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The shifting spiritual practices of America's minority faiths

POSTED: November 15, 2015 12:49 p.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Members of minority faith groups in the U.S. have evolving views of the role religion plays in their lives.

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About two years ago, Aditya Mukerjee missed his flight. He had been detained by airport security and was asked to answer an increasingly strange barrage of questions.

Interrogators asked Mukerjee, a data scientist and practicing Hindu, if he planned to pray on his flight and if he was fasting. He realized his appearance had led them to believe he was Muslim, although he had been flying to Los Angeles to visit Hindu temples with his family.

On Aug. 3, 2013, after sitting with security personnel for hours, Mukerjee was released. He shared his experience on social media, highlighting how confusion about religion informs racial profiling.

"I think basic information, training and context (on religion) would go a long way," Mukerjee told The Daily Dot at the time.

To be a member of a minority faith in the United States is, for the most part, to be misunderstood. Together, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists make up less than 5 percent of the country's population, meaning many Americans know only as much about these faiths as they read in headlines.

However, a new Pew Research Center survey on the spiritual practices of American adults reveals many insights about these groups, illustrating America's rich and diverse religious landscape. Membership in minority faith groups is growing, and the beliefs and practices of these communities are changing, too.

Here are some of the key spiritual shifts taking place among Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus in the U.S.:

1. Judaism

Judaism is the largest non-Christian faith in America, and its membership continues to grow. In 2014, 1.9 percent of the U.S. population was Jewish, up 0.2 percentage points from 2007, Pew reported in May.

As the size of the Jewish community has increased, so has the religiosity of its members, according to several measures of spiritual practice on Pew's latest religion survey. Thirty-five percent of Jews now say religion is very important to them, a 4 percentage point increase over seven years.

Growing numbers of Jews pray and participate in community activities. In 2014, 29 percent of Jews prayed daily, up from 26 percent in 2007. And 16 percent participated in prayer groups or gatherings focused on scripture study, a 5 percent increase over seven years.

Additionally, Jews appear to be increasingly engaged with their local houses of worship. Nearly 1 in 5 Jews (19 percent) attended religious services weekly or more in 2014, compared with 16 percent in 2007.

2. Islam

Islam also has a growing presence in the U.S. The Muslim population increased by 0.5 percentage points from 2007 to 2014, from 0.4 percent to 0.9 percent.

The growth has brought challenges, as American Muslims adjust their faith practices to a social and political climate that can be unfriendly to Islam. Pew's study highlighted a variety of complex shifts taking place in the Islamic community.

First, Muslim religiosity appears to be declining, with smaller numbers reporting a daily prayer practice and attending worship. In 2014, 43 percent of Muslims said they attended religious services a few times a year or less, compared with 38 percent in 2007.

Additionally, many Muslims are calling for change within their community. In 2014, 25 percent of Muslims told Pew that Islam should adopt modern beliefs and practices, a 4 percentage point increase from 2007. Forty-five percent of Muslims said homosexuality should be accepted by society, up from 38 percent in 2007.

However, one-third of the community (33 percent) continues to advocate for maintaining traditional beliefs and practices.

One final notable shift is that American Muslims increasingly accept the validity of other faiths. In 2014, nearly two-thirds of the group (65 percent) said many religions can lead to eternal life, compared with 56 percent in 2007.

3. Buddhism

The Buddhist share of the U.S. population was constant at 0.7 percent from 2007 to 2014. Consistency was also the theme of the group's spiritual practices with Pew observing only modest changes in the way Buddhists prayed and worshipped.

In 2014, 43 percent of the Buddhist community prayed daily, a 2 percentage point drop in seven years. However, there was a 2 percentage point increase in the number of Buddhists who attend prayer groups, with 14 percent reporting participation in 2014.

Two-thirds of Buddhists (66 percent) meditated weekly or more in 2014, up from 61 percent in 2007, Pew reported.

The largest change observed in Pew's study involved Buddhist attitudes regarding heaven. Nearly half of the community (47 percent) said they believed in heaven in 2014, an 11 percentage point increase over seven years.

4. Hinduism

Hindus now represent an equal share of the U.S. population as Buddhists because the community grew 0.3 percentage points over seven years.

Over the same period, the Hindu community witnessed many spiritual shifts, becoming less traditionally religious and even more accepting of other faiths.

Only 26 percent of Hindus said religion was very important to them in 2014, a 19 percentage point drop from 2007. There was also a significant drop in the number of Hindus who pray daily and participate in community prayer groups.

Almost all American Hindus (96 percent) believe many religions can lead to eternal life, up from 89 percent in 2007.

Finally, the group's assessment of the morality of homosexuality changed dramatically from 2007 to 2014, with 71 percent of Hindus now saying the sexual orientation should be accepted by society, up 23 percentage points in seven years.
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