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Interfaith Households Growing? Depends on Your Definition

The number of “interfaith” households in the U.S. is growing, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

The title, “One-in-Five U.S. Adults Were Raised in Interfaith Homes,” piqued my interest.

In a strong majority (79 percent) of U.S. households, both parents adhere to the same religious tradition, Pew reported. Yet, a growing number (21 percent) of households are “interfaith.”

Surveys and data analysis provide an important way to assess trends, and Pew is a highly respected and reliable source for data collection and analysis.

Yet, I take issue with this particular report, as their definition of an “interfaith” household seems problematic for at least two reasons.

First, they identify “religiously unaffiliated” as a religion.

Thus, households with a religiously affiliated parent and with a religiously unaffiliated parent (“nones,” agnostics or atheists) were labeled “interfaith.”

To be fair, other organizations have also classified religiously unaffiliated as a religion. For example, a National Geographic headline reads “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion.”

Yet, it seems problematic to call these collective groups a religion, and, thus, to label households with a religiously unaffiliated parent as “interfaith.”

Repetition of what seems to be a logical inconsistency doesn’t make it accurate – and it conflicts with a clear statement on Atheists.org that atheism is not a religion.

Second, and more troubling in my view, Pew identifies Catholics and Protestants as separate religions.

Are there any mainstream Christian traditions that would agree with this assessment?

Distinct expressions of Christian faith? Yes. A history of divisiveness dating back to 1517? Sure. But separate religions?

While my church history books are a bit dusty at the present, I can’t recall a time when either group conceived of the other as a separate religion.

Excommunications and denunciations notwithstanding, the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism is most properly understood as a debate about the correct (most biblical) manner of practicing the Christian faith – not as two distinct religions.

Moreover, Catholics and Protestants have become increasingly amicable and cooperative in recent decades, as plans to use the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation to further improve relationships – moving from conflict to communion – demonstrates.

Baptist leaders Robert Parham and Neville Callam have both called for commitment to continue the work of improving Baptist-Catholic relationships during 2017.

So, why would Pew classify these groups as distinct religions?

No explanation is given, though there is an explanation for why they grouped all other Christian denominations.

“There are many possible ways to define religiously mixed families,” the report asserted. Fair enough.

Yet, the multi-paragraph explanation for treating Protestants “as a single religious category” that follows raises more questions than it answers.

“The substantive importance of intra-Protestant combinations is not always clear. Some may involve individuals from denominations with deep historical, theological and cultural differences,” Pew explained. “In other cases, individuals from nominally distinct Protestant denominations may have much in common, religiously.”

The report added, “If complete information about the exact denominational affiliation of respondents (and their parents and spouses) always were available, it might be possible, theoretically, to classify some intra-Protestant pairings as highly or ‘truly’ mixed and others as not.”

It seems that, for Pew, the “interfaith” label could apply to households with adherents of different Protestant denominations if there was enough information to determine sufficient diversity of beliefs, practices and so forth.

That is a confusing claim, at best – one that further redefines “interfaith.” Ecumenical is a more appropriate (and accurate) description of “intra-Protestant combinations” and Protestant-Catholic interactions.

Pew’s division of Protestants and Catholics is inconsistent with how these traditions view themselves, and their explanation for categorizing all Protestants as a single religion makes it more difficult to understand their decision to classify Catholics and Protestants as separate religions.

After all, there are more “deep historical, theological and cultural differences” between some Protestant denominations than there are between some Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church. For example, does the Anglican / Episcopal Church have more in common with Catholicism or Pentecostalism?

All of this calls into question the claim that one in five (21 percent) U.S. households are interfaith.

Six percent of respondents were raised in a home with a Catholic parent and a Protestant parent, Pew reported, while 3 percent were another combination of faith traditions.

The other 12 percent of “interfaith” households were those in which one parent affiliated with a faith tradition and the other parent was religiously unaffiliated.

So, if we set aside the Catholic/Protestant and religiously affiliated/religiously unaffiliated households, we are left with 3 percent of U.S. households as “interfaith.”

The report was clear in its categorization and definitions. There was no attempt to mislead readers.

However, adopting an expansive definition of “interfaith” and using it in a headline is problematic – particularly when that definition not only amends the widely accepted understanding of “interfaith” but also conflicts with adherents’ own views of themselves.

I’ll continue to read (and report on) Pew’s surveys, especially those on religious trends and issues, but I’ll certainly look more closely at how terms are defined.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.