Jewish Journal

A Secular Boom in America and Jews of “No Religion”

by Pini Herman

October 31, 2011 | 12:57 pm

Recently, the LA Times described the Occupy Movement in LA as secular and missing the religious component of other US social movements.  I did greet Rabbi Jonathan Klein, whom I spotted one evening by his kippah at a distance at Occupy LA, but there were few other kippot there.  Informal “Jew spotting” made me feel that while Jews were a minority, we were still respectably represented.  It’s what I would expect as a growing number of Jews don’t identify Jewish by religion and would not be likely to be wearing a yarmulke.

As a demographer of Jews, when I look at surveys that ask the respondent’s religion, I first look at the Jewish column and then my eyes goes to the “None” or “No Religion” column.  The US Jewish population is comprised of over a third of “Jews, No Religion,” a strange term that may describe a lot of our friends and families.

Years of experience surveying Jews have taught me that the “no religion” column has a lot of Jews. The characteristics of self-identified Jews and Nones often closely associate in terms of education, income, political attitudes.  Ariella Keysar and Barry Kosmin have researched this phenomenon extensively.

Jewish population studies show that the population of Jewish “Nones” has 4 sources of origin: 

A. Born Nones - Children with two Jewish parents (i.e. secular or Cultural Jews) raised
  in no religion.
B. Born Nones - Children of intermarriage brought up in a compromise “religiously
  neutral” home.
C. Persons who switch out of Judaism.
D. Children of intermarriage raised in Christianity who switch to No Religion (or
  atheism, agnosticism, humanism etc.)

The “No Religion” fraction of the Jewish population has risen from around 20% in 1990 to
around 37% in 2008.

This rise of the Jewish “Nones” is in the context of a secularization of the total US.  During the period between 1990 and 2008 the U.S. adult population of “Nones” grew from 8% to 15% increasing from 14 to 34 million persons for a gain of 138% while the Jewish “Nones” adult population rose by 58%. 

These figures suggests that the Jewish population is further ahead in the process of secularization than Americans in general, but the trend may be tapering off for Jews. The US adult Jewish-No religion population rose by an average of 28,000 a year in 1990s and 24,000 year in 2000s. Secularization of the population is especially strong in the “unchurched” Western U.S.

Whether this tapering off of the Jewish “Nones” is continuing is something that we won’t know as no National Jewish Population Survey has been schedule in the foreseeable future.

Pini Herman is immediate past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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