenestration at 2:52 PM on December 11, 2009

Not at all, ServSci. This is, verbatim, what the Catechism says:

"This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell.' ... The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs."

It also talks about fiery imagery, but in my take it's just imagery.
posted by jock@law at 2:57 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah! And JPII agreed: "The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God. Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy." [link]
posted by jock@law at 2:59 PM on December 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Anyway... I do remember Ratzinger, back in his Inquisition days, making a number of statements about the Church as the sole source of salvation. Like Dominus Iesus,
"21. With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself”.83 Theologians are seeking to understand this question more fully. Their work is to be encouraged, since it is certainly useful for understanding better God's salvific plan and the ways in which it is accomplished. However, from what has been stated above about the mediation of Jesus Christ and the “unique and special relationship”84 which the Church has with the kingdom of God among men — which in substance is the universal kingdom of Christ the Saviour — it is clear that it would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God."
Interestingly, the Pew Report mentions that Catholics are taking the biggest hit in the "marketplace of religion":
"While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, the statistics show that Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic)."
I dunno if the two things are related, if being so exclusive means people feel the need to leave altogether instead of just incorporating things...
posted by ServSci at 3:18 PM on December 11, 2009

Wait, wait, Lucifer in Prophecy was Viggo Mortensen? I knew he looked familiar!

So you admit to meeting Lucifer. BURN THE WITCH!
posted by tkchrist at 5:48 PM on December 11, 2009

librarylis: I have met evangelical Buddhists

Really? Huh. AFAIK it's pretty specifically prohibited. Well, not prohibited per se, it just doesn't make any sense if you believe that your karma either brings a person to Buddhism, or it doesn't. I can't look up any scripture right now, but I'm pretty sure there's something in the Pali Canon that directly addresses this.

As far as syncretism, I've always been rather baffled by liberal Christians who insist that Buddhism is wholly compatible with Christianity, and that Jesus & Buddha basically said a lot of the same stuff. I might be inclined to agree a bit with the last part - certainly they were both all about the compassion and teaching others. I agree that Jesus was a righteous dude and we can learn things from him. But given that belief in God and the divinity of Jesus are prerequisites for being a Christian, how on earth could a Buddhist also be a Christian? I'll speak from a Zen perspective, as I don't know enough about vajrayana, but Buddhism is atheistic, period, the end. Belief in God makes NO sense in Buddhism. There is no external being helping you along, there is no salvation except through your own realization.

I really only have come across Christians saying that B & C are compatible. I really don't hear very many Buddhists saying that, but feel free to link articles proving me wrong, because I'd like to hear their rationale. I don't really care if people want to mix and match, but I personally find it insulting to be told that my religion is "really the same thing as Christianity," as if I believe in God but just am not smart enough to realize it yet.
posted by desjardins at 7:16 AM on December 12, 2009

desjardins, they were a pretty odd group of Buddhists. My grad school roommate as well as her friends were Sōka Gakkai Buddhists.

OTOH, my best friend is Thai Buddhist, so talk about a whole 'nother flavor of Buddhism. Not in the least evangelical, though!
posted by librarylis at 10:55 AM on December 12, 2009

Sōka Gakkai

Well, that explains the evangelism. IIRC, they believe something like the more people who chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, the faster the world will be enlightened. So from that perspective, it makes sense to attract new followers. Zen is more like eh, it'll happen when it happens. I suppose there are evangelical Zen buddhists somewhere. There are definitely people who won't shut up about it. *coughs*
posted by desjardins at 11:31 AM on December 12, 2009

Also, Thai = Theravada = focused on individual attainment = less or no evangelism
posted by desjardins at 11:33 AM on December 12, 2009


I am one of those who does not see an incompatibility between the two.

Below is how I connect some of the dots between Christianity and The Four Nobel Truths. Again this is just my perspective. This will be over simplified in the name of brevity, no intent to be condescending. I don't believe that they are the same thing, but that they are different approaches to the same thing and in my experience enhance each other.

1. Life means suffering

IN the Biblical story of the fall of man, man was living in the garden of Eden, hanging out with God. No knowledge of anything but the Divine nature word. Complete communion with God and nature. He knew nothing but right thinking, right intention, right speech, right action, mindfulness, and right concentration. Humanity to this point only new good or enlightenment.

When Adam and Eve ate from the sacred fruit, the consequence was the knowledge of good and evil, enlightenment and enlightenment. This knowledge is at the root of human suffering.

This story can be interpreted literally or as an allegory. The acknowledgement of the suffering and it's source in the knowledge of things that prevent us from experiencing enlightenment or the presence of God.

2. The origin of suffering is attachment.

Jesus says:

Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.
Luke 17:33 (the Greek word in this passage can word for life can be used interchangeably with soul)

What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
Mark 8:36

The attachment to the material world is something that both Buddhists and Christians point to as the source of suffering.

3 & 4 Cessation of suffering is possible and the path to the cessation of suffering.

