The Hegemony of Religion

The headlines (and subsequent prognostications about the decline and general corruption of American Jews) from this week’s Pew Study highlighted the number of people who identify as Jewish, but do not claim Judaism as their religion. The study demonstrated, pretty consistently, that Jews who do not claim Judaism as their religion are less likely to participate in institutional Jewish life in any capacity and hold, for the most part, less strong attachments to traditional signifiers of Jewish life.

Yet, the survey itself illuminates far more than the apparent gaps between those who claim Judaism as their religion and those Jews who do not. The really interesting stuff does not lie in percentage differentials or oversampling. It lies in the survey instrument itself.

The instrument revealed, however inadvertently, just how rich the vocabulary is for discussing Jewish religious life and how poor it is for understanding other expressions of Jewishness. It asked lots of questions about religion, and it demonstrated a finely-tuned ear for subtle distinctions of religious expression. But when it came to understanding the modes of Jewish engagement by those who claimed to be Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey frequently offered clumsy, ham-handed catch-all categories that tended to blunt any deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life.

In short: a religious bias was written into the survey itself.

Here’s one example: (pg 60) The survey asks about membership. It asks about synagogues, specifically, and then lumps together all other memberships in “Jewish organizations other than a synagogue or temple.” There’s synagogue membership, and then there’s everything else (presumably that “everything” runs the gamut from JCC’s to museums, to advocacy organizations). But the survey instrument doesn’t ask about those other commitments, and how or why museum memberships are different than advocacy group memberships, and so on (let alone the questionable validity of “membership” as a measure meaningful engagement). Instead, it lumps all these “other” memberships together, reinforcing the hegemony of religion in American Jewish life.

Here’s another, different example that makes the point even more strongly: (pg 177). The question reads like this:

Thinking about Jewish religious denominations, do you consider yourself to be [RANDOMIZE: Conservative, Orthodox, Reform] something else, or no particular denomination?”

The list of choices is impressively long and includes “Kabbalah” “Moderate” “African Hebrew Israelite” “Jewish renewal” and “Pagan/wiccan.” But the funny thing about the reporting of the question is that it also reports the answers given by Jews of no religion. It seems that the survey asked Jews of no religion to offer a denominational affinity for themselves, even when denominationalism is really a way of distinguishing between religious choices.

It would be like asking someone who is lactose intolerant to choose her favorite kind of cheese.

Beyond the headlines and in between the data points, the survey revealed something more interesting and fundamentally more troubling than the apparent trends that fuel the fires of Jewish communal nay-sayers. It revealed the paucity of available language and theory to understand, deeply, the variety of ways in which people live Jewish lives. The sophisticated measures and descriptive language around religious differences and distinctions indicate just how finely attuned the American Jewish community has become to the particular formulations of Jewish as a religion, and how far it has to go to truly understand the variety of ways in which people articulate their versions and visions of Jewish culture.

My point here is not to blame Pew (whose research I think is consistently outstanding, and which I cite regularly in my own work), nor is it to point fingers at the panel of consultants (some of whom I’m proud to call my friends, teachers and mentors). My point is to highlight the unexamined assumptions of American Jewish life, and how our conceptions about Jewish life often end up shaping its realities, not the other way around.

  12 comments for “The Hegemony of Religion

  1. October 4, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Well said Ari!

  2. Sarah
    October 4, 2013 at 10:35 am

    To be fair, the Pew Forum did this study as part of its “Religion and Public Life” project. So, while I absolutely agree with you that a richer vocabulary for non-religious ways of being Jewish is necessary, Pew set out to study religious life specifically, and so I’m not sure that Pew’s research is the best target for that critique.

    • October 4, 2013 at 10:46 am

      Sarah. You’re right. But that strengthens my point, I think, especially because Pew has been documenting the religious “nones” for a little while now, and that there is a pretty solid list of Jewish social-cultural experts that worked as consultants to the project. Both the Pew research team and the Jewish consultants could have used this opportunity to engage in a more thoughtful conversation about how Jews-not-by-religion understand their Jewishnes. Or, following your logic, they shouldn’t have even bothered including Jews-not-by-religion, because it was a project about “religion.”

  3. October 4, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    i’m still and always puzzled by the majority of people (Jews and not just Jews) who claim not to be religious but then identify as “spiritual” or state that they believe in God or some universal spirit. it just seems that what people mean and don’t mean by “religion” is completely scrambled.

  4. Erica
    October 5, 2013 at 4:57 am

    Also of central significance is that (if the online discussions and comments in recent days in response to the survey are any indicator), Jewish communities and organizations take these statistics to point directly to the health and future viability of Jewish communal existence going forward. So if little attention is given to a wide range of ways Jews enact and experience their Jewishness outside of religion, we get both a skewed portrait of other (possibly emerging) areas of Jewish identification and engagement, and loose opportunities to strengthen these (if stronger Jewish identification is a goal). If this is the only kind of major survey about Jewish life that gets undertaken, it both expresses and reinforces dominant ideas about what a “real” Jewish life looks like.

  5. Rebekah
    October 5, 2013 at 6:07 am

    I agree Ari. It’s about time we started talking more deeply about what affiliation really means, and the value for the American cultural landscape of the much larger range if “Jewishness”.

  6. December 26, 2013 at 5:56 am

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. January 28, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    I think just about every survey is biased to some degree… I never pay a huge amount of attention to them just because how can they be truly accurate when by its own definition it’s a survey. It’s not true fact and it’s not estimation but data from a specific amount of people.

  8. March 24, 2016 at 12:37 am

    Ah, I think I see it. I think you’re using the sort-of-lexicographic ordering over (y,x,w,h), instead of over (x,y,w,h). If that’s true, a different counterexample works: in your first rotation, above, remove the block under the top-left corner.If that’s not right, then I’m just not sure what’s going on…

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