Religion 101

All religions have their holidays (literally “holy days”) — certain special days of the year which are set aside and elevated as being especially sacred or holy. Judaism itself celebrates about ten major and many more minor holidays throughout the year, and three of them are coming up during this month alone (September 2012).

Not all holidays are created equal. For instance, some Jewish holidays are regarded as “working” holidays (work being permitted upon them), whereas other Jewish holidays are considered to be “non-working” holidays (during which work should be avoided; in a few cases, work may be permitted but only with certain restrictions).

For instance, the relatively minor holiday of Chanukah (or Hanukkah), familiar to many non-Jews because of its proximity to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, is actually regarded as a “working holiday”; Chanukah runs for eight days, during which time work is permitted, except on the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) which falls within that eight-day period.

On September 19 of this year (exact dates vary from year to year, being based as they are upon the Jewish lunar calendar), a “working holiday” known as the Fast of Gedaliah will occur (to mourn the assassination of an ancient Jewish leader by that name).

Because Judaism regards a day as beginning and ending at sundown (rather than at 12:00 midnight), the weeklong celebration known as Sukkot technically begins at sunset on September 30 this year; however, many calendars in general use commonly overlook such subtleties, and so may indicate that Sukkot simply begins on October 1. During Sukkot, no work at all is permitted on certain days, while on other days work is permitted but with certain restrictions.

However, out of all of the Jewish holidays (“working” and “non-working” alike), two of the most important are occurring this month: Rosh Hashanah (September 17 – 18) and Yom Kippur (September 26). These two major (and definitely “non-working”) holidays are collectively known within Judaism as “the High Holy Days.” Together, they bookend a solemn and introspective ten-day period known as the “Ten Days of Repentance,” or as the “Days of Awe.”

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. In addition to commemorating God’s creation of the universe and of human beings, as well as marking the fresh start of a new year beginning on the Jewish calendar, this High Holy Day is also a time for thoughtful reflection, remembrance, and self-examination. In most Jewish communities, Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration or observance; this year, it will technically begin at sunset on September 16, and run until nightfall on September 18.

Ten days after the start of Rosh Hashanah comes Judaism’s holiest of holy days: Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” The entire ten-day period which began with the Jewish New Year is one of deep piety and self-evaluation, but it all comes to a head on the Day of Atonement, the final day and capstone of the High Holy Days. The most sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer, of repentance and renewed commitment to righteousness. This year, Yom Kippur will technically begin at sunset on September 25, and end at nightfall on September 26.



In my last post, I presented a visual pie chart graphically displaying the relative sizes of the major religions that are currently predominant within the United States. I also compared and contrasted that U.S. religious pie chart with a second pie chart, presented in preceding blog entries, which graphically displayed the relative proportions of the major world religions as they currently exist upon the broader, global scene (a global religious pie chart, depicting the wider worldwide religious landscape).

Within the U.S. today, the domestic religious landscape looks something like this:

In this post, I’d like to further refine that U.S. religious pie chart, by breaking down most of its somewhat sweeping broad and general categories into more narrowly precise subcategories.

I say “broad and general” categories, because labels such as “Christianity,” “Other Religions,” and “Unaffiliated” each actually cover quite a bit of diversity within themselves.

After all, “Christianity” alone covers such diverse Christian subgroups as Protestants, Catholics, Mormons (arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, at least for polling purposes), and others.

Likewise, “Other Religions” also lumps together quite a lot of highly diverse ground, including Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and of course many, many others.

Finally, the broad category of “Unaffiliated” can be broken down into at least three distinct subgroups: atheists (those who either flatly deny the existence of God, or else merely hold no personal belief in God), agnostics (those who either proclaim personal uncertainty regarding the existence of God, or else flatly assert that such certainty is impossible either way), and those who may hold at least some religious, spiritual, or “metaphysical” views, but who simply do not specifically affiliate themselves with any one particular formally established religion (e.g., “spiritual but not religious” folks, New Agers, independent seekers, freelance mystics, and similar variants).

Here’s how a more narrowly refined version of that same U.S. religious pie chart breaks down the domestic religious and spiritual landscape:

Perhaps the first thing to note is the fact that American Christianity is nearly one-third Catholic. About 25% of the total U.S. population (Christian and non-Christian alike) is Catholic. The other two-thirds of Christians in America are almost entirely Protestant (amounting to about half of the total U.S. population). So, Protestants outnumber Catholics in America by about two to one.

However, that big Protestant half of the U.S. religious pie is by no means homogenous. The term “Protestant” itself actually covers a lot of very diverse Christian ground, ranging from mainline Protestant denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, from Amish and Mennonites to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and “non-denominationals.”

