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Jewish Journal

Pew’s construct of “Jews of no religion” is imprecise and misleading

Roger Price

December 12, 2013 | 3:14 pm

Of the many interesting aspects of the recently released survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center (the “Pew Portrait”), perhaps none is more troubling than the distorted bisection  of American Jews into two primary sub-groups, one labeled “Jews by religion” and the other “Jews of no religion.” Once those designations were established, Pew, among other things, then sought to determine whether members of the two sub-groups had different attitudes or characteristics, whether, for instance, a person assigned to one sub-group was more likely or less likely to believe or behave differently than a person assigned to the other.

How large is the group of “Jews of no religion?” Pew found that about one fifth of adult American Jews (totaling approximately 1.2 million individuals) were Jews of “no religion” and that among Jews born after 1980 the fraction increases to one in every three. Pew’s survey director reportedly said that the rise in the number of Jews “of no religion” was the most significant finding of the study.

Just as one might expect, as soon as the Pew Portrait was published, the commentary class waxed wise on Pew’s findings about the Jews of no religion. Much of the concern expressed was about related findings that Jews of no religion were less connected to the Jewish community, less likely to be involved in Jewish organizations and less likely to raise their children as Jewish.

In all the hubbub, an important fact seems to have been overlooked: not only is the label “Jews of no religion” awkward, nowhere in the more than two hundred pages of the Pew Portrait does Pew precisely define what it means by “religion.” Pew’s failure to do so has created unnecessary ambiguity and confusion and muddled its survey results. At one point Pew says that Jews of no religion are “also commonly called secular or cultural Jews.” But those characterizations were not offered as primary choices in Pew’s survey questionnaire.  A look at the survey, beyond the executive summary, reveals some of the problems of Pew’s binary construct which is, perhaps, more provocative than probative.

In an opening sidebar discussion titled “Who is a Jew?” Pew considered  that “being Jewish” might be a matter of “religion” and seems to suggest that religion relates to halakha  (traditional rabbinic devised Jewish law), but it also recognized that “being Jewish” might be a matter of “ancestry, ethnicity and cultural background.” In the end, it placed in the category of Jews of no religion those who self-identified or may have been prompted to say they were “atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.”

Because it was interested in exploring Jewish identity, Pew sought to be inclusive in its survey and, therefore,  counted as Jewish anyone (1) whose religion was “Jewish” (sic, not Judaism) or (2) who “aside from religion” considered themselves as Jewish. While such inclusivity has its place for purposes of identifying and limiting the subject population to be studied, the discussion leaves unclear what Pew thinks religion is generally and how it would describe or define the religion of the Jews being surveyed.   

Without any definitional guidelines, Pew merely asked survey respondents what their religion was. In do so, however, Pew opened the door to considerable subjective and inconsistent responses. Not surprisingly, that is what it got. And the resultant inconsistencies undermine the entire study.

Pew’s initial failure is compounded by the relatively small sampling of what it calls Jews of no religion. The Pew Portrait is the result of over 70,000 screening interviews and 3,475 more detailed telephone interviews with individuals identified as Jewish Americans. Of these, Pew characterized 689 (about 20%) as Jews of no religion. While the margin of error (a statistical measurement of random sampling error) for the “net Jewish population” which includes both sub-groups was +/- 3 percentage points, the margin of error for Jews of no religion was a whopping +/- 6.2 points, indicating much less confidence in the results obtained for that sub-group.    

Pew’s failure to define what it means by religion must have been purposeful. Surely the experienced designers of the study knew about the importance of defining a key element of the subject they sought to explore and the perils of failing to do so.

About fifty years ago, in his landmark study The Religious Factor (Doubleday 1961), then University of Michigan sociology professor Gerhard Lenski studied the effects of religion in and on the real life activities of ordinary citizens. At the outset, Lenski acknowledged that “religion” was a “highly ambiguous term . . . which means so many different things to different people.” (Anchor Ed.  (1963) at 330.) He adopted what he characterized as “a moderately inclusive definition” which viewed religion as a “system of beliefs about the nature of the force(s) ultimately shaping man’s destiny, and the practices  associated therewith, shared by the members of a group.” (Emphasis in the original, at 330-31.) He did so with a purpose, because he was interested in the “striking and important similarities” among different theistic and non-theistic  groups. (Id. at 331.)

