By Lisa Miller for News Week on 15 Aug 2009
24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. We are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.
America is not a Christian nation. We are, it is true, a nation founded by Christians, and according to a 2008 survey, 76 percent of us continue to identify as Christian (still, that’s the lowest percentage in American history). Of course, we are not a Hindu—or Muslim, or Jewish, or Wiccan—nation, either. A million-plus Hindus live in the United States, a fraction of the billion who live on Earth. But recent poll data show that conceptually, at least, we are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians in the ways we think about God, our selves, each other, and eternity.
The Rig Veda, the most ancient Hindu scripture, says this: “Truth is One, but the sages speak of it by many names.” A Hindu believes there are many paths to God. Jesus is one way, the Qur’an is another, yoga practice is a third. None is better than any other; all are equal. The most traditional, conservative Christians have not been taught to think like this. They learn in Sunday school that their religion is true, and others are false. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”
Americans are no longer buying it. According to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, 65 percent of us believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life”—including 37 percent of white evangelicals, the group most likely to believe that salvation is theirs alone. Also, the number of people who seek spiritual truth outside church is growing. Thirty percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual, not religious,” according to a 2009 NEWSWEEK Poll, up from 24 percent in 2005. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for “the divine-deli-cafeteria religion” as “very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same,” he says. “It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that’s great, too.”
Then there’s the question of what happens when you die. Christians traditionally believe that bodies and souls are sacred, that together they comprise the “self,” and that at the end of time they will be reunited in the Resurrection. You need both, in other words, and you need them forever. Hindus believe no such thing. At death, the body burns on a pyre, while the spirit—where identity resides—escapes. In reincarnation, central to Hinduism, selves come back to earth again and again in different bodies. So here is another way in which Americans are becoming more Hindu: 24 percent of Americans say they believe in reincarnation, according to a 2008 Harris poll. So agnostic are we about the ultimate fates of our bodies that we’re burning them—like Hindus—after death. More than a third of Americans now choose cremation, according to the Cremation Association of North America, up from 6 percent in 1975. “I do think the more spiritual role of religion tends to deemphasize some of the more starkly literal interpretations of the Resurrection,” agrees Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard. So let us all say “om.”