Saturday, 12 December 2009

1 in 5 Christians Believe in Reincarnation

Roughly 20% of American Christians believe in reincarnation and don't necessarily see a conflict between that belief and their Christian faith. At least, that's what the following Associated Press report which came ‘across the wires’ to my old manse this week, implies, and since it's based on data collected by the respected Pew Forum, we'd best pay attention. It reports on the popularity of religious syncretism among Americans generally, and American Christians in particular, such that a significant minority (i.e. up to 25%) of those who identify as Christian also incorporate elements of other religions into their 'belief system', tailoring a religion for their own needs (and we're not just talking about Roman Catholics here, although they have a long history of religious syncretism and studies that I am aware of consistently show higher levels of belief in reincarnation among Catholics as compared to Protestants).

Survey: Americans mix and match religions
By ERIC GORSKI (AP) – 1 day ago
When it comes to religion, many Americans like the mix-and-match, build-your-own approach.
Large numbers attend services of traditions other than their own and blend Christianity with Eastern and New Age beliefs, a survey finds.
The report Wednesday from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also shows tremendous growth over the past three decades in the number of Americans who say they have had a religious or mystical experience.
Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities say they hold beliefs of the sort found at Buddhist temples or New Age bookstores. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed overall and 22 percent of Christians say they believe in reincarnation, the idea that people will be reborn in this world again and again.
As for the significant numbers who visit more than one place of worship, it's not just an occasional visit while on vacation or for special events like weddings and funerals.
One-third of Americans say they regularly or occasionally attend religious services at more than one place. One-quarter say they sometimes attend services of a faith different from their own.
"It is as much now the norm as it is the exception for Americans to blend multiple religious beliefs and practices," said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.
Among the report's other findings:
_ About 1 in 4 Americans believe in Eastern or New Age ideas, including reincarnation, which is part of Buddhism and Hinduism; yoga as a spiritual practice; spiritual energy in things like mountains, trees and crystals; and astrology.
_ About 16 percent of Americans believe in the "evil eye" — that certain people can cast curses or spells. More than 1 in 10 white evangelicals who attend church weekly and 3 in 10 black Protestants believe in the phenomenon, which can be found in Islam, Judaism and traditional African beliefs.
_ Roughly 3 in 10 Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has died — up from 18 percent in 1996. The belief is most common among black Protestants and Catholics. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans say they have been in the presence of a ghost.
_ Three in 10 Protestants say they attend multiple types of religious services, including services at Protestant denominations different from their own. Almost 1 in 5 Protestants indicate they also attend non-Protestant services. About 1 in 5 Catholics say they also attend non-Catholic services.
_ Nearly half of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, or a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening," the survey found. That represents a doubling since Gallup asked in 1962.
...D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion, said the results illustrate what he calls the "playlist effect" in contemporary American religious practice.
"The way we personalize our iPhones, we also personalize our religious lives," he said.
Count Chandler Pierce, a 27-year-old cook from Duncansville, Pa., in that group. He was raised Baptist, dabbled in Mormonism, said he is "with the whole Christianity thing," most closely identifies with Buddhism and believes in astrology and all manner of supernatural phenomenon.
"My religion now ... it's complicated," he said.
That so many Christians believe in astrology and reincarnation will trouble Christian leaders already concerned about professed believers who take what they need from the faith and leave the rest.
The build-your-own-religion findings show that "culture and pop culture and the Internet are probably more powerful teachers than Sunday school teachers," said Scott Thumma, a sociologist at the Hartford Institute of Religion Research.
Maryann Bogus, 59, of Kingsport, Tenn., another participant in the survey, attends an evangelical Christian church weekly and believes in reincarnation even though her church teaches otherwise.
"My daddy told me that a long time ago, and it stuck with me because he believed it, too," she said.
Her belief in astrology and spirituality in nature and yoga are things she picked up from "watching TV and listening," she said. She said she does not see any conflict with her Christianity.

Now, this trend, which has been noted now for a generation or so, doesn’t actually surprise me, for two reasons:

Firstly, with reference specifically to the American situation, it has been noted often that a form of neo-Gnosticism has always been the actual de facto religion of the USA, despite the high levels of overall Christian identification which have resulted historically from the two great evangelical awakenings and the high rate of Lutheran and Catholic immigration to the mid-west in the 19th century. Many of the founding fathers of the US, for example, were nominally Christian but actually subscribed to a form of Deism often accompanied by membership in Freemasonry. Their beliefs about the nature and destiny of man were written into the cultural DNA, so to speak, of Americans. Those influences have remained a part of the American religio-cultural worldview ever since, but have mutated considerably in their outward form. So it is that America has always been fertile ground for sects and new religious movements to grow in, Mormonism being a perfect example. The propensity, therefore, to experiment with and ‘mix-n-match’ elements from different religions has always been a live option for Americans, whereas similar Anglo dominated cultures remained more bound to traditional forms of religious belief, although the exportation of American culture, including religious culture, has broken down these traditional structures somewhat (see, for example, my last post on Sydney Anglicans and infant baptism).

