(RNS) The nation's premier pollster says the spiritual questpercolating among Americans today might best be described as "religion ala carte."

Although a Canadian sociologist, Reginald Bibby, coined the term, ithas been pollster George Gallup Jr. who has most thoroughly researchedits application in the United States.

At the dawn of a new century, Gallup concludes Americans "pick andchoose" what they want to believe, often mixing differing ideas fromwithin one religion or blending two or more different religions into apersonal belief system.

"Substantial portions of traditional Christians, for instance,subscribe to non-Christian beliefs and practices, such asreincarnation," he said in a telephone interview.

Gallup said this individualistic spiritual questing is most obviousin recent religious history. A current of deep spiritual searching canbe detected beneath even the TV evangelism excesses of the 1980s and theeclectic New Age practices of the 1990s.

"Americans are seeking something more meaningful, deeper andhealthier," Gallup said. "I think it stems in part from what theyperceive to be a failure of materialism in (the 20th) century and thefact that there are so many problems that surround us without apparentsolutions.

"I think that's why the seeking has intensified at this point intime. The surge in this desire for spiritual growth is perhaps one ofthe most dramatic movements of the 20th century."

In his research, resulting from a number of statistical surveys andrecounted in the new book, "Surveying the Religious Landscape"(Morehouse Publishing), Gallup reports that one cannot understandAmerica without acknowledging the influence and impact of religion.

His work uncovers a patchwork quilt of belief and practice amongAmericans who profess to be religious or spiritual.

Written with D. Michael Lindsay, a consultant on theology, religionand culture, the book shows:

  • More than 80 percent of Americans desire to grow spiritually.
  • Church and synagogue attendance has remained relatively steadyover the past 50 years.
  • There is a glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basicdoctrines and the traditions of one's own religion.
  • Too often the faith professed is superficial, with people notknowing what they believe or why.
  • The widespread and continuing appeal or popularity of religion.
The book also finds inconsistencies in individual belief systemswith, for example, an evangelical Christian also believing inreincarnation and generally a "high" belief in God accompanied by a lackof trust in God.

Organized religion, in some respects, has failed to make a "profounddifference in society" even though churches reach six out of 10Americans in a given month, the book contends.

It also found some racial disparities.

While 65 percent of Americans overall believe religion can answertoday's problems, 86 percent of African-Americans hold that belief.

Lindsay said he believes blacks have the most vibrant faith in thenation. "It has greater priority, great relevance to their lives fromthe research we did," he said in an interview.

"If you look at the Gallup statistics, nationwide you'll find adisparity between believing and belonging. But that's not true in theAfrican-American community. Faith holds a primacy in their lives. If youwant to reach African-Americans, you go through the church," he said.

Both Lindsay and Gallup talked about the dilemma of trying todistinguish between religiosity and spirituality in polling Americans.

"A recent poll we did showed 54 percent of Americans say they arereligious, 30 percent spiritual and 6 percent both," Gallup said.

But one can only estimate the religious practice growing out ofthose figures.

"I have to lump the spiritual and the religious together," he said."I think the most dramatic way people are living out their faith isthrough volunteerism, either through faith communities or elsewhere.Almost every other person in this country is a volunteer, in terms ofgiving an average of three or four hours a week to some cause withoutremuneration."

Americans remain highly individualistic, but the researchers foundmany of the old distinctions that set denominations apart are blurringif not dying.

American spirituality is a polyglot, they said, in which Baptistsdon't all think alike. Nor do Catholics. Sometimes a Baptist may havemore in common with a Presbyterian than with someone in their owndenomination.

"Millions of people of all faiths are believers, many devout, butthey do not always participate in the congregational lives of theirdenominations," Gallup and Lindsay write in the new book.

"Americans tend to view faith as a matter between them and God, tobe aided, but not necessarily influenced, by religious institutions."