Our conversation about defining religion helped me reflect on some of the unspoken ways that my church community defines religion and understands itself. In my experience as a United Methodist, we often spend energy trying to understand and celebrate what is distinctive and essential about our religious life. The search to identify and embrace our essence as religious people used to take place at “Committee Meetings” and “Strategic Task Force Conversations” in the church hall. These days, the therapeutic conversations happen on blogs posts and newer forms of social media. But whatever the media, the conversation is often an exploration of the question, “What makes us in the church any different from the Rotary Club or any other social organization?”
I’m using the term “social organization” because, in my opinion, implicit in this questions is the assumption that there IS something quintessentially religious about the church that mere social organizations do not have access to.
But our discussion last week focused on how Sociology can explore a wide array of situations as religion. This complicates my church’s self-examination. If religion isn’t our exclusive possession then our self-understanding as unique is threatened. Sociology of Religion might force my church to reformulate the question as “Since we have come to realize that we are not fundamentally socially different from the Rotary Club or A.A., what else about our church other than our social structure or self-understanding makes us what we are?”
The answer to this question would not come from Sociology. But thinking on this question is an example of Sociology of Religion offering sharper tools for religious communities. In this case, an awareness of breadth of religious phenomena helps to shift the question from observational definition to one of engaged self-reflection.
Sociologists, theologians, and religious scholars must be aware of the implications of methods used in studies. The situations of insiders, outsiders, and all between create social constructs, which lay out the impossibility of objectivity. No one method is perfect, but many are useful.
Last week, September 25, we talked about the ways religious groups have organized themselves. First, we talked congregationalism as the default setting for American religions. Individual freedom and autonomy have always been important to Americans, and congregational structures of religion give local bodies much autonomy. Warner writes about “de facto congregationalism,” (Warner, 72) in which American religious bodies, even those with a non-congregational official structure, often function as congregations primarily. Partly, “institutional isomorphism” is to blame (lecture), in which institutions will eventually come to resemble one another. Thus, Buddhist temples with pews, Islamic Centers with 10am Sunday morning prayers, and Atheists meeting in church buildings all exist, in a subtle group effort to fit in with others. Thus, the Protestant congregationally-oriented church becomes the thing to which others conform.
Martin Marty says that the congregation is the beginning of public religion (lecture). We can think about congregations, then, as religious and judge them based on their own claims. Alternatively, we can examine them in organizational and institutional frameworks – achieving goals, fundraising, marketing, etc. In this frame, congregations deliver goods and services, transmit and preserve culture, generate social capital, and teach civic skills.
Much has been made of the declining of denominational identity – fewer people locate their identity with denominations, more often preferring to identify with \ local churches. Stark and Glock aren’t sure that denominationalism is going anywhere, but rather that it might be redividing itself along different lines. Now, differences between historic denominations are not as great, but differences within denominations are becoming greater. Others say that denominations will dissolve and not return.
One final topic of the class, which prompted much discussion was the church-sect theory. Troeltsch created the model but out of Weber’s European context where, essentially, churches were identified with the state and sects were not. Much has been done to adjust the theory to fit an American context, including Johnson drawing a continuum with churches as groups that accept their environments) and sects as groups that reject of their environment. The biggest debates were, after seeing the video about Mormons’ move from hated sect to prominent, almost proto-American church, whether sects must always move toward being churches, and whether churches can also move toward the sectarian end. We also discussed how a sect can maintain its identity past a generation, as well as how sects play a socializing role for lower classes.
