Experts say the responses to surveys often depend on how the questions are asked, so the language used obviously becomes critical. How certain words are understood depends on their cultural context, and that changes over time: the way a word is understood in one decade may have changed by the next survey.
Take the new New York Jewish population study. Asked their religious identification, the overwhelming majority of respondents said either Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, and everyone pretty much knows what those labels mean.
But there were also two other categories: "nondenominational or just Jewish," and "secular or no religion," both of which grew substantially between 1991 and 2002.
Back in the early 1990s, when a person described himself as "nondenominational or just Jewish," it usually meant that he didn’t actively identify with Judaism as a religion.
Ten percent of respondents in 1991 described themselves that way, and 15 percent did in 2002.
Today, though, it often means something quite different. People use the terms in a positive way, similar to "post-denominational." Those who are very engaged, very observant and very connected will proudly describe themselves as "just Jewish or nondenominational" in an effort to say they are "beyond denomination" and identify as a member of the Jewish people.
"Nondenominational" has become a spiritual ideal for many in the decade between New York Jewish population studies.
"Language changes and ‘non-denominational’ now has value implications," said Jack Ukeles, co-principal investigator on the new study. "Those who say they’re nondenominational are much more plugged in behaviorally than those who identify as secular, who have very low affiliation rates."
What seems more easily interpreted is the fact that 3 percent of respondents in 1991 identified as secular or as being Jewish but having no religion, and 10 percent did in 2002.