Of course, one does not have to accept Lenski’s definition of religion. As Lenski expressly recognized, by his definition “every normal adult member of any human society is religious.” (Ibid.) That definition may not be appropriate in an age when science provides many of the answers provided more frequently in Lenski’s day by some Deity. And that definition may also not be appropriate if the purpose of the study at issue is to determine whether members of a particular group are or ought to be considered to be “religious.” That is, it may be too broad for the purpose of a study focused on attitudes and activities within a single group as opposed to a comparison between groups. Those observations are not criticisms of Lenski’s definition for the purposes of his study. Rather, they underscore why some definition is required, and hint at the problems inherent in the Pew Portrait which failed to provide one.

The problems are apparent in the responses to both general and specific questions Pew asked about what we might conventionally consider to be religious beliefs and practices.  For instance, when Pew asked generally whether religion was important in one’s life, overall only 26% of all Jews surveyed said that it was very important, 29% say that it was somewhat important and 44% say that it was not “too” or not “at all” important. 

Pew’s findings in this regard are not news. Other recent studies have reached similar conclusions.  Last year, for example, the Public Religion Research Institute, in its study of values among Jewish Americans, found rates of synagogue attendance and participation at a seder essentially at the same levels as found by Pew. (See 2012 Jewish Values Survey  at 27, 29/42.)  A few years before that, Synagogue3000 discussed the relative lack of Jewish spirituality and how Jewish Americans were less involved than other socio-religious groups in American with God, prayer and religion. (See How Spiritual are America’s Jews, at 6-8/15.)  Pew’s own extensive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey in 2008 provided ample evidence of the relatively low level of religion in the lives of Jewish Americans when compared to those identified with other religious traditions in the United States. (See Landscape Survey (Comparison Summary).)

These phenomena did not emerge overnight. A half century ago, Lenski’s survey found “a substantial decline in synagogue and temple attendance except on High Holydays” and “serious organizational weakness” with respect to Jewish religious associations.  (The Religious Factor, at 53, 319.) Indeed, to some extent, Pew is merely reporting what has been going on in America since before Jakie Rabinowitz left home to become Jack Robin, aka, the Jazz Singer. The current tension between traditional faith and practice and modernity and assimilation has an extended background. However you might define religiosity, American Jews in general seem to lack it and have for some time. 

What is relatively new is Pew’s attempt to investigate the differences between Jews by religion and Jews of no religion. It found that there are differences between the sub-groups, but they are not entirely what one might expect.  According to Pew’s survey and bifurcation, 33% of Jews by religion say that religion is not too or not at all important in their lives, while 8% of Jews of no religion say that religion is very important and another 9% say that it is somewhat important. Either Pew has misplaced some folks into the wrong sub-groups or a lot of people do not understand what religion means or, at least, have differing definitions of it. Pew concedes that “many Jews defy categorization,” but the admission does not resolve the problem of creating the dichotomy in the first place.

The situation does not get any better when the questions become more specific. Pew could have, for instance, defined religion as a belief in God (however understood), or some supernatural or even natural force. In fact, Pew did ask a question in its survey to determine how many Jews believed in God or a “universal spirit” (both terms being undefined). Pew found that among all Jews 34% held such a belief with absolute certainty, 38% believed, but were less certain, and 23% did not believe in either God or a universal spirit (whatever those terms may mean). The Pew Portrait also provides the percentages of Jews who take those positions by gender, age, and educational , marital and denominational status. The results are consistent with other surveys: Orthodox Jews believe more than Conservative Jews who believe more than Reform Jews, and younger Jews believe less than older Jews. We probably didn’t need a new study to learn those results.

What happens when the issue of faith is viewed through Pew’s division of Jews into sub-groups of those “by religion” and those “of no religion?” In the sub-group of Jews by religion, 39% were certain believers but 16% did not believe either in God or a universal spirit. In the sub-group Jews of no religion, 47% did not believe in God or a universal spirit, but 18% did and with certainty. In other words, both of Pew’s sub-groups contained a significant minority of folks you would not expect to find there. If about one in every six Jews by religion do not believe in God or a universal spirit and one of every six Jews of no religion are certain in such a belief, the integrity and utility of the sub-groupings must be called into question. At a minimum, religion as Pew is using it cannot be equated with a firm belief in God and, conversely, the absence of religion cannot be equated with disbelief.

