A pollster from the Gallup Poll called here the other night. I’ve never been contacted by them before, but now I am part of that body of public opinions. My training is in sociology, so I have always felt duty-bound to answer surveys. After all, it is my responsibility to support my professional field. It was even kind of exciting at first. But I got frustrated by the questions I was asked and frustrated that my options for answering were so limited.

Ok, when I was asked what telephone my household used more frequently, the land line or cell, I tried to answer that my husband uses his cell most of the time and I use the land line more than my cell. That wouldn’t do. It had to be cell or land or fifty-fifty. Well, it isn’t really fifty-fifty, but that was the only option that resembled anything like the telephone usage at our house, so I chose it. I didn’t really care if it was the literal truth or not. Then I was asked questions about health.

They called during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, a week full of delicious feasting, more than my share of wassailing, and mornings where I could lazily indulge myself and sleep in. And the pollster wanted to know how many days that week I had gotten at least 30 minutes of exercise and how much I weighed! Of all the weeks in the year to ask that one! I found my responsibilities to my profession severely challenged.

Then came the big one. “Is religion an important part of your life?” I was asked. I asked if being spiritual was an option. Nope. Either religion was important to me or it wasn’t. Now being spiritual is an important part of my life, but religion sounds so much more formal and structured. That isn’t important in my life. But I figured that if Gallup didn’t differentiate between the two, I wouldn’t quibble. So I said yes.

Then I was asked how frequently I went to church, temple or mosque. I asked if those three were my only options and was told yes. And I couldn’t pick more than one. So I replied, “never,” which isn’t quite the truth. I’ve performed in both churches and temples and been a guest speaker in both as well. I’ve never been asked to do anything at all in a mosque, although I have visited some glorious ones.

Finally, I was asked if I was a member of one of various religions. The list had a short number of faiths on it and ended with Other, which I selected as mine. It turns out Other was then subdivided into Other Alternate Christian and Other (Other). I claimed the latter word. There was no sub subdivision.

Many years ago when I was doing my doctoral research, a survey that I was going to mail out asked about the participants’ religion. It listed the options as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Other. That was how I was taught to do it, and that is the way we thought about religious diversity in those days. However in my pretesting of the survey, some surveys came back that had the word Other checked, and next to it the participants had written in Christian. Christian used to mean Catholic and/or Protestant when I was growing up. It was never listed separately. Obviously, that had changed. That option to fill in the blank on the survey I designed taught me and my dissertation committee that something new was happening in American culture, something to which we needed to pay attention.

Now perhaps the pollsters at Gallup were only really interested in the Big Three religions in America, I don’t know. The questions were clearly designed to address the Abrahamic faiths and would clearly provide information about who went to religious services in those designated places and how often.

But that leaves out a whole lot of people. And it lumps a whole lot of us together under Other, even though we Others may have very different understandings of the Divine. In fact, social ethicist and religious studies professor Bron Taylor reminds us that there are many Other ways to be profoundly spiritual.

one can be agnostic or atheistic while expressing awe and wonder in the face of the
mysteries of the universe and a deep appreciation for the ‘miracle’ of life

I naively thought Gallup sought knowledge for the sake of knowing more about American thoughts and practices, to add to our understanding and appreciation of American life. But by severely limiting the response options available to those they survey, they are missing the fact that something new is happening in American culture, something to which we need to pay attention.