America’s Faith Flotilla: I Boarded the Jewish Ship

We American religious leaders would do well to change the primary narrative that we employ in our faith communities so that the “nones” can find new homes.

By Justus Baird

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Judaism. Read other perspectives here.

As a rabbi who converted to Judaism, I am somewhat of an oddity within the Jewish community. I was raised Presbyterian in Texas. As a teen I started to question my faith, and by age sixteen I would have told any demographer who asked my religious affiliation that I was a “none,” at least as Pew defines the term. A few years later, I surprised myself by finding a spiritual home in Judaism.

According to the 2015 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, my story of growing up in one religious community and finding a home in another is quite American and increasingly common. Sociologists call this phenomenon “religious switching,” and it plays a much bigger role in American religious life than we acknowledge.

Before we get to the data, let me offer a visual metaphor. Imagine that each religion in America is one ship on a larger sea. There is a Jewish ship, a Catholic ship, a historically Black Protestant ship…you get the idea. Each one is sized and decorated appropriately. If you were to hop on a plane and fly over this flotilla of faith, you might get a sense of which traditions had more adherents (aircraft carrier) and which ones fewer (the private yacht), whether they offered dancing on board or quiet meditation sessions. If you looked out of the window of your plane more closely, you might see something almost indiscernible: a massive number of tiny lifeboats floating about in the sea between the ships.

Paddling each little lifeboat are Americans who decided to jump ship — people who decided to leave their faith community. Some lifeboats paddle right up to another ship, while others circle around in the sea for a while. These are the “nones” of the American religious seascape. Thanks to Pew, we now know they constitute 23 percent of us (about 72 million). Most of the commentary about the growth of the nones has been about secularizing trends in America. But another way to understand the nones is to see them as seekers on the sea of faith, considering other ships to hop on to.

There are a surprising number of Americans who direct their lifeboat toward another ship (those who change their faith affiliation between childhood and adulthood). Pew data shows that 34 percent of Americans switched the boat they were on at one point in their life, and that the amount of switching is growing. (See p. 33 of the Pew Study.)

Are the captains of these ships minding the nones in the lifeboats? Are the crew paying attention? If 22 percent of Americans are hanging out in lifeboats this year, and more and more Americans are taking a lifeboat off their ship every year, all faith communities have a responsibility to be more inviting and welcoming to the nones on the lifeboats.

Once I was a passenger on one of those lifeboats. While my fleeing onto the lifeboat may have been youthful and hasty, my embarkation onto the Jewish ship was deliberate. It took years of study, introspection, and hard work. But my soul found a home on that Jewish ship, and I am much better as a human being on that ship than I was when I was in the lifeboat.

We American religious leaders would do well to change the primary narrative that we employ in our faith communities: that our adherents raise children in our tradition, that those children grow up and hopefully most of them stay, and that most of our folk grew up as part of our community. The American story of religious switching paints a very different picture. And if the trends continue, Americans will continue to hop into lifeboats. Will the captains and crew running our respective ships be able to quickly design special hatches so that the nones that make up the lifeboat flotilla will at least have a chance to check us out?

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