Earlier this week, the Pew Research Forum on Religion and Public Life came out with a new portrait of Judaism in America. The New York Times wrote up a quick summary about how more and more American Jews are identifying as non-religious. At first glance that’s not too unsurprising- you can see that increase as part of the rising number of Nones in America. While the trend itself isn’t too shocking, it highlights an interesting question- what does it mean to be a non-religious Jew? We’re so used to talking about ethnic Judaism, that we don’t stop to think about what the name reveals. Is it possible to be a non-religious Christian or Muslim?
I’m not trying to be ridiculous- I’m trying to draw our attention to what we mean when we say non-religious. Why does “non-religious Christian” sound wrong? I think it’s because we have an implicit assumption that being Christian means believing certain things and that being non-religious means rejecting those beliefs. Put the two together and you sound as ridiculous as talking about a non-fruit-fruit (a tomato perhaps?). The reason it doesn’t sound meaningless when we say “non-religious Jew” is that we have the ethnic or cultural category for Judaism as well.
But perhaps that cultural category reveals part of the ambiguity in the definition of religion. Many religious scholars – Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, Mary Douglas, and Nancy Ammerman, to name a few – argue that religion is way more about what people do than what they believe. Wilfred Cantwell-Smith, a total boss in the study of comparative religion of the 20th century, even went so far as to argue that talking about religion as if it were a thing is a bit silly. He, of course, said it more eloquently and professionally than that, but the point is that religion is largely a way of life that is integrated into actions and thoughts. It only becomes a system of beliefs when we call it religion and begin to analyze it as such.
When we say non-religious Jew, we are straddling two different categories of religion. There’s the sense that religion is a cultural way of life that’s fundamental to one’s identity. And there’s the sense that religion is a set of ideas and beliefs that we might change around like furniture. I think most people exist somewhere between these two extremes, because religion is both. But the dominant assumption in America, and most of Europe, is that religion is about belief – which is why non-religious Christian sounds silly but non-religious Jew, or non-religious Hindu, for that matter, doesn’t.
If we’re surveying and studying religion, then we have to be aware of these different categories and deliberate about which we are using. Professed beliefs are a bit easier to study, but as this most recent poll by Pew revealed, they’re not always the most fitting for how people think about themselves. Given all these difficulties, it’s important to let people define themselves – kudos to the Pew forum for doing just that. Following their lead, I’ll shelf the category non-religious Christian, at least for now because, when it comes down to it, people don’t actually describe themselves that way.