NYC may not be “Bible-minded,” but it really is quite religious

Barnum released an interesting poll about how “Bible-minded” those cities are. My hometown of NYC ranked near the bottom of the list, at 85th out of 96. But it’s worth noting just what Barna means by that term.

The study is based on 42,855 interviews conducted nationwide and the analysis of Bible trends was commissioned by American Bible Society. Individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches are considered to be Bible-minded.

I’m genuinely curious about how they phrased that. If you ask me whether the Bible is accurate, point blank, I might wonder whether you mean literally accurate. Many people in NYC, even the Protestants, think the Bible is meant to be interpreted sometimes as history but sometimes as poetry or allegory. This may not be an issue, but it may be – it all comes down to how they asked the question.

Apart from that, I can think of two big reasons why NYC is more religious but less “Bible-minded” than other parts of the countries: Catholics and Jews. According to our profile, 69.96% of New Yorkers claim an affiliation with some religious congregations, compared to 50.2% nationally (and, for reference, 47.5% and 57.3% in the NC + SC cities where I grew up, respectively). Of those 69.96%, however, 52.5% claim Catholicism and another 29.2% claim Judaism. Many Catholics don’t read the Bible regularly, and even the Jews that do might resist saying they believe in Biblical principles in a majority-Christian nation. We also have about 3% Muslims and 5% “other,” probably a combination of smaller Protestant groups along with non-Christian.

I don’t have any statistics on religious practice, but in my own experience of my own corner of NYC, religion is vitally important, particularly among ethnic minorities where it’s often a link to home and a way to preserve their cultural identity. In many cases pastors are influential politically, and charity work is often done through the churches and synagoguges. (Not necessarily tax-supported, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) Of course the Bronx, Brooklyn and other “outer borroughs (which tend to be more for families) may be different from Manhattan. But even in Manhattan, there are many religious groups out there.

Reading this survey, I think it’s less a measure of religiosity (the degree to which we practice our religions) than it is of religious hegemony (whether there’s one religion that dominates the culture). In New York, at least in the Bronx, we are as religious as anywhere I’ve lived. But we are also a very multicultural place, with the religious makeup being much more varied than I remember from Boone, NC, or Greenville, SC. We are definitely influenced by our religious traditions, those of us who participate in them, but we are also used to talking in terms that people from outside our religion will be able to relate to. I think this colors how we describe ourselves. And particularly in groups like Catholicism, where you probably know what the church teaches (which is fundamentally based in the Bible, at least at some point) but may have learned it through catechism rather than Bible study depending on your age, it’s not surprising to me that many New Yorkers aren’t as aware of Biblical influence as they might be. COmpare that to Texas, where many more people are Protestant Christians, so you’re more likely to think of Bible-based values in those terms.

Speaking for myself, I think the state of things in NYC is a good degree of religiosity and hegemony. Because we are a minority-majority culture, that means religious groups don’t get to exercise as much political power, they don’t get as much of a chance to bully people who aren’t members of their group, and they don’t assume that everyone else will think just like them. There’s a healthy degree of competition between religions (and the non-religious, too) but there’s also an assumption that you don’t have to be Catholic or Baptist or anything else to be a good citizen of this city. And those are good things, from where I’m standing. Others may of course disagree, I suspect from both the religious and the atheist vantage point.

But whether you approve of this situation or not, I do think it’s clear we’re not the latest great untapped mission field. I’m much more likely to bump into my neighbors in the pews here than anywhere I’ve lived probably since Boone.

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