Having essentially asked about the first of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith compiled by the great medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, Pew could have asked about the remaining twelve. Its survey, however, contained no questions about God’s unity, non-corporeality, eternality, or omniscience and providence. Nor were there any inquiries about rejecting foreign gods or belief in communication through prophecy, the primacy of Moses’s prophecy, the divine origin and immutability of Torah, divine reward and punishment, the inevitability of the Messiah or the resurrection of the dead. If Jewish religion were to be defined by those principles, one wonders how many Jews of religion there would be in America today.

Pew could also have defined religion by certain ritual practices, but it did not. It did, however, inquire about certain rituals, like candle lighting or service attendance, in which members of the sub-groups engaged. Here again, some of the responses were to be expected. For example, Orthodox Jews attend religious services at least monthly at almost double the rate of Conservative Jews who attend at more than double the rate of Reform Jews. Conversely, the percentage of Reform Jews who never attend services is twice that of Conservative non-attenders which is four times the percentage of Orthodox abstainers.

But here, too, Pew’s results show the porous nature of its artificial division of the Jewish community. About 29% of Jews by religion attend services at least monthly, but 58% attend seldom and 13% never go to any service. On the other hand, while about half of Jews of no religion avoid services entirely, about 4% attend services at least monthly. Why the majority of Jews who attend services seldom if ever should be considered Jews by religion is unclear, especially when 4% in the other sub-group attend services once a month but are nevertheless designated Jews of no religion.

Inconsistencies abound even as the questions become more narrow. The survey responses seem to indicate that Jews of no religion engage less frequently than Jews by religion in practices and traditions like participating in a Passover seder, fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting Sabbath candles, keeping kosher at home and avoiding the handling of money on Shabbat.  But the responses also indicate that some Jews of no religion participate in those activities as well. About two of five Jews of no religion participated in a seder and one in five fasted on Yom Kippur. Why are Jews who participate in a seder or who fast on Yom Kippur not Jews by religion? Only 6% of Jews of no religion always or usually light Sabbath candles, but only 10% of Reform Jews reportedly do either. Given the margin of error in the study, the frequency of candle lighting is similar. Why are Reform Jews who do not light candles considered Jews by religion and some Jews who do light candles seen as Jews of no religion?

About half of the Jews of no religion had a Christmas tree last year, approximately twice the rate of Jews of religion. But one in twenty Orthodox Jews had a tree, as did two of five Conservative Jews and three of ten Reform Jews. What the Christmas tree means in America today is an interesting question, but the issue here is whether its presence or absence is an indicator of Jewish religion. If so, then as we have seen elsewhere in the Pew Portrait, it is an ambiguous and incomplete marker.

Perhaps ironically, Pew’s division of the Jewish American community into two sub-groups is largely rejected by the community itself. Overall, 62% of the net Jewish American population told Pew that being Jewish was mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Only 15% thought it was mainly a matter of religion. Even excluding the Jews of no religion from that question, a majority of Jews by religion did not believe that being Jewish was primarily a matter of religion. And that response held across gender, age and educational sectors.

Even when the question about what factors were compatible with being Jewish became rather specific, religion (either ideological or operational) was not seen as determinative. Two-thirds of all Jews stated that one could be Jewish even if s/he did not believe in God. Nine in ten thought that a person could be Jewish if s/he worked on the Sabbath. Only one in five thought that observing Jewish law was essential to Jewish identity. Consequently, American Jews not only do not see religion, however one defines it, as being the primary factor in one’s Jewish identity, they specifically reject failure to believe previously considered core principles or observe previously considered core practices as disqualifying events. They may do so for a variety of reasons, including self-serving ones, but there is little doubt about where they stand.

We really do not know from the Pew Portrait what the Jewish respondents meant when they said that their religion was “Jewish,” and we know even less about the Jewish respondents who declined to do so. Were the latter expressing an aversion to a Sunday school theology of an omnipotent sky god or to ritual practices that seemed to them obscure, extraneous and restrictive? There were, unfortunately, no questions about Baruch Spinoza’s pantheism, Mordecai Kaplan’s transnaturalism, Bradley Shavit Artson’s process theology, Arthur Green’s panentheism, the kaballist’s Ein Sof, mindful spirituality, humanism or science or a host of contemporary practices like ethical or eco-kashrut.

In the end, the Pew Portrait is a valuable snapshot of the Jewish community in America today. It has generated a lot of discussion since its publication on October 1, 2013. By now some may even have read the entire report. We expect to look further at the Pew Portrait and the responses to it in the weeks ahead, but for now let’s recognize that at least one aspect of the Pew study is flawed conceptually and its utility questionable. 

Another version of this article was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

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