To someone steeped in Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism, actor Lori Alan’s self-description -- “a nice Jewish, Southern Baptist, Buddhist girl” -- may appear odd, if not outright contradictory.
But she is at ease with her customized spiritual arrangement.
“It works for me,” she said. “I literally feel like I am at a buffet.”
To Alan, who has a Southern Baptist mother and a Jewish father, being inside a synagogue during the High Holy Days connects her to “something that’s way larger than myself.” Attending a Southern Baptist church service and hearing the Gospel music makes her feel as if she is soaring to a “higher place within me.” And, practicing meditation and concentrating on the Buddhist emphasis on the now, calms and centers her.
Alan also appreciates the Roman Catholic Mass because “the sense of tradition in the Catholic Church is beautiful.”
She is not alone in such multiple choices.
Increasingly, Americans are becoming eclectic in what they believe, picking and choosing from here and there, as they would their wardrobe.
“It’s Do-It-Yourself Religion,” said pollster David Kinnaman of the Ventura-based Barna Research Group, an independent marketing research firm that has tracked trends related to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984. A recent Barna poll found that significant numbers of Americans embrace beliefs that are “logically contradictory,” blending different faith views to create unorthodox religious viewpoints.
“Mix and match spirituality, I call it,” said theologian Edmund Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He believes the smorgasbord approach may reflect a dissatisfaction many people feel about their faith traditions and also a hunger they feel to experience God’s spiritual reality in as many ways as possible.
So they will search wherever they think they might find answers, even commingling several religions, Gibbs said.
“Younger people live with ambivalence. It’s not either or but both and.”
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon is more noticeable in Southern California, experts say, with its diversity of religions and extreme individualism.
“What they’re saying is: Each individual is ultimately the arbiter of personal fulfillment and personal meaning,” Kinnaman said.
When he was growing up in a Christian home, Cameron Dye, a Los Angeles actor and musician, was bothered by the notion that “Christians were the only ones going to heaven.”
Now in his early 40s, Dye accepts other religions as well.
“What they all have in common is that there is a God,” he said. “That God is within me and you, and you and you and everyone,” he said. “Honor that within yourself and everyone else and the world would be a grand place. It would be what I perceive heaven to be.”
He is comfortable stepping into any house of worship.
The other day, he said he sat quietly for 45 minutes in a Hindu temple in the city “to hear God -- and to connect.”
“I don’t have a religion, but I have faith,” he said. “Faith is within me. I can call upon it.”
And, his church can be “anywhere -- in the mountain, in the ocean,” he said.
George Barna, president of the Barna Research group, says Christians have increasingly adopted spiritual views from Islam, secular humanism, the Eastern religions and other sources.
In a nationwide poll of 1,000 adults in September, one in 10 “born-again” Christians -- who believe salvation is based solely on confession of sins and faith in Jesus Christ -- said they believed in reincarnation, which violates Christian precepts.
Nearly one in three respondents claimed it is possible to communicate with the dead, and half said they believed a person could earn salvation based on good works without accepting Christ.
Similarly, many who claimed to be atheists and agnostics also harbored paradoxical beliefs. Half of them said they believed that everyone had a soul, that heaven and hell existed and that there was life after death. One in eight atheists and agnostics in the poll believed that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably would make life after death possible.
Such contradictions are becoming more common, said theologian Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
“A move into postmodernity is a move toward the embrace of paradox,” said the ordained minister who is also co-chairman of the Reel Spirituality Conference, a dialogue between theologians and Hollywood. “At the same time, we are more and more committed to the particulars of life; we reach out to the transcendent.”
Historian Scott Bartchy, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, says the phenomenon of cutting and pasting different beliefs to custom-make one’s religion is more noticeable in Southern California. “What I see happening here is that people are picking out the cherries that interest them, which generally in American culture means the glorification, the enhancement, of the individual,” he said.
People who come up with their own kind of spiritual mix don’t have to contend with the “constraints” and “demands” of major religions, he said.
Bartchy said the new trend appeals because people can pick the pieces that make them feel good without having to make any changes.
“You are told that God loves you or that the spirit of the cosmos thinks favorably of you, or as some Hindu teachers love to say, ‘My goodness, all of you are recycled stardust.’ This is thrilling to hear, but you don’t have to change a thing,” Bartchy said.
It’s hard to imagine that the loving God they talk to would banish anyone to hell, said Alan and Dye. Their God is merciful.
Like Alan and Dye, Joe Lardizabal also is interested in learning about other philosophies and religions.
Lardizabal, who works with youths in Hollywood for the nonprofit Hollywood Urban Project, says he too finds much appeal in other religions -- especially Zen Buddhism.
As a Christian, he believes the Bible is the inspired word of God. But his study of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam allows him to “grab” all the good things in those religious traditions and “filter them through Christianity,” he said. “I pick and choose too.”