by Project Interfaith Development Assistant, Emily Simmonds.
How do we learn about the current state of the American population? Public opinion surveys. They are heavily relied on means through which the values, identities and attitudes of our nation are studied over time. There is much merit to this method as it lets us learn about people from the people themselves. This includes their religious affiliations. However, as we continue to rely on this tool as a way to understand those around us, we should consider the validity of the religious affiliation survey questions when assessing Americans’ identities. Recent trends in Americans’ relationships towards religion indicate that current survey questions are incomplete representations of our communities today.
The Gallup Organization is one of America’s oldest polling companies, and its polling history reflects the constant challenge for pollsters to recognize and quantify religious diversity in America. The question of religious affiliation began in 1948, as “What is your religious preference—is it Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Jewish?” This wording remained unchanged for almost thirty years, until in 1977, Eastern Orthodox was added, and in 1979, the distinction between the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches was included. Muslim and Mormon were later added as identity options, and today, responses are separated into Protestant, Christian (non-specific), Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Other specific, None, and Undesignated.
The expansion of responses to this question from three specific categories to the current eight options reflects the expanding religious diversity in the U.S. Further, options such as “none” and “undesignated” reflect Americans’ growing preferences beyond organized religion. However, such categories are arguably insufficient to recognize the full extent of such diversity, lacking options such as Buddhist, Muslims, and Hindu, and distinctions between what “None” or “Other specific” really means. The need for further expanded identification options is based on trends in shifting affiliations.
Though Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims each make up less than one percent of the current U.S. population, America is a top destination for immigrants associated with each of these identities. According to Pew’s “Faith on the Move” survey released this year, the U.S. is the top nation for Buddhist migrants, second for Hindus and, and seventh for Muslim migrants. In order to meaningfully reflect American attitudes and identities, pollsters should look to include these religions as they become growing presences in our communities.
Gallup’s categories of “Undesignated” and “Other specific” reflect how those not associated with a specific organized religion are sorted; categories by other institutions often distinguish between atheist, agnostic, secular and/or religious unaffiliated. Pollsters that provide a limited or vague set of options for religious identification lower the quality of responses by forcing answers, as opposed to representing respondents’ true attitudes. For example, a self-described seeker, or one who identifies as spiritual but not religious, would be forced to associate with a category that he/she may not really feel connected to—the best of the options given, though not meaningful or accurate. While people who identify with commonly practiced religions arguably have little issue selecting one of these options, those of less common or more personalized identities are forced to align with what they are not, as opposed to what they are.
The question of how to sort those who do not identify with a particular organized religion is not likely to go away in the future. According to Pew’s 2010 Religion Among the Millenials Survey, 26 percent of those born after 1981 are unaffiliated with any religion. This portion is higher than any other generation both at this point at time and when those generations were of the same age group. The increasing presence of those labeled as unaffiliated in our communities emphasizes the need to distinguish between and better understand those currently in this generalized category.
A limited number of options to describe religious or spiritual identity simply does not fully represent the tapestry of beliefs and ideas that exist today. My experiences of collecting RavelUnravel.com video interviews throughout the Omaha region has taught me that much. Watching and learning from the multitude of personal perspectives on RavelUnravel.com enables me to go beyond labels and discover the true identities present in my community.
Emily Simmonds is the Development Associate for Project Interfaith. She graduated from Villanova University in May 2012 with majors in Political Science and Theology & Religious Studies. Emily is working with Project Interfaith through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a year-long commitment to sustainable living and working on social justice issues. While at Project Interfaith, Emily hopes to learn about the Omaha community as well as nonprofit work. Emily enjoys reading, politics and watching baseball.