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Secularists and Those of No Religion: “It’s the Sociology, Stupid (not the Theology)”


The old ways in which surveys of Jews handled marginal cases no longer make sense, and the number of cases involved is no longer small. When people of Jewish origin report no religion, they are not generally secular or culturally oriented Jews. Rather, they are primarily the offspring from households that did not have two Jewish parents, but some other Jewish origin. Accordingly, this paper turns to two competing procedures for treating respondents of recent Jewish origin who do not report themselves to be Jewish by religion. The core Jewish population includes respondents who answer that they have no religion. I find this procedure problematic because the meaning of the “no religion” response has also changed: it no longer captures people with close connections to the Jewish world who deny the religious connection out of principle. Yet two out of three are the products of intermarriage. I tentatively suggest an alternative principle: self-identity. Americans of recent Jewish origin who are not Jews by religion should be asked (as they were in the 2000–2001 NJPS) whether they consider themselves Jewish for any reason. Those that reply in the affirmative should be counted as Jews. As an example, some demographic outcomes are tabulated using different definitions, as are responses to the question “How close do you feel to Israel?” Throughout, the paper rests on the 2000–2001 NJPS and AJIS.

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  1. Many others of Jewish origin may have acted more and more like secular Jews by slipping ever farther away from religious observance without having an explicitly secular outlook and certainly without claiming that their origins in the Jewish people was insignificant to them; but such people are probably best kept conceptually separate from the fully secular.

  2. United Jewish Communities (2003); Mayer et al. (2001).

  3. For a detailed comparison of the results of the two surveys, and further references to descriptions of the surveys, see Perlmann (2006, 2007).

  4. The term “Jewish-born parent” is itself problematic, and will become ever-more so as ever-more parents will themselves be of mixed origin. However, this is the term used for parents’ origins in the questionnaires.

  5. The surveys define adult respondents as those 18 and older. However, I excluded those 18–24 from this study because it forms part of a series of related studies some of which involved earnings and occupation variables. I wanted to eliminate from these studies most respondents who were not yet ‘adult’ in the sense of having finished education and begun work.

  6. Other possible, but uncommon, responses were “a little bit of both” and “unsure”.

  7. To be clear: there were actually four screening questions in the AJIS and NJPS: (1) religion?; (2) if not Jewish by religion, did the respondent have a Jewish parent?; (3) if not Jewish by religion or parent, did the respondent have a Jewish upbringing?; and (4) if not Jewish by questions 1, 2, or 3, did the respondent have any reason to consider themselves Jewish? Those who answered the fourth question with a purely Christian reason (“Jesus was a Jew,” etc.) were excluded from the NJPS. The great majority of those who had not reported themselves Jewish on the first question but did qualify for the sample on the basis of the later questions came from the second question, relating to Jewish parents. Now, once the screening was complete, the NJPS (but not the AJIS) also asked certain respondents a relevant follow-up question in the course of the main interview. The NJPS asked respondents of no religion whether they had any reason to consider themselves Jewish. Fifty-six percent of single-origin respondents reporting no religion considered themselves Jewish in some way.

  8. This third group includes Jews by choice (or had two parents who were in this category), and a much larger group for whom relevant data are missing, or who had one or two parents who were themselves the children of intermarriage.

  9. This rearrangement shows that among all respondents 17% in the AJIS and 12% in the NJPS reported no religion. In the AJIS, 34, 45 and 21% of the respondents reporting no religion reported single, mixed and other origins respectively. The comparable figures for the NJPS are strikingly close: 36, 44, 20%. These results can be obtained for each sample (AJIS and NJPS) by (1) calculating the products of the proportion ‘no religion’ (in the second row of Table 2) and the proportion for the column total (last row); (2) summing the results to obtain the proportion of all respondents who reported no religion; and finally (3) dividing each product from the first step by the sum obtained in the second step.