When Jesus speaks about The Kingdom of God he refers to it as present in the present. Not as place to literally to go but as the presence of God in everyday. This the "enlightenment" Jesus refers to. This is almost always in reference to faith and trust in God. That in obedience to the commandment to Love God and Love your neighbor as your self that an end to suffering in this life is attainable.

Whether you call it a state of enlightenment or dwelling in the Kingdom of God. The key element that The Buddha and Jesus allude to is a lack of focus on oneself. Again I am drawing parallels not saying they are the same.

The Buddhist concept of Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas.

This echoes for me in the words of Jesus when he says,"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

For Buddhists the path to enlightenment lies between hedonism and asceticism. In this I find the strongest connection. The apostle Paul alludes to this when he says all thing are permissible not all things are constructive.

Buddhist attain enlightenment through study, mediation and prayer(depending on the sect).

Christians enter into The Kingdom of God through worship, prayer, meditation, and study.

In my experience the two sets of beliefs are compatible.

I can also see how they would not be. If one holds and atheistic view of reality then the supposition of God in Christianity is a problem. This is where the two can divide. In my view faith is distinct from belief. Belief lives in the rational mind as a decision, faith is a choice based on something else.

I None of us are smart enough to have an accurate picture of God or nature. The finite trying to understand the infinite is not something that can be done with the limits imposed by the capacity of our brain.

I think that when you have faith in something you have to be careful not to believe in it, other wise you end up attached to the version of it contained in you beliefs. When one gets attached suffering shows up and one ends up self righteous leaving others to feel like they are missing something. One can end up missing the very point you were trying to make. Christian and Buddhists are some of the most loving people I know. I love sharing with them about their truths and experiences.

My favorite human being on the planet is a Buddhist.
posted by empty vessel at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2009

A major survey . . . finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith.

I have a stack of anecdotal reports that there are lots of American believers who have no fucking idea of the fundamental tenets of their own faith.

I mean, really now: all you self-described "Christians" who simultaneously believe that you've led previous lives? UR DOIN IT RONG.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 11:09 PM on December 12, 2009

empty vessel, that's all very interesting, but your take on Christianity isn't exactly in keeping with canonical statement of the faith. You can pick and choose pleasant verses from the Bible to your heart's content, but that doesn't make you a Christian within the historical definition of the term. Buddhism may be compatible with your take on Christianity, but I'm afraid it isn't compatible with the majority view.

This isn't really intended to be controversial, FWIW. I don't think anything here should even be marginally debatable in light of mainstream Christian tradition.
posted by valkyryn at 8:38 AM on December 15, 2009


In my faith I seek the kingdom of God not the approval of man. I am glad that I am in the minority view. I spent 3 years as a religion and philosophy major studying the scripture and seeing how different what I was reading was from the traditional view of Christianity. It became irreconcilable and I left the traditional Church.

A look at church history reveals series of events that have gradually taken the Church off of its core message and path. I am not sure what it will take for it to get back on course.Christians used to be view as humble, loving, and compassionate. Their hallmarks were grace and forgiveness. In our society they are view as self righteous moralists. These were the types that Jesus railed against. The "sinful" folks were the ones he hung out with.

I have found my version if Christianity to be much more fulfilling than the traditional one I used to hold. I guess I look at every faith as an opportunity to investigate truth instead of another way to divide myself from other human beings.
posted by empty vessel at 1:52 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Christians used to be view as humble, loving, and compassionate. Their hallmarks were grace and forgiveness.

This is a story the Christian community has long told itself.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:58 PM on December 15, 2009

That's the thing about this concern about "a la carte" religion, it presupposes one true monolithic tradition, generally identical to the institutional affliation of the individual. There's no "borrowing", no "hybridization" without some idea of the pure form. There's no heresy possible without some contrasted orthodoxy.

Buddhism is an interesting example if only because of its history of conversion and communication across a large variety of regions... and its negotiation of place and meaning in different places at different times. You can find countries and historical contexts in which Buddhist institutions, beliefs, and practices play a variety of roles... mixing with other traditions and worldviews in different ways.

It's pretty troubling to me when students of Buddhism look at things like the Bodhi-puja and decide it's not real Buddhism.

I had a friend who was a Vietnamese Pure Land nun, and she described part of her job as examining the bodies of the deceased, running her hands over the corspe, to detect where the soul had left the body. The warm spot near one of the bodies energy centers indicated which world the person had been reborn into... We had just spent quite a bit of time on Anatta in the class, and here she was describing this fundamental service she provided for her community...

There were a number of kids who got riled up whenever anyone said anything that made Buddhism sound religious, and grumbled about the "corruptions of the common folk" like an early twentieth century Theosophist.

Fact is that it would be hard to say what the one true Buddhism or Christianity is, even if you could get everyone to agree that the older the better, or whatever your standards are...
posted by ServSci at 3:49 PM on December 16, 2009

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