The second reason this trend doesn’t surprise me is that the ultra-modern culture (a term I prefer to post-modern, for various reasons) we live in promotes a superficiality that does not value the moral commitments and discipline of thought that unconditional subscription to religious belief requires. The individualism that the Enlightenment fostered has now gone to seed in the ultra-modern deification of self, and for people raised in such a milieu (prizes for everyone!), it makes sense to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of religious options available today rather than have one’s choices confined by the strictly a la carte menu offered by the traditional churches.

So, while this reported survey does not hold any surprises, it is somewhat alarming to note that the levels of syncretism among Christians appear to be on the increase,
and all indicators are that this is no longer simply a feature of American Christian life either. As one who believes that the health of a church is directly related to its doctrinal integrity and the degree to which doctrine and life are connected in adherents lives, I suggest this presents a major challenge to the churches at present and into the future.


Phil said...

" has been noted often that a form of neo-Gnosticism has always been the actual de facto religion of the USA..."

For those of us who are in America, we certainly see this whenever we poke around a bookstore or listen to our friends talk about their past life. But I'm curious--to what extent has this neo-Gnostic tendency infiltrated Australia as well?

acroamaticus said...

My impressions are that it is coming into Australia, riding on the wave of American popular culture, especially in the area of publishing, as you mention.
The difference, as I see it, is that the philospophical underpinnings that exist in the US are not present here.
However, we must remember that 'Neo-Gnosticism' could really be regarded as the original heresy -the desire of man to be god on his own terms - so we have no particular immunity to it.
I would suggest too that it is not as widespread in the churches here.

matthias said...

Quite correct regarding not widespread in the churches here.But the impact of American cultural imperialism will probably see it become a feature as our churches become less confessional .

acroamaticus said...

Thanks Matthias.
I should have mentioned TV as a 'carrier' to Phil, too. Oprah has a lot to answer for! Seriously, I think it is an undercurrent in her show.

matthias said...

What we have is Satanic new Age undermining of the Christian faith by people who think that they are more progressive.

acroamaticus said...

Yes. The interesting thing is that the ideas of Gnosticism re-appear with regularity in the church. As I said earlier, it taps right in to the original sin/heresy.

Schütz said...

Hi, Mark. Sorry I haven't been contributing to your very interesting posts lately - caught up with the Parliament means that I didn't even have time to post on my own blog.

You might be interested in this Spirit of Things program on ABC Radio:

The Catholic priest in the program is a close colleague of mine. The situation in which he lives boggles the mind, and at first glance I found it pretty scarey. But I have known him for some time and have had many in depth discussions on the matter of what happens when Christianity comes into contact with the religious experience of the East. I have also been reading his recent book "Towards A Christian Tantra" (NOT light reading!).

The thing is that Fr John, despite his great openness to dialogue and the religious experience of others, is actually a very faithful and orthodox priest. I could give many examples, but one example of this is this comment in that Spirit of Things program (I will give it in full):

Rachael Kohn: I'd love to ask you about that. Let's take up reincarnation. I mean after all, reincarnation is one of those beliefs that pops up all over the place, and it's certainly there within Hinduism, Buddhism, but it defines it a little differently, and you even have the continuity of the soul in Kabbalah, and I'm not sure, what about the Christian tradition in that respect? Can you actually fudge resurrection as reincarnation?

John Dupuche: No, that would be too really fudge. And no, so it makes a considerable difference really. If you have a reincarnation or resurrection, it's a completely different system, and it makes a huge difference to the way you think and feel and relate to life as a whole. Now I stress straightaway, there's no attempt to change anyone's point of view, but I express my points of view you see, about it. But I think at the same time, so there is this you might say, the great drama if you have a life, and you can't be expecting innumerable reincarnations, then the time that you have must be lived in the best sense, and you can't put off to another existence, to repair the harm that you've done in this one. So there are all sorts of consequences from it that this doctrine of resurrection.

But at the same time I think there is a sort of reincarnation in the sense that what you do will have its impact upon later generations. And so you find families where there's a tradition, if you like, of it might be a wonderful tradition, it might also be a weakness that goes through families, or through cultures. And so you have a culture where a tradition persists right through the successive generations, so in that sense, the acts of people in the past are communicated to generations in the future, and so there's that sort of sense of reincarnation, but not a personal reincarnation. And so on and so forth. So there is that difference, and we could go on with this for quite a long time.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the persistent belief in reincarnation indicates that many people have an intuitive sense that their existence altogether is much more fluid and open-ended than reductionist dogmas of both EXOTERIC religion (which you subscribe to) and scientism allow!

And that it is your religion that is thus superficial--contrary to its seeming gravitas.

Plus if you really do your homework you fill find that some kind of belief of in, and acceptance of, reincarnation was entirely acceptable to early Christians---until it was declared to be a "heresy".

acroamaticus said...

The religious authority of the early Christians was the prophetic and apostolic scriptures; care to provide some evidence from that source for your claim on reincarnation, 'anonymous'? I expect we might find a number of strange beliefs in the early church, as we do among Christians now, but if they were not scriptural they were not canonical.