By STEPHEN PROTHERO So much for the jealous God. A survey released earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the U.S. is a "nation of religious drifters." If, in the realm of love, Americans gravitate toward serial monogamy (moving from marriage to divorce to remarriage and so on), we likewise flit from one religious affiliation to another, pledging our fidelity, say, to Methodism in our youth, Catholicism in middle age and Episcopalianism in our dotage.
A new Pew study, released last week, shows that Americans are swingers as well as switchers, flirting with religious beliefs and practices other than their own without officially changing their religious affiliation. Catholic leaders have long denounced "Cafeteria Catholics" for going down the line and picking and choosing the Catholic beliefs and practices they choose to uphold. According to this new study, Americans as a group are now bellying up to what my Boston University colleague John Berthrong has referred to as the "divine deli."
Not counting travel, or special events such as weddings and funerals, more than one-third of Americans attend worship services at more than one place, and nearly a quarter attend services held by another religion. Much of this religious infidelity happens in the family, or within the extended family—Lutherans attending Baptist services or Baptists attending Catholic Mass. But among black Protestants 8% attend services at synagogues, and 5% of this same group go to mosques. Meanwhile, large numbers of American Christians affirm beliefs that their theologians have long denounced as heretical: 23% believe in astrology, 22% in reincarnation and 21% in yoga as a spiritual practice.
In many respects this religious promiscuity is nothing new. Many early Christians were also practicing Jews. And in China the "Three Teachings" of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have co-existed for centuries, with many believers turning to Confucianism for etiquette, Taoism for freedom and Buddhism for enlightenment. Yet the Western monotheisms have insisted that there is but one way to afterlife bliss. What has happened to this sort of confidence? Clearly it survives in Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians and traditional Muslims. But for the rest of us, fear of a jealous God seems a distant memory.
The new Pew data provide further evidence for the death of denominationalism in American life and for the enduring power of the ideal of religious tolerance. Once upon a time, Baptists and Lutherans and Disciples of Christ fought bitterly over such matters as when to baptize Christians and just how Jesus was present at the Eucharist. But that stuff is so last century. Today even the distinctions between Jews and Buddhists, or between Hindus and Christians, are starting to blur, not least because most Americans have almost no idea what these traditions stand for.
The great religions have long pursued different goals through different means: Christians sought salvation through faith or works (or some combination thereof), while Buddhists sought nirvana through meditation or chanting. So a century ago jumping from a Catholic Mass to an evangelical revival to a Buddhist retreat would have felt like leaping across vast chasms. But contemporary Americans know almost nothing about their own religious traditions and even less about the traditions of others. Most Americans cannot name any of the Four Gospels, and an overwhelming majority admit to being wholly ignorant of Islam. So we shuffle from one to the other with little sense of what is being lost (or gained) in the process.
As a scholar of religion, I am supposed to simply observe all this without rendering any judgment, but I can't help feeling that something precious is being lost here, perhaps something as fundamental as a sense of the sacred. Harvard philosopher George Santayana once observed that "American life is a powerful solvent," capable of neutralizing new ideas into banal clichés. I worry that this solvent is now melting down the sharp edges of the world's religions, bending them toward purposes other than their own.
It is possible, of course, that as we jump from one place of worship to another we are learning along the way. But what we are really doing looks more akin to commerce than to education.The store managers in our spiritual marketplace seem a bit too eager to sell us whatever they imagine we want.
At their best, Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism call us to rethink the world and then challenge us to remake it—and to remake ourselves. But the truths of one religion often clash with those of others, or contradict each other outright. Even Protestantism has carried inside its various denominations strikingly different visions of the good life, both here and in the hereafter. Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions' ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion as we search, in love, for the next new thing.
—Mr. Prothero is a professor religion at Boston University.