If the Gallup polling company is to be believed, Jews are the most secular people in the world. Gallup's Global Index of Religion and Atheism carried out surveys in 57 countries on five continents, and found that since the last worldwide survey in 2005, nine percent fewer people around the world consider themselves religious, while outright atheism has risen by three percent. Even so, the majority, 59 percent, still see themselves as religious.

As usual, the Jews are early joiners, ahead of the curve: According to Gallup, only 38 percent of Jews describe themselves as religious, while 54 percent are nonreligious and two percent atheist. When compared to the figures for other religions - the various brands of Christianity, as well as Hinduism and Islam, all have double the religious proportion - Jews seem almost irredeemably secular.

This flies in the face of all we have heard for years about the Orthodox Jewish demographic ascendancy and rising levels of religious Jewish belief and practice. That is, until you have a closer look at the data.

The Global Index was conducted as a nation-by-nation survey, based on representative samples of each country's population. Thus the number of Jews in the poll was at best incidental: Nearly 52,000 people worldwide participated, among whom 106 identified themselves as Jewish. That's roughly one in 500, which is more or less the proportion of Jews in the global population.

But no statistician would argue that 106 Jews is a representative sample of a far-flung tribe with some 14 million members. Added to that is the fact that Israel, where 43 percent of the world's Jews live, was not one of the countries included in the survey.

So not only does it make sense not to read anything into the Jewish representation in the Global Index of Religion and Atheism, but it should serve as a warning to anyone trying to assess people's religious beliefs, affiliations and practices from surveys. While polls are useful in gauging more definite actions - such as voting patterns, where a citizen ultimately has to set aside all doubts and cast a vote for one candidate or party, or consumer behavior, where shoppers actually put their money on a preferred product - there is no exact measure of faith. Certainly the three basic categories of religious, nonreligious and atheist do not leave any room for theological nuance.

In Israel, the Central Bureau of Statistics, which publishes an annual report on the religious persuasions of Jewish Israelis, has been dividing them for the last couple of years into five categories. These are secular (hiloni ), ultra-Orthodox (Haredi ), national religious or modern Orthodox (dati ) and two less-defined new categories: traditional-religious (masorti dati ) and traditional-not-so-religious (masorti lo kol kach dati ).

Sixty years ago, Israelis were religiously defined as either hofshi'im - free, or adukim - rigid. These labels not only denoted the dominant secular viewpoint of the state's early days, but also the feeling then that religion didn't really matter. The emergence of five statistical categories, none of them adequately describing the huge range and variety of tastes on offer in today's Jewish buffet, only proves the uselessness of surveys and statistics in a society where religion, or the lack of it, does matter a whole lot, and where everyone wants to define himself or herself by themselves.

A reckoning for yeshiva students

I am writing this exactly a month before the statistics bureau's next religious survey comes out (by tradition on the eve of Yom Kippur ), and in the week when Elul, the Jewish holy month of mercy and forgiveness, began. This is a special week in religious circles, one in which Jews are called upon to begin their annual reckoning and improve their conduct and observance of mitzvot (religious commandments ), both between man and his maker and between man and his fellow man.

It is also the week in which the yeshiva year begins. And though there are no statistics I am aware of, I am pretty certain that over 100,000 men (and a tiny handful of women ) took their seats on the benches of the study halls both in Israel and the Diaspora, and that there has never at any previous time in history been many Jews spending their days in Torah and Talmud study.

But this figure is also misleading. It doesn't take into account the large proportion of 18-year-olds entering yeshiva solely due to family and peer pressure, who will while away their time there fruitlessly. Nor does it take into account the fact that given the Supreme Court's ruling against exemptions from military service, the expiration of the Tal Law governing those exemptions, and the global recession, it will be a lot harder, almost impossible, for the ultra-Orthodox community to secure a political and economic umbrella for a system that allows an entire generation of young men to sit and study.

The yeshiva students will cease to be a statistic, and will have to undergo another reckoning of their own. They will have to begin deciding for themselves just what a life of Torah means for them, and strike their own personal balance between study, work and a wider duty to their community and the country.

As the religious lines have blurred among Jews in Israel and abroad, the same is happening within the ultra-Orthodox camp. For those of us looking at the Haredi world from the outside, this means we must immediately stop viewing them as one black fanatical statistic mass.