FOR those who study religions, and religious denominations in America, a new survey from the Graduate School of City University in New York will prove useful. The survey, the most complete of its kind, was conducted between April 1989 and April 1990 and asked detailed questions about the faith, politics, ethnic origins, marriage status, and geographic locale of some 113,000 respondents.
The study breaks a number of longtime stereotypes. It determines, for example, that while Irish-Americans are often thought of as Roman Catholic, in fact the majority identify themselves as Protestant. Also, contrary to popular conception, more American Asians and Arabs say they are Christian, rather than Hindu, Buddist, or Muslim.
Too, certain basic shapes and social characteristics of American denominations are confirmed (as in findings showing that Jews tend to be Democrats, Episcopalians and Mormons to be Republicans).
While the survey found only 28,000 persons who claim an institutional affiliation with ``New Age'' faiths, scholars point out that such numbers are out of keeping with the broad influence New Age thought (much of which is based on theosophy and spiritualism) has on denominations today.
Much racial data have been omitted. For example, there is scant survey mention of blacks - half of whom identify themselves as Baptist in smaller studies. The divorce rate, say, among black southern Baptists could not be determined by scholars.
Of course, while empirical data may be useful to scholars, they don't give much insight into more profound issues of faith or offer a profile of the nature and depth of the spiritual life and beliefs of Americans. Usually unexplored is a new evangelical spirit found in mainstream denominations today.
What is most significant about real religion is not the income or ethnicity of adherents, but the quality and integrity of their search for truth. We suspect a sociologist living in the time of Jesus would have found interesting the fact his followers cut across all racial, gender, and class lines. But most significant would have been their bonding interest and awe in his message and works, rather than their marital status or politics.