  10. It is important to recall here that my focus is on all individuals who were raised by a Jewish and a non-Jewish parent. The high proportion of such respondents who report themselves Christian may surprise many readers used to discussions from the NJPS, because (as I noted at the outset) most reports of NJPS data remove from both the numerator and denominator those of mixed origins who today call themselves Christians and claim no Jewish attachment of any kind. Likewise, my comment that “the offspring of the intermarried are surely vastly more likely to have grown up in a less-exclusively Jewish milieu” refers to all offspring of the intermarried. It may be useful to contrast my approach to that of Chertok, Phillips and Saxe (2008), who claim that “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah” that determines outcomes, but rather that “when exposed to similar levels of … critical Jewish experiences as children and adolescents, adults raised in inmarried and intermarried homes look very much alike” (p. 1). But of course, those from intermarried homes are far less likely to be “exposed to similar levels” of the critical experience. And also critical for the difference between my results and the arguments of that paper is the latter’s limiting of NJPS respondents to “individuals raised solely as Jews” (p. 4). In sum, the results of that paper are helpful in clarifying that educational interventions can be critical and intermarriage itself is not critical—for a particular subgroup of all offspring of the intermarried on whom Jewish institutions might wisely concentrate. My interest, by contrast, is on the current attachment outcomes for the offspring of all intermarried households.

  11. That is, differences in fertility rates between all single and all mixed origin couples are but a minor factor in comparison to the difference created by the involvement of only one Jew in an intermarried couple rather than two Jews in the inmarried couple.

  12. Published NJPS reports on American Jewish respondents can be confusing for those trying to learn the proportion of adults with mixed origin who identify as Jews. Those reports are limited to “Jews” or “Jewish-connected” respondents; others, notably those who declare themselves Christians only, have been omitted. See Klaff and Mott (2005) and Kadushin et al. (2005).

  13. I am grateful to Barry Kosmin for pointing out that an earlier version of this paper could be read as encouraging such reification.

  14. I have argued elsewhere that for students of American immigration, ethnicity, and assimilation, the sample of all respondents is invaluable (Perlmann 2006, 2007).

  15. The NJPS sample design did, in fact, assume that respondents would be classified as Jews, persons of Jewish background, and non-Jews. However, the classification scheme was judged flawed by the designers themselves, and neither it nor its replacement have gained authority over the field. See Klaff and Mott (2005) and Kadushin et al. (2005).

  16. On the core Jewish population see especially Kosmin et al. (1991, pp. 4–6). Variants include people who report affiliation with both Judaism and another religion, or report affiliation with a religion other than Christianity (excepting Unitarianism) and Islam. These variants, however, are not known by the name “core Jewish population.” For further discussion of these twists, see Perlmann (2006), and Klaff and Mott (2005). In any case, those affiliated with religions other than Christianity are a small group; in the NJPS, 19% of respondents reported as Christians and only 4% as members of another religion. In the AJIS, the proportions are even more lopsided: Christians 24% and members of another religion 1%.

  17. Direction to respondents has varied and has always been imperfect, and the census question has many drawbacks (Perlmann and Waters 2002, 2007; Lieberson and Waters 1988; Perlmann 2000). For Jews, the census ancestry question works particularly poorly since naming a religion is not an accepted answer (those that nevertheless declare that their ancestry is Jewish are reclassified). Jews are expected to mention “Russian,” “Polish,” or other references to political entities. Since the ancestry question is supposed to gauge ethnic loyalties past the second generation, the need to provide these answers creates an ironic state of affairs for Jews, few of whom (for example) identify with the Tsarist Russia their ancestors left.

  18. On attenuated, porous, and blurry boundaries, see Alba (2006), Goldscheider (2004), and Perlmann (2006).

  19. Perlmann and Waters (2002, 2007).

  20. Recall the distinction raised in an earlier note between the “consider” question used as the fourth screener and the same question used in the body of the interview. My understanding is that routine procedure will exclude those who give an answer based on Christian theological thinking alone (“Jesus was a Jew,” etc.) in the screener question. In any case, that is what routine procedure should be. If one percent of Christians give this response (and there is evidence in the NJPS that they do; Klaff and Mott 2005), such people (if not excluded) could amount to one-third of respondents in a national survey of Americans of recent Jewish origin. On the other hand, asked in the body of the interview, the question is addressed almost exclusively to those with a Jewish parent.


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Perlmann, J. Secularists and Those of No Religion: “It’s the Sociology, Stupid (not the Theology)”. Cont Jewry 30, 45–62 (2010).

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