Religiously speaking, Jews are joiners but not necessarily believers, according to a new look at the data from a massive survey of religion in the United States.
Compared with the major Christian denominations in the United States, American Jews are affiliated but remarkably secular, according to a report that draws on figures from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Although Jews join synagogues and send their children to religious school at rates that rival or outstrip their Christian counterparts, Jews are far less likely to pray, read the bible or believe in God.
The picture that emerges is one of a Jewish community that is either less religious or differently religious, depending on how one defines the terms.
“In Protestant terms, Jews are less religious. In Jewish terms, Jews are very religious,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Cohen, who also serves as research director of the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center, assembled the new report along with his Florence G. Heller colleague, Lauren Blitzer, with data from the Pew survey. “But it’s not a matter of personal religious belief, it’s a matter of group belonging, which includes secular reasons for belonging.”
According to the survey results, Jews are far less likely than most Christians to believe in God or to say that religion is “very important” to them. They are less likely to attend religious services regularly or to pray on their own, meditate or read the bible. In fact, on a number of these measures, the answers given by Jews more closely resemble those of people who described themselves as “unaffiliated” than those of most Christians.
But Jews are still invested in Jewish institutions, particularly those dealing with Jewish education. Jews are more likely than Catholics to send their children to a religious school and are more likely to send their children to religious day school than almost any American religious denomination.
Making the results more striking is that the survey includes only those who classified themselves as Jews by religion, meaning that statistics do not include Americans who consider themselves Jewish but not religiously so. As a result, the group surveyed is, if anything, more religiously Jewish than the whole of American Jewry.