Losing Our Faith in Religion

Young urban U.S. Jews are accurately reflecting their non-Jewish peers by ditching their affiliation to religion. If you want a place where 'integrating' doesn't mean assimilating, go to Israel.

The endless analysis of the recently released Pew Research Center report, Portrait of Jewish Americans, has generally focused on the internal and specifically Jewish implications and causes of the trends reported. No doubt there are lessons to be learned – as I have myself suggested in my own previous take on the data – that are particular to the Jewish community. But no less important is the American component of the results: Jews here (86 percent of whom are American-born) are simply acting like the Americans they are.

Take, for example, the concern about the growth of so-called unaffiliated Jews, and how that growth reflects a distancing from Judaism as a religion. Pew reported that only 15 percent of those surveyed said that, for them, being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion. Moreover, the younger one was, the less affiliated they were with religion. Jews of no religion are younger (median age 43) than Jews by religion (52).

But look for a moment about what other surveys of all Americans and religion show us. The youngest of all in these surveys are the broader, religiously unaffiliated in the general American population (median age 37). One in five U.S. adults (and fully a third of those ages 18-30) have no religious affiliation.

Already back in 2002, New York University’s Michael Hout and Claude Fischer (of the University of California, Berkeley) noted a sharp rise in the percentage of Americans who do not identify in surveys with any particular religion. The size of that group, sometimes colloquially called the “nones,” had at that time doubled from about 7 percent to about 14 percent of the U.S. public. And in all of subsequent surveys of American religion – the General Social Survey, Gallup and Pew – those numbers have continued to climb.

America's youth are neither faithful nor deeply religious in practice. Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. They also are less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young. Fully one in four members of the Millennial generation – so called because they were born after 1980 and began to come of age around the year 2000 – are not affiliated with any particular faith. And compared with their elders today, fewer young people say that religion is very important in their lives. They also intermarry more.

Looking at Christians, we find the same. Compared with their elders today, young people are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. Fully one in four adults under age 30 are unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19 percent); 15 percent of those in their 40s; 14 percent of those in their 50s; and 10 percent or less among those 60 and older.

The data indicate that rural Americans are slightly more religious than their metropolitan neighbors, as indicated by weekly church attendance and having had a born-again experience. Moreover, urban young people, far more than rural ones, were found to be far more disaffiliated from religion and religious views.

The large proportion of young adults who are unaffiliated with a religion is a result, in part, of the decision by many young people to leave the religion of their upbringing without becoming involved with a new faith. In total, nearly one in five adults under age 30 (18 percent) say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith. 

When we look at the findings on Jewish Americans against all this, we discover that the Jews are simply acting like other urban Americans of their generation. Though not quite as extreme – in large measure because of the significant number of young Jewish Americans who are urban Orthodox and thus skew the Jewish data on the young toward somewhat greater affiliation with religion than we find among non-Jews – the young Jews are just reflecting the fact that they are part of young urban America.

As long as Jews are integrated with Americans like themselves, they will reflect the religious trends and affiliations of America. In a sense, the young Orthodox – and particularly the ultra-Orthodox – have understood this, hence their ambivalence about their Americanness and their desire to be different in appearance, language, residential clustering and patterns of education – to say nothing of their unwillingness to share in American culture.

But most other Jews are not going to want to become estranged from an America they have worked so hard to become part of in the last generations.

Given that reality, what can save American Jewry from Jewish disaffiliation? Only two possibilities: A change in America that comes about via a multiculturalism and growing ethnicity, in which being American means being a hyphenated-American. Such ethnicity would have to be more than just symbolic. It would need to be expressed in genuine diversity and ethnic affiliation. American multiculturalism, however, has not shown an appetite for real differences; it prefers the symbolic ones.

The other remedy is to be part of a culture that is Jewish in its majority. The Orthodox do this by living in places that are overwhelmingly Jewish and Orthodox, where they can act as if the whole world is as Jewish as they are. But for those not ready to live in such ghettos, the Jewish State of Israel appears to provide the only place where being integrated into the majority culture and being Jewish are not at odds with each other.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Nir Kafri