Last week we discussed the waxing and waning popularity of secularization theory in the sociology of religion as exemplified by Peter Berger, who in the sixties was a leading proponent of the secularization theory but now observes a trend of counter-secularization with a resurgence of religious movements around the word, especially those of a conservative bent. I had generally accepted the secularization theory when it came to the United States with the public prominence of the “New Atheists” and the increasing numbers of religious “nones.” But like Berger in the Sacred Canopy, I was probably guilty of a Euro-American bias by not considering non-western contexts. I underestimated the rise of evangelical Christianity around the world, especially in Latin America, East Asia, and Africa. Of the “strands of secularization” discussed in the lecture, Berger’s current position seems like a combination of “metamorphosis,” “continuing vitality,” and “universal religion.” Of particular interest to me was Berger’s notion of a “globalized elite culture” in the Desecularization of the World, which is secular in nature and holds sway in dominant social institutions. In the United States at least, very few elected officials in the federal government identify as non-religious, so perhaps the secular elites hold more sway “behind the scenes” in corporate board rooms, universities, and the like.
This past week we embarked on a tour of “Lived Religion” while asking the question, “Are the methods we currently use to study religion sufficient to study lived religion?” We first needed to identify what we mean by “lived religion.” Lived Religion comes from a focus on individuals and the practices which define their religious experiences. Historically, we have looked at religion from the standpoint of the institution. By focusing on the individual, we can better describe how religious practices play a role in religious expression. In doing this, I think we risk missing what I believe to be the heart of religion- what people believe. By de-emphasizing the congruity of what people believe and what they practice, we may miss a totality of experience that makes religion sacred. In lived religion, the everyday world is made sacred in a concrete appeal to the senses so that an individual is able to experience the sacred rather than to simply believe what they have been told by institutional religion. This should appeal to my long-held reservations about organized religion, however maybe it is my age (I can’t believe I am saying this) but I find that the lived religion discussed last week by Byrne goes too far on the continuum of religious vs. secular (my mother would be delighted to hear this). Humans are being a little too creative - I see religion as living out a faith component and so the “Logic” of Lived Religion as Maguire talks about it, escapes me. In addition, because it is based more on lived practices rather than beliefs, the incoherence of it makes the critical study of it nearly impossible. Therefore, no I do not think our current ways of studying religion are sufficient to study lived religion. The other issue with lived religion is the social nature of it- that these practices are used by a group to have shared meanings and to give or borrow insights. This sounds very much like the birth of a “sect” but without standards of moral guidance or higher values that “organized” religions hold human nature to. It revolves around the self, the individual, the practice, and loses the benefit of thinking outwardly and reaching outwardly. I think there must be a point on the continuum of secular and religious where an individual can experience belief through practices that they construct to meet their needs and freely choose to make that practice spiritual through faith in a higher power within the context of a group. It seems that once that group comes together to share those practices, define and differentiate themselves, and create their group experience together then that group is on it’s way to becoming a sect, and then a sect matures into an organized religion. So perhaps “Lived Religion” is simply the building blocks - the atom or molecule level - of organized religion.
Last week (Oct 9) we talked about the growing scholarly interest in “Lived Religion.” BU’s own Nancy Ammerman is a leading sociologist in the field. In lived religion, individuals’ practice of religion becomes the starting point of studies rather than the traditional emphasis on beliefs and institutions. The emphasis on individuals allows us to recover the sense of humans as creative agents. In this sense, lived religion can serve as a critique of institutions and their tendency to control religious expression. Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street is an early example of such a critique. Lived religion attempts to discover religion “out of the box.” It is looking for religion in the ordinary — that is to say, in the “everyday.” Such a study of religion creates numerous possibilities, but it also reveals the “messiness” when we attempt to study religion from the perspective of individuals. I suppose that is a good thing: lived religion calls us to challenge our theoretical assumptions given the perspective of the individual. However, this can also prove problematic as scholars continue their attempt to create objective tools for measuring such an elusive subject. While some people will indicate that a particular practice is religious by the language they use to describe it, others may not. Everything has the potential of being religious, but everything is not. Peter Berger’s latest research focuses on how people navigate between multiple realities: the religious and the secular. Perhaps practices can also be both religious and not religious depending on the subject or maybe even the given circumstances. Can a practice be religious at one point and not religious when it is done under different circumstances? I think that answer is a definite – yes. Embrace the messiness! @TR802
As we have discussed with other sociological concepts this semester (i.e., secularization theory), the idea of Civil Religion seems to be born out of and works within the framework of American Society. Specifically, at least as Robert Bellah defined it, Civil Religion has to do with “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation” (Christiano, 66). In this case, it seems that American Civil Religion throughout the history of the United States revolves around people’s beliefs concerning America’s relationship to God (i.e., America as God’s chosen nation, God guiding America towards prosperity, etc.); a concept of God shaped by Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Similar to the concept of secularization theory, however, it is worth exploring whether this concept of Civil Religion translates into contexts and cultures outside of Western and specifically American settings. That is, is there such a thing as “Civil Religion” in a place like Egypt? What does it mean to be Egyptian and Muslim and engage in the democratic process? One of the things many of us seemed to pick up on from Dr. Wickham’s lecture last week was that the Muslim Brotherhood, or at least aspects of the group, seemed to be changed or moderated as they participated in the democratic process.