If that big Christian half of the pie were further subdivided into individual slices for all of those diverse subgroups, it would end up a pretty splintered-looking half. That Catholic quarter of the pie would, in fact, be bigger than any one of the resulting individual Protestant slices, on its own. (The Baptist slice would be the next biggest slice, after the Catholic one; the Southern Baptists are the nation’s single largest Protestant denomination.)

In addition to Protestants and Catholics, the Christian section of the pie (comprising about 80% of the entire U.S. pie) also includes two relatively small slices representing Mormons on the one hand, and on the other hand literally “everything else” — any other religions in America that fall within the broad umbrella of  “Christian.”

The Jewish slice of the pie isn’t much bigger than either of those last two slices, and again this often comes as a surprise to people who may be unfamiliar with religious demographics. Many seem to expect the domestic (as well as the international) Jewish population to be considerably larger than it actually is, given their profound prominence throughout Western religious history.

As with the Protestant slice, the Jewish slice of the pie could be further subdivided to illustrate the relative sizes of Judaism’s various sects or branches. However, the resulting slices — individually representing Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, etc. — would be very slender indeed.

The next broad category contains within itself all remaining formally established religions in America other than Judaism and Christianity. As the chart makes clear, this covers a lot of very diverse religious ground (Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and finally “everything else”); but again, each of these several diverse slices is pretty thin, relative to the entire pie as a whole.

Atheists and agnostics each comprise fairly slender slices of their own. Interestingly, the third biggest single slice in the entire pie (after the huge Protestant and Catholic slices) is the one which contains the “spiritual but not religious” or “nothing specific” crowd — not irreligious outright, yet religiously “unaffiliated,” as it were. This single large slice also masks, of course, an immense amount of diversity of its own, since individual personal forms of spirituality, or of “unchurched” religious or metaphysical beliefs, can run a seemingly near-infinite gamut.

This final slice of the pie may well represent “rugged American individualism,” or “the American spirit of self-directed independence,” as currently applied to the sphere of religion and spirituality by a great many contemporary average Americans today.


In my previous two posts, I presented a global religious pie chart, graphically displaying and comparing the relative sizes of the major religions of the world, based upon their own total global populations. Now, I’d like to present a similar sort of religious pie chart, but one based instead upon the relative population sizes of the major religions not around the world, but those that are predominant within the United States.

This U.S. religious pie looks quite a bit different from the global religious pie, doesn’t it? If nothing else, it should serve as a vivid reminder that the appearance of one’s own religious landscape at home may in fact scarcely resemble the much broader global religious landscape, as found out in the wider world beyond one’s familiar looking homeland.

Perhaps the biggest single difference between the domestic U.S. and the wider global religious landscapes, as indicated by their respective population pie charts, has to do with the size and scope of Christianity within each. On the global scene, Christianity is still the single largest religion, but not by such an overwhelming margin as it is on the American scene.

Worldwide, Christianity accounts for only about one-third of our planet’s total population. Within the U.S., however, Christianity amounts to roughly four-fifths of the domestic population. America is about as densely populated by Christians as India is by Hindus (Hinduism accounting for at least 80% of India’s own population). When I tell my students that the U.S. is overwhelmingly Christian, I’m not exaggerating.

We tend to think of the United States as a very religiously diverse place, as a great “melting pot” of faiths and spiritual paths. And it is — but that broad diversity and rich variety itself actually ranges through only a small minority of the total U.S. populace. Still, with a national population currently over 300 million, even a “small minority” thereof can amount to some pretty sizeable numbers of people.

As the U.S. pie chart indicates, Judaism in America isn’t a whole lot bigger than it is on the global scene; Jews comprise barely 2% of the U.S. population, compared with less than 1% of the total world population.

Looking at the global religious landscape, Muslims account for nearly a quarter of the total world population. Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, and followers of tribal religions in indigenous societies collectively amount to nearly another one-third of humanity. Yet within America, all of these faiths — Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, indigenous religions — taken together amount to only about 3% of the U.S. population. Looked at individually, each of these “other” religions would barely even register as a blip on our radar screen.

Apart from all of the differences, perhaps the biggest single similarity between the U.S. and the global religious “pies” (or the domestic vs. worldwide religious “landscapes” which these pie charts represent) has to do with the category of “religiously unaffiliated.” This slice in each pie encompasses both outright nonbelievers (atheists and agnostics) as well as those who may hold at least some religious or spiritual views but who simply do not formally affiliate themselves with any one particular faith or religious tradition (in other words, “nothing specific”).

Interestingly enough, in both pies — the global, and the domestic — the relative percentage of the religiously unaffiliated is about the same (16%). And in each pie, that makes for a pretty big slice, representing some pretty substantial numbers of people (both at home and abroad).

(To be continued, in Part Two.)