What do Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, Hispanic Catholics in central Nebraska, megachurch evangelicals in Houston and South Asian Muslims in suburban Detroit have in common?
More than many people could ever imagine.
Forget the popular cultural images from shows such as HBO's "Big Love" that revive stereotypes linking Mormonism with polygamy or the ubiquitous images in the news associating Islam with terrorism. Look past the cultural crossfire that lumps religious liberals and conservatives into separate boxes defined by extremist political and social agendas.
The reality, as presented in a new book by two respected scholars, is that if you walk into a mosque, synagogue, temple or church next weekend, you will most likely find groups of believers in prayer and meditation seeking spiritual growth.
For six weeks, Pennsylvania State University sociologists Christopher Scheitle and Roger Finke traveled nearly 7,000 miles across the country visiting diverse religious communities. What they report back in "Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America's Landscape" is a portrait of people of faith sharing many of the same aspirations across theological and denominational divides.
They encounter members of a black church in Memphis and a Mormon congregation in a small Utah town giving personal testimonies amid Sunday worship and religious education classes lasting three hours and more. In both the Friday prayer service at the Islamic Center of America in Detroit and the Saturday morning Shabbat service at B'nai Avraham in Brooklyn, the authors find immigrants from Africa, Asia and Europe praying for the well-being of humanity.
These straightforward observations of faith groups at worship have a critical role to play in public discourse on religion especially when an increasing body of research reveals sharp declines in religious prejudice, the more people of different beliefs get to know one another.
"Places of Faith" allows "students and people in general to look over our shoulder and to find out what these communities are like and how similar they are in many ways," said Finke, who is also director of the Association of Religion Data Archives.
Leaving comfort zones
The similarities do not mean there has been a homogenization of religion in America equivalent to the impact of, say, a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart on the nation's retail culture.
Many of the cities Scheitle and Finke chose for their journey -- Memphis, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Detroit -- continue to offer fertile soil for distinctive religious communities to blossom.
In San Francisco, for example, the authors explore the wealth of places to experience Asian religion. In the upper-floor Taoist and Buddhist temples in Chinatown, individuals in incense-filled rooms pray and perform rituals to a deity or deities. Over at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, worshippers in wooden pews meditate, hear a Dharma talk similar to a sermon and sing and listen to congregational announcements.
The dynamism in the American religious scene extends from Houston, where more than 5,000 volunteers each week serve Joel Osteen's arena-sized Lakewood Church, to Grand Island, Neb., where St. Mary's Catholic Church offers a charismatic prayer service with people "speaking in tongues" after one of two Hispanic Masses serving Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants.
But what remains striking throughout this journey across America are the similarities at the core of the spiritual experiences.
Common activities include community service projects reflecting the fruits of their faith, but the connections also extend to basic spiritual practices, the authors found.
Almost everywhere, Finke said, worship includes a message, references to a sacred text and meditation.
"In the end," Finke said, "it's all about how you connect to the supernatural being you believe in."
The more you know ...
In an age of so much misinformation, the unvarnished portraits shared by Scheitle and Finke of what actually goes on in neighborhood houses of worship can have profound consequences.
As religious prejudice thrives on ignorance, so does firsthand knowledge lead to more positive attitudes, several recent studies indicate.
In a 2010 University of Munster study of more than 1,000 respondents from five Western European nations, what came to many of their minds when they thought of Islam were discrimination against women, fanaticism and, somewhat ironically, narrow-mindedness. What did not come to their minds were notions of Muslims as peaceful and tolerant.
Yet those attitudes were far different among respondents who had personal contact with Muslims. For example, in the former West Germany, 38 percent of respondents who reported a lot of contact with Muslims reported very positive attitudes; only 1 percent of respondents who had no contact held very positive attitudes toward Muslims.
In the 2002-2003 Religion and Diversity Survey, 90 percent of respondents said they would welcome Christians becoming a stronger presence in the United States, but less than six in 10 said they would be as supportive of Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.
Yet when people met across faith lines, the experiences were mostly positive, according to the U.S. survey. About two-thirds of respondents said their contacts with Muslims were mostly pleasant; 6 percent said they were mostly unpleasant. Three-quarters said their contacts with Buddhists were mostly pleasant, with 3 percent saying they were mostly unpleasant.
The people you will meet in "Places of Faith" -- the Memphis pastor with five children and 14 grandchildren devoted to keeping youth out of jail and on a path to college; an Amish family concerned about the safety of their aging grandfather continuing to drive a horse and buggy -- help close the chasm of apprehension about people of different beliefs.
"At the same time," Scheitle and Finke note, the diversity within the 'them' begins to appear."
The journey of Scheitle and Finke helps to open the door to the reality of religious life in America.
Perhaps it also will inspire more people to choose to walk through the open doors of temples, churches and mosques in their communities to experience it for themselves.