I guess what I am getting at is that while in an American context discussions concerning “Civil Religion” seem to begin with the influence of religion on public discourse and belief concerning the relationship between the state and religion, the story of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to push us toward thinking about the state and religion from almost the opposite direction: how does the state influence the religion of explicitly religious groups? As Rachelle alluded to in her tweet – do we see this happening in America as groups like the Mormons seek to become involved in the American mainstream?
Last week, our preparatory readings centered on theories of an institutionalized “civil religion” in the American context. Proponents of the theory, such as Robert Bellah, argue that although this civil religion draws on major themes from Christianity, it is distinct from it and has become the religious dimension that exists within the political realm. This brings up the possibility that the religion-state relationship in the United States is not quite as clear-cut as it might seem based on the constitutional affirmation of the separation of church and state. Is civil religion an overlap of religion and politics, or just the use of religious idioms for the legitimation of political ideals? Or, is religion such an integral part of nationalism that it necessarily becomes a theme in political rhetoric?
A further exploration of the themes of religion and political power was in store for our class during our “field trip” to a talk by political scientist Carrie Wickham about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its rise to power, as well as its subsequent fall. She discussed the ways in which mainstream Islamist actors (who typically cite the creation of an Islamic state and implementation of shari’a as an ultimate goal) involved in politics has changed the political system, but also how this involvement has changed the core values, goals, and beliefs of the Islamist movement itself. Within this context, Islamists in Egypt have become some of the most ardent defenders of democracy. Democratic transitions in Egypt and the Arab world more generally face a set of challenges, and in many cases it is still unclear what sort of state-religion relationships will emerge. Clearly, social and political scientists need to further investigate the various permutations of the religion-state relationship and what these have meant for varied expressions of politics and religion.
Sul A Lee
No matter what one thinks, Multiculturalism is an emerging issue in many countries. The fact that multiculturalism came to be an issue indicates that unequal rights and opportunities are given to the minority groups of different culture and race. And we had a glimpse of how two American ethno-racial religious groups dealt with their reality.
Historical researches provided by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya argues that the Black Church formed a unique Christian world view from the African understanding of cosmos and took an important role for the community. The church’s role was not only religious but also political and cultural, thus, was a central institution in the modern African Americans history. Especially, the “dialectical model of the Black Church” with the tension of six polar opposites broadens the previous understanding of the Black Church as “other-worldly or compensatory.”
The research on the religious group boundaries of Korean immigrants’ children born in America, particularly Evangelicals in universities, explicitly mentions about the social desires of the minority group. Kim argues that the student’s desire for community, social status, and homophily form separate religious boundaries. However, though students share their desires with other Asians, they seek for separate ethnic religious group that they might feel more common one another.
We took a look how separate ethnic or racial religious groups exist in a multi-cultural society, then moved toward to multicultural congregations. Gerardo Marti suggests the diverse forms of music as a mean to build multiculturalism. Marti denies the conventional idea that music is a universal language and argues that the forms of music are related to particular ethno-racial groups. Therefore, the use of diverse styles of music in