For a long time we’ve had hybrid corn, and more recently we’ve had hybrid cars and hybrid golf clubs.
Now, a somewhat recent study shows, we also have hybrid religion.
In 2010, a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that Americans increasingly mix and max religious teachings to suit their own needs and tendencies. Though Christianity is still the majority religion in this land, 24% of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, the Hindu belief that after death we come back in a higher or lower life form according to our spiritual attainments and moral conduct in the life we’re living. Among avowed Christians, the percentage is almost the same — 22%.
According to the survey, one third of Americans regularly attend religious services at more than one holy place, and, from time to time, one quarter attend the services of a faith other than their own. About a quarter of us engage in yoga as a spiritual practice and not simply as a stretching exercise. More or less the same number believe spiritual energy emanates from mountains, trees or crystals. A similar number believe in astrology. (Decades ago, when church-going was more or less the norm, I heard a professor say that more people read the Zodiac Charts in the morning paper than read the Bible each day.) Perhaps more surprising is the finding that some 16% of Americans believe there are those with the “evil eye,” who by a glance can cast spells or curses upon another.
Clearly, American religion is not what it was 50 years ago when definite lines separated Protestant, Catholic and Jew, and most Americans identified with one of the three.
As Alan Cooperman, associate director of research at the Pew Forum, has said, “It is as much now the norm as it is the exception for Americans to blend religious beliefs and practices.”
The main blending, the survey finds, is between Christianity and Eastern and New Age beliefs. From what one can tell, western Sonoma County is a prime example of this kind of hybridization.
I know people, professionals of the highest order, who came to these parts in the 1970s and ’80s precisely because of the opportunities to explore and practice religious ways other than the one in which they were raised. Interestingly enough, a number of these came out of what we call the Bible Belt, which has long been characterized by fervent Protestant preaching, praying and singing, a main point of it being to convince people of their sinfulness and get them saved for glory in heaven. This still may be the dominant religious way in America, but, if numbers don’t lie, a larger and larger proportion of those who follow religious paths are moving away from strict and exclusive beliefs into hybrid forms of faith.
Hybrid corn brought forth bigger crops. I once had a hybrid car that was really quite fine. And hybrid golf clubs make some of the hardest shots a lot easier to hit. So, is hybrid religion a good thing?
I suppose it depends on the one you’re talking to, but from all we can tell, it’s here to stay a while. And one advantage may be that hybrid religious practices will promote wider understanding and deeper appreciation for a variety of faith traditions and thereby lessen religious conflict in the world, a worthy outcome indeed. May it be so.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.