On the street
I have many beliefs from a number of different religions, many of which are Christian. I just try to learn as much as I can about other religions and cultures and try to determine the truth for myself.
Quick question: Can a five-minute Web quiz point you down the right religious path for you?
C. Is this a trick question?
No trick question here, but the right answer is up in the air as hundreds of quizzes float around the Internet promising that with a few clicks of a mouse, you can discover your ideal religion.
From Beliefnet's "Belief-O-Matic" to Quiz Farm's "What religion should u be," the Web is rife with tests, promising that they can, seriously or not-so-seriously, find the right religion for you.
"The ones where you fill out a profile and it gives you an answer about who you are, it's sort of the same principle of those dating sites in some way. I like to call that reverse profiling, because essentially you're telling somebody characteristics and then they're telling you who you are," says David Perlmutter, associate dean for graduate studies and research at Kansas University's School of Journalism. "I think Americans love categories. We love to be told we fit - we're an X personality, or we fit a Z profile. And maybe that's a human tendency, too, that we want to reduce the complexity of the world.
"People are shopping around for religion like they're shopping around for a mate or shopping around for a new car, using the new technologies that are available."
In a U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in February, 44 percent of Americans polled say they are no longer tied to the religious or secular upbringing of their childhood. They've changed religions or denominations, adopted a faith for the first time or abandoned any affiliation altogether.
Browsing for religion
Peter Luckey, senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt., sees this firsthand from his spot at the pulpit. He often has "church shoppers" show up for a sermon or two, go to a few more churches and then come back, deciding to call Plymouth home.
"It is so American," Luckey says. "We are such individualistically oriented in this country, the idea that you start with yourself and then find a faith that fits with you instead of you trying to fit with a faith. That's totally who we are."
Would people really test the waters of a new religion after taking an online test? Perlmutter doesn't think so, even though he says some of the more serious quizzes might be based on actual research.
"I still think that the commitment to actually being a practicing member of a religion is large enough so that I can't believe people are doing it just based on that little amount of information," he says.
Tim Miller, professor of religious studies at KU, says that though some people might feel pointed in the right direction by the quizzes, he thinks that most of the time these quizzes have the validity of roadside carnival fortune-telling.
"I think more than self-help it's just more of a joke or novelty. It's just something to play with for fun," Miller says. "I think the validity is pretty low."
And even the idea of switching religions doesn't sit well with people of all faiths - done the traditional way with introspection and research or with the help of an online questionnaire. Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel of the Chabad Jewish Center, 1203 W. 19th St., says in Jewish belief, trying to convert and change religions isn't something that makes sense.
"Basic to Jewish belief is that every single human being on the face of this earth must pursue and explore their relationship with God, in the capacity of his or her own life," Tiechtel says. "The traditions with which one is born into and was educated, is the mission which he was entrusted with from above."
So why are there hundreds of quizzes - 149 on the site Quiz Farm alone - on finding the right religion?
Nancy Baym, associate professor of communications at KU, likens the quizzes to any of the magazine-type quizzes teenagers and adults alike take to find a deeper sense of self.
"Part of it I think, has to do with using the Net as a mirror - a means of gaining greater self-understanding, and part of it has to do with displaying the results to others - think of the 'which Jane Austen heroine are you'-type quizzes on Facebook and elsewhere," Baym says. "Of course, magazines like Cosmo have had zillions of quizzes since way before the Net, so it's not unique to online culture."
Perlmutter says this sort of self-understanding can be traced much further back than the Internet or magazines - to when people first began looking for clues to themselves in the stars.
"The oldest version of this was, of course, the zodiac, so that somehow if the moon is in the tropic of something or other and you're fun-loving and you should marry somebody who's a donkey in the Chinese zodiac," Perlmutter says.
Luckey says, though, that even if the online quizzes are pure fun, the sheer number of them on the Internet does tell us something about ourselves: We are searching.
"People are looking, and they're trying to find out what's this church like, what's the preaching like and what's the message that's being delivered. And that is important, it's absolutely critical to what people are looking for, a message that speaks to them," Luckey says. "But you hope that people go through that and then say, 'I'm going to make a decision and commit myself to this community.' And they're going to make a commitment."