Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths: Eastern & New Age Beliefs Widespread

Last week, the Pew Forum has put out a report on how Americans believe in many contradictory things. Many Americans “Mix Multiple Faiths and that Eastern, New Age Beliefs Widespread”

Some 24 percent of U.S. adults surveyed (including 22 percent of those who identified themselves as Christians) say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. Other results of the Pew Research Center survey:

* Belief in Astrology: 25 percent
* Seen or felt a ghost: Nearly 20 percent
* Consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic: 15 percent

“The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories,” Pew analysts concluded. “Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects.”

Nearly half (49 percent) said they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.”

Most this applies in equal percent, if not greater, to the Modern Orthodox community. There are several of us who have watched the local community list serve for several years and have noted the ever increasing magic and superstition.

To return to the discussion of rationality from below. If someone calls the Modern Orthodox community rational and the Yeshiva world superstitious then does it correspond to the facts? On one hand it does not since the modern community displays all the beliefs of the Pew Report. Are they saying they want to be rational and rather than engaging in rationality they say other are others are superstitious?  Or is it that modern Orthodox has reached a point where they have a rational public Judaism but a magical superstitious private life. Meaning that to treat Torah as irrational is no good, but to live a new age life is OK. Or is it just a denial of what people actually think?

Maimonides would not approve of any of these beliefs but he was willing to write off the masses or at least seek to change them minimally by fiat. But what is this rationality of modern orthodoxy that does not involve rational training. It is like the works of Chassidus that describe dvekus as a way to warm people’s hearts even if they are not having such an experience. (This is a whole Michel Certeau  discussion to be had here)

One way of looking at this is to return to the discussion of rationality of the 1970’s of Wilson-Barnes-Winch. who used the African Azande tribe described by EE Pritchard as their model. The Azande tribe knew that trees fall for natural causes but if someone is hurt it had to be witchcraft , this way they can speak of theodicy and meaning. But this case of the tribe of the Modern Orthodox is a bit tougher to unravel.. What is the first order causality and what is second order? Do they live in the world of their secular professions and suburban lives and then make a leap into a second order world of Torah and halakhah in order to make meaning in life and give order to a secular existence? Or do they live in the rational world of their professions and have a halakhah equally secular of the supernatural so they find solace in the supernatural, new age, and superstitious beliefs? Is Torah their primary cosmology or are the beliefs of the Pew study their cosmology? Do they get meaning that transcends their rationality from Torah or from superstition?

An alternate way to explain things might be to compare the orthodox community to religion in China, where Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism exist simultaneously.  As Rav Lichtenstein, and others, have noted, halakhah functions as a proper order of life, providing education, hierarchy, values, and respect similar to Confucianism. Here is a possible extension after the Pew study, the superstition and new age functions like Daoism- it provided “scientific” explanations of sickness, of power and of magic.. People live surrounding themselves with forms of Daoism like Fung Shui and Chinese medicine. And finally, only some people, those more monastic and meditative, seek the greater explanatory force of Buddhism. So too here, while everyone does the ordered life of halakhah, the Jewish magic and new age is ever present in the community, while only some people go in for either philosophy or spirituality, akin to Buddhism, with their greater explanatory power but their greater removal from ordinary life.

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