Why Some Americans Mix Christianity, Eastern Religions

Article excerpt

Worshipers are borrowing from Eastern religions and New Age beliefs. Open-mindedness or a dilution of faith traditions?

Because she attends Catholic mass every Sunday and observes all the religious holidays of her faith, Angela Bowman may well exemplify the Latin root of the word "religion," which is "to bind."

But the Chicagoan also meditates several times each day and practices yoga every other week. She knows Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism have contradictory elements but is unfazed by her multiple observances because, to her, "it's all pretty much the same thing."

"The biggest part of praying is opening yourself up to a connection with God, and I perceive clearing your mind in meditation as another form of receptivity," says the 30-something textbook editor. Although she is a devoted Roman Catholic, she says she doesn't "believe it's the one true path and anything else is flirting with the devil."

Ms. Bowman's attitude tracks with those in a study released last month, which found that large numbers of America's faithful do not neatly conform to the expectations or beliefs of their prescribed religions, but instead freely borrow principles of Eastern religions or endorse common supernatural beliefs.

The intermingling of faiths is not new, but some Christian leaders worry that its apparent increase in America distracts worshipers from the true path and dilutes Christian doctrine. But others say mixing and matching elements of different faiths is inevitable, given exposure to other parts of the world made possible by today's technology, and actually creates more opportunities to address people's yearning for spiritual growth. If the global marketplace divvies up the production, distribution, and marketing of goods among different continents, they say, why shouldn't religions be shared the same way?

Among the findings of the survey, by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:

- Almost 1 in 4 American adults say they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own.- Twenty- four percent of the public say they believe in reincarnation, and 23 percent believe in yoga as a spiritual practice. - Twenty-five percent of the overall public (and 23 percent of Christians) believe in astrology. - Fifteen percent of the public acknowledges having consulted a psychic or a fortuneteller.

The results refute the notion that faith in the United States is monochromic and instead show religious practice to be as diverse as the number of faiths in society, says Greg Smith, senior researcher with the project. The data reveal "a remarkable openness" among followers, many of whom participate in rituals or practices that contradict their professed faith, he says.

"There are lots of people who are Christians, who may be Protestant or may be Catholic and who may be quite committed to their practice, but who nevertheless have practiced ... tenets of experience that tend to come [from] outside of Christianity," says Mr. Smith.

Religion scholars say the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of philosophies dates back centuries. What's notable about this current surge is the ease with which seekers can learn about other religious traditions, courtesy of the Internet and widespread mobility, says Richard Rosengarten, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School.

"People have access to a tremendous range of information about a tremendous range of religions," he says. Although "the search for the divine is authentically religious and is always honored," he says, rampant straying from a particular dogma can be threatening to church leaders who feel a responsibility to keep their community of worshipers intact.

The challenge at the top, says Dr. Rosengarten, is to figure out how "best to encourage the widest possible range of expression of that search while maintaining the identity and truth of that tradition. …