The Story: According to a new survey, New Age beliefs are common in America, even among people who are highly religious in traditional ways.
The Background: A new Pew Research analysis looks at beliefs and behaviors that cut across many denominations producing a new and revealing classification, or typology, of religion in America. The new typology sorts Americans into seven groups based on the religious and spiritual beliefs they share, how actively they practice their faith, the value they place on their religion, and the other sources of meaning and fulfillment in their lives.
Included in the survey was a question about whether people held certain New Age beliefs, such as a belief that spiritual energy is located in physical things, such as mountains, trees, or crystals; reincarnation (people will be reborn again and again in this world); astrology (the position of stars and planets can affect people’s lives); and psychics (that some people perceive or are sensitive to supernatural forces).
The groupings, from most to least religious, are:
Sunday Stalwarts — This is the most religious of the seven typology groups. Sunday Stalwarts attend religious services weekly (82 percent), pray daily (84 percent), and participate in church groups (100 percent). They are also the most likely to believe in God as described in the Bible (94 percent) and believe in heaven and hell (97 percent and 91 percent, respectively).
About one in three persons in this group believes in psychics (32 percent) and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects (29 percent). About one in five believes in reincarnation (19 percent) and in astrology (16 percent).
God-and-Country — This group comprises believers who are less active in church groups or other religious organizations, but still hold many traditional religious beliefs and tilt right on social and political issues. About a quarter attend religious service (27 percent) but almost none participates in church groups (less than 1 percent). They mostly believe in God as described in the Bible (91 percent) and say that believing in God is necessary to be moral.
None of this group believes spiritual energy can be located in physical objects (0 percent) but almost one in three believes in psychics (28 percent). About one in five believes in reincarnation (21 percent) and in astrology (16 percent).
Diversely Devout — This group is diverse both in demographics (a relatively large share are racial and ethnic minorities) and also in their beliefs. Only 12 percent of this group attends religious services weekly.
This is the only group in which almost all people say they believe in God as described in the Bible (87 percent) and that they believe in psychics, reincarnation, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical things like mountains, trees, or crystals (95 percent). A majority of this group believes in psychics (68 percent), reincarnation (63 percent), and astrology (57 percent).
Relaxed Religious — This group says they believe in the God of the Bible (68 percent), and almost four-in-ten (39 percent) pray daily. But relatively few attend religious services (17 percent) or participate in church groups (2 percent).
None of this group believes spiritual energy can be located in physical objects (0 percent) but more than one in four believe in psychics (28 percent). About one in five believes in reincarnation (22 percent) and in astrology (16 percent).
Spiritually Awake — Only half (50 percent) of this group believes in God as described in the Bible and relatively few attend religious services on a weekly basis (8 percent).
Almost all believe spiritual energy can be located in physical objects (99 percent), and about three out of four believe in psychics (72 percent). A clear majority also believes in reincarnation (61 percent) and in astrology (63 percent).
Religion Resisters — This group largely considers itself spiritual (68 percent) but not religious (3 percent). They don’t go to church (only 2 percent attend weekly) or participate in religious groups (2 percent).
Almost all believe spiritual energy can be located in physical objects (98 percent) and a majority believes in psychics (68 percent). About half believe in reincarnation (49 percent) and just over four in ten believe in astrology (44 percent).
This group is also the most likely to say they find meaning and fulfillment in being outdoors and experiencing nature (64 percent).
Solidly Secular — This is the least religious of the seven groups. These relatively affluent, highly educated U.S. adults—almost all white (79 percent) and male (65 percent)—tend to describe themselves as neither religious (3 percent) nor spiritual (22 percent). They don’t believe in God as described in the Bible (1 percent).
Almost none of this group believes spiritual energy can be located in physical objects (less than 1 percent) but about one in ten believes in psychics (11 percent). About one in ten also believes in reincarnation (11 percent) and one in twenty believes in astrology (5 percent).
What It Means: Despite the tireless efforts by historians to dispel the misunderstanding, many people still believe the United States was (and remains) a “Christian nation.” The reality is that America has always been (and remains) a nation of religious syncretism.
Religious syncretism is blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. In the era of American’s founding, a dominant strain—especially popular among the Founding Fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—was “Christian deism.” In our own day, syncretism often mixes Christian beliefs with secular philosophy, such as in the form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. But the Pew Research survey shows an unexpected form of syncretism has crept into our culture and into our churches.
We tend to assume people intuitively understand why a belief the God who revealed himself in the Bible and in Christ is incompatible with a belief in reincarnation or the healing power of crystals. Because of this assumption, we spend almost no time explaining to our fellow churchgoers why New Age and Christian beliefs are incompatible. The result is that many people in our churches have a malfunctioning plausibility structure.
Everything we believe is filtered through our plausibility structures—a belief-forming apparatus that acts as a gatekeeper, letting in evidence matched against what we already consider to be possible. Plausibility structures filter out claims that we believe cannot be reasonable or potentially true. They don’t necessarily tell us if a claim is true, only that the truth of the claim appears plausible enough for us to accept and that we are not wholly unwarranted in thinking it could be true. Whether we are gullible or skeptical, the beliefs we accumulate have been filtered through plausibility structures at the individual and cultural level. These eventually form our worldview, which itself becomes a broad strainer that filters out beliefs that we won’t even consider to be possibly true.
For example, if I were to find a box of cookies in my kitchen cabinet I would assume that my wife had bought them at the store and placed them there herself. If someone were to argue that tree-dwelling elves baked the cookies, packaged them for their corporate employer, and stashed them in my pantry, I would have a difficult time believing the claim; the existence of unionized tree-dwelling elves is simply not a part of my plausibility structure.
Plausibility structures can prevent people from forming beliefs inconsistent with experience, evidence, and a Christian worldview. But these structures have to be built upon solid biblical teaching, rather than just assumed to have been acquired through church culture.
Obviously, pastors will need to play a role in shoring up the plausibility structures of those they are called to shepherd. But there is another group that can help take some of the weight off our already overly burdened ministers: lay apologists.
Lay apologists are Christians not already in full-time or paid ministry, but have the interest and equipping to carry out the task of apologetics. They are the type of believers who already know what “plausibility structures” are and why they are important. As a former lay apologist myself, I know how capable they are of carrying out this task. Unfortunately, too many of them are wasting their talents in endless debates with internet-based atheists.
If you’re a lay apologist, I hope you’ll heed this call: This church needs your skills and training. We need you to set aside the interminable and fruitless discussions with hardened nonbelievers and take up the task of helping to argue your fellow Americans out of believing in New Age nonsense. We need you to help repair the plausibility structures of our people in the pews.