Interfaith marriage is one of the main reasons for growing secularism among American Jews, according to a study that will be presented at Thursday's 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies at Mt. Scopus.
The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey by Trinity College professors Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, one of two such studies being presented at the congress, showed a movement away from traditional Jewish practice toward a more secular and cultural view of the religion.
With nearly 1,000 Jewish respondents among the 54,000 Americans questioned, the survey is a representative sample of the American Jewish and US populations, the professors said.
"It's a globalized world, and it's very difficult to turn around and see who's Jewish," Kosmin said. "They could end up speaking Greek or Latin."
The study cited intermarriage as one of the primary factors in the divergence from religious practice. About 50 percent of Jewish marriages have been interfaith since 1990, and this has impacted the number of people practicing Judaism. Kosmin's findings revealed that about 2.5 million people with Jewish ancestry follow a different religion and that nearly 500,000 of the 3.6 million people considered halachicly Jewish follow a different faith.
Keysar said there was a benefit to intermarriage, as many more people were now connected to Jews in America and around the world.
"If you maintain Jewish culture, you bring new people into the fold," she said. "We tend to look at [Judaism] as religion, but if you look at the other aspect of culture and history, there are many aspects of Judaism that are open."
The emphasis on Jewish culture could help fight anti-Semitism, Keysar said.
"In many ways, it's a great way to really highlight the positives," she said. "The Jewish contributions in education, technology and the Nobel Prize. It's what Jews have contributed to the progress, modernity and the betterment of society."
Much of the boost in secularism is also tied to the replacement of a more religious generation by a younger, secular generation, Kosmin said. The result is that American Jews are becoming more like "normal" Americans, he added.
Keysar said the decrease in religious practice stemmed from a generation created by interfaith marriages, as many such children were raised on Jewish values but not necessarily with the religion.
Increasing American Jewish secularism correlates with the general US public. Cultural Jews have grown from 20% to 37% of the American Jewish population from 1990 to 2008, but the number of Americans claiming to be completely secular rose from 8% to 15% during that same period.
Strengthening secularism isn't limited to cultural Jews, the study discovered. Of those adhering to a more religious practice of Judaism, 44% have a secular world view, with more than half of all American Jews abiding by a secular mind-set.
Kosmin said a shift toward secular world views could be seen in people's opposition to religious officials such as the rabbinate or the pope dictating how everyday life should be lived.
"They don't like the local representatives," he said. "They say, 'I'm religious, yes I'm a believer, but in how I run my life, I want personal autonomy.'"