Pew Survey Results Can Complicate the Idea of Religiosity

When I do Hinduism 101 trainings at schools and conferences across the country, I try to problematize labeling Hinduism as a religion. While calling Hinduism a religion might be necessary for census numbers (about 1.1 billion worldwide and roughly 2.5 million in the United States), it's not as easy to define in practice.

As many religion scholars would argue, the term religion itself is defined by central tenets, doctrines, and dogmas. Hinduism, while sharing coherent philosophical goals, is diverse in how it's practiced and is highly individualized. In fact, some religion scholars like Rita Sherma have argued that the term religion itself was a form of spiritual violence on Dharma traditions that historically never viewed themselves from the lens of orthodoxy and centralization.

As such, there's no scale of religiosity, and someone like actress Mindy Kaling is just as Hindu as the head of a local temple. Hindus define their own practice, and it's hard to get a good sense of the Hindu community's overall diversity and practice simply by surveying temple-goers. Hinduism, unlike other faiths, does not define itself by the number of times one goes to a temple or offers prayers.

This is why Pew's methodology might need refining. Just as there's some question as to whether Pew is undercounting Hindus in its religious landscape surveys, it might be making wrong assumptions about Hindu religiosity in its polling on religious attitudes.

Its recent survey results suggesting that Hindus - like Americans of every other faith - were becoming less religious might miss a larger point: many Hindus might consider themselves "less religious" based on the Abrahamic-centric barometers of religiosity. In other words, if we are to base Hindu views on their identity based on the number of times they attend religious service or even pray, then perhaps there is a decline. Some Hindu communities, including Guyanese and Fijian Hindus, have expressed concerns about youth disaffection with attending religious and cultural events.

However, does that make them disaffected with Hinduism? I'm not so sure. In fact, it may be more representative of Hindu Americans -- particularly those born and raised in the United States -- re-defining their religious practice outside of organized Hindu institutions. Additionally, even a number of Hindu institutions such as the Art of Living or the Self Realization Fellowship don't explicitly identify as such, and many of their members -- despite being immersed in Hindu philosophy and practicing astutely -- do not openly identify as Hindu.

Further, many Hindus are steadfast in their Hinduness, but don't identify with any practice or organization, choosing instead to personalize their own connection with the divine. What makes this different than what Pew defines as unaffiliated is that these folks still identify as Hindu. Keep in mind that there are also a number of Hindus who consider themselves both Hindu and atheist, choosing instead to emphasize the practice of dharma -- righteous action and conduct -- in their lives.

In this regard, we need to acknowledge that Hindus in the United States, particularly those who are immigrants or children of immigrants, might not be as willing to identify with an organized Hindu institution or visit temples regularly. That's an issue that temple leaders might have to grapple with sooner than later. It might also suggest confronting some wider praxis-based challenges, as highlighted by Anantanand Rambachan.

But we can also celebrate the fact that Hinduism's individualized approach to Truth has lent itself to remarkable sustainability, adaptability, and personalized re-interpretation, even as America's overall religiosity declines. That sort of endurance cannot be quantified by surveys.