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Who is being left out of religious research?
Religion researchers are looking for new ways to investigate American spirituality, according to the Pew Research Center. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
A growing number of Americans do not affiliate with a faith community, but among those who do, belief in God is constant and the number of people who say religion is very important to them is increasing, according to a new survey released Tuesday by Pew Research Center.

"While much is changing in American religious life, the level of religious observance exhibited by those who identify with a religion is, by and large, stable," Pew reported.

The new survey, which replicates 2007 research to draw conclusions about how religion is evolving, offers a detailed overview of American religious life, presenting data on prayer habits, worship attendance and a variety of other spiritual practices.

The survey has had its limitations in gauging the religiosity of believers in minority faiths, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. "Some of our questions might not resonate with smaller, but growing, groups," said Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at Pew.

According to religion researchers, America's shifting religious landscape requires new kinds of survey questions to capture minority faiths, as well as to paint a clearer picture of the spiritual lives of people leaving formal religious practice behind. To deepen their understanding of contemporary spirituality, Pew researchers crafted two new questions on this year's survey about gratitude and the meaning of life.

"If we are seeing a move to less formal and more individualized religious or spiritual practices, what does that mean for questions we ask in religion surveys?" asked Daniel Cox, director of research at Public Religion Research Institute. "Asking about how frequently someone attends church or prays might not be sufficient to capture this movement."

Surveying spirituality

Pew's new survey is an analysis of responses from more than 35,000 U.S. adults, who were interviewed between June and September of 2014.

When drawing conclusions about religious trends, Pew focused on data points that are relevant to most faith communities, such as how a survey participant rated the importance of religion in his or her life, frequency of prayer and frequency of attendance at religious services.

"We focused sometimes on those measures that we use more regularly, but we asked a wide variety of questions about religious involvement," Martinez said.

The drawback of this approach, which is common in the world of religion research, is that it risks overlooking the changes occurring within minority faiths, which might not place the same emphasis on attending worship services or even believing in a central deity, Cox said.

"The short answer is that the common definition (of religious observation) comes out of Christianity and Protestant religion, which places a substantial emphasis on participatory acts and belief in God," Cox said.

That makes it difficult for researchers to track the way people practice minority faiths like Islam and Buddhism.

Additionally, many surveys have to lump members of faiths like Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism together into a non-Christian religions group, because there aren't enough people included for the religion to be singled out, Cox said.

"Activities have to meet a certain threshold before we're able to measure it on a national scale," he said. "In a national survey of 1,000 folks, there will be some activities that only a few people engage in."

Because Pew's survey involved more than 35,000 participants, researchers were able to single out minority faiths.

"We did try to ask some questions that were specific to those groups," Martinez said, noting that Buddhists were asked about their views on reincarnation and whether they have a shrine or altar in their home.

However, fewer than 300 Buddhists took part in the survey, complicating efforts to draw conclusions about a religion that's already quite complex. With millions of followers across the world, meditation and ritual practices vary widely among the schools of Buddhism, said Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.

"This is where some (survey) terms are insufficient," she noted.

For example, Pew's survey showed that, in 2014, 29 percent of Buddhists had an "absolutely certain belief in God," a 10 percentage-point decrease from 2007. The shift implies that fewer Buddhists feel deeply connected to God, but the change could also be caused by growing numbers of Zen Buddhists, a school of Buddhism in which practitioners have no sense of a deity.

Issues like small sample sizes and ill-fitting survey terms are unfortunate, because they keep researchers from picking up on the interesting shifts Asian religions undergo when they take root in America, Tucker said.

"Most people think these traditions are fossilized," but they're changed and shaped by the culture they're practiced in, she said. "That's the exciting part about them."

Nontraditional spirituality

Researchers are also limited in their ability to draw conclusions about American spiritual practices, or those beliefs and habits associated with personal faith, rather than institutionalized religion, Cox said, noting that it's difficult to craft questions that capture diverse behaviors and also discourage participants from fibbing.

"I think one of the hard things about spirituality is that being spiritual and having a spiritual life sounds really good," he said. "People may be inclined to embellish a little."

Additionally, behaviors like meditation can be practiced in both secular and spiritual ways, further complicating researchers' efforts to investigate American spirituality.

"One of the real challenges is determining in what sense meditation and yoga are spiritual or religious activities," Cox said. "In these cases, it matters to ask whether people do these things, and also what meaning they hold for them."

Pew found that 40 percent of U.S. adults meditate weekly or more, including 26 percent of people who don't associate with a religious community. But the survey didn't ask people to characterize their meditation practice.

"Respondents who say they meditate regularly may or may not do so in a religious sense," Pew reported.

According to Pew's new survey, many Americans have a rich spiritual life. "Roughly six-in-10 adults now say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least once a week, up seven percentage points since 2007. And 46 percent of adults say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe on a weekly basis," Pew reported.

Pew also used the two new questions to explore American views on gratitude and life's meaning. Nearly 8-in-10 Americans (78 percent) feel a strong sense of gratitude or thankfulness at least once a week, and 55 percent of U.S. adults think about the meaning and purpose of life on a weekly basis, the survey reported.

These questions "were our attempt to explore some new areas" of spiritual practice, Martinez said.

Spirituality will likely become increasingly important if the shift away from organized religion continues, Cox said, noting that questions like Pew's help researchers draw conclusions about what it means to be spiritual in America today.

"There's much more work to be done here," he said. "We're just starting to do it and to do it well."
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