Americans are serious about religion, yet willing to have fun with the world of faith.
A prime example is The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion, a humorous new nonfiction book that treats finding the right religion as the ultimate purchase.
It’s a “Consumer Reports”-like assessment of 99 faiths with a “Saturday Night Live” spin, because there’s never been a better time to be in the market for meaning.
And if you’re seeking your spiritual match, but don’t like wading through a 208-page bound volume, there are online tests to help you choose, and even a novelty spinning wheel that you can use—or send as a greeting card.
It all comes down to pairing your personal inclinations with dogma while paring down the dozens of faiths covered in the book, test and wheel.
In America, the possibilities are everywhere—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism—all manner of isms, including more brands of Christianity than fast food.
When it comes to a single spirituality, how is the poor consumer to weigh the perks against the drawbacks?
“It’s a little like falling in love,” says Jen Bilik of Venice, Calif., whose company—Knock Knock—created The Savvy Convert’s Guide.
“You have to pay attention to the initial attraction. But what about the lifestyle and values? Do they really match yours?”
The guide’s tongue-in-cheek goal is to make shopping for religion as “easy as buying a new car.”
“It really is OK to go shopping for what you want in a religion now,” says Bilik. “And, if you know the demands and promises that a religion offers, it might help you avoid buying a lemon.”
Just as car shoppers look for comparisons on mileage and reliability, The Savvy Convert’s Guide compares ease of conversion, time commitment, after-life promises and deities new members will want to know.
“We all think we have thumbnails of faiths in our minds, but do we?” says Bilik.
“Do we really know the difference between Catholic and Protestant or Sunni and Shia?
Do we know what it will be like to actually convert?”
Still, the humor of the book, which comes from an edgy tone and the oddity of seeing faiths treated like flavors of gum, may be more appealing than the book’s factual core, Bilik says.
Her company has taken a light-hearted approach to what the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in June—that Americans overwhelmingly believe in God (92 percent) and yet are not dogmatic about faith.
In fact, 70 percent of the 23,000 people in the survey said there’s more than one way to eternal life, and many are sampling the appeals of different traditions.
Gene Thompson of Brandywine Hundred has seen this when he talks with people about their faith. And he marvels how this differs from when he was growing up in the South more than 60 years ago.
He first knew a brand of the Southern Baptist faith that spoke of being the one true path. In more recent years, he’s watched faiths pull back from such declarations.
Typically, Americans espouse a view that it’s great to be curious, wanting to know what competing traditions offer, he says.
Thompson is a longtime member of Wilmington’s First & Central Presbyterian Church and feels at home with an approach to the sacred that includes everything from progressive Christianity to shamanism to the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn and the writings of Ken Wilber, a synthesizer of psychology and spirituality.
Religion is serious, he says, but it’s best expressed with a light and open heart. And he believes there are a growing number of Americans like him.
Pew reported that 44 percent of adults in the survey have switched their religious affiliation, joined a faith or dropped out. The Pew survey said there is constant movement among faiths, and that makes for a “very competitive” marketplace.
The founders of Beliefnet, an internet site exploring spirituality, had a sense of this fluidity when launching the site in 1999, says Michael Kress, managing editor. And to have fun with all this interest, they created the Belief-o-matic.
It’s a 20-question quiz that asks people about their core beliefs. At the end of the quiz, people get a ranking of religions that best match their beliefs.
An Orthodox Jew, Kress scored highest in Reform Judaism and Quakerism. He was surprised. And several colleagues in our office were amused when they took the Belief-o-matic.
A Muslim woman scored highest in Reform Judaism, though Islam was second. Colleagues who were born into the Catholic and Hindu faiths learned that they would fit well with Unitarian Universalism—and more than 15 religions matched better than their parents’ faith.
“Today it’s OK to question how you were raised and where you would find a better fit,” says Kress.
It’s also OK for confirmed dabblers to practice “religious tourism” which puts them on a perpetual quest, says Bilik.
“After all, we can now have 10 careers in our lifetime—why not 10 religions,” says The Savvy Convert’s Guide.
Sometimes people are drawn to more than one faith at once, such as Jewish people interested in Buddhism. They’re known as Jubus or Bujus. Bilik calls such blenders “faith fusers.”
Metro-spirituals are another group of explorers. They tend to be young sophisticates who “take a dash of meditation, a sprinkling of yoga, a pinch of environmentalism” and arrive at a hybrid all their own, says Bilik.
Knock Knock first offered a consumer guide to religion in 2005 with a Wheel o’ Wisdom. It’s an 8-inch wheel with 30 snapshot portraits of everything from Catholicism to Snake Handling to Psychoanalysis and Consumerism. Knock Knock sells the “Choose Your Own Religion” wheels for $7.50 and consumers often buy them as gift cards for friends.
“This is an old paper technology, applied to a new purpose that gives people both fun and function,” says Bilik.
She thinks of the wheel as a spread sheet in the round.
“Are you a searcher? Disappointed with your religion of birth?” says the wheel. “Agonize no longer.”
It’s sold so well Bilik expanded the idea into the new book.
“We’ve been through a revolution of mobility and choice so we’re no longer stuck with the religion we were born with,” she says. “It’s brought immense change to how people experience religion.”
And while we’re not entirely a nation of serial believers, moving from one set of beliefs to the next, Americans are more willing than ever to explore the all manner of practices, great and small.
And for those who don’t like any of the 99 faiths, the authors have a last word of advice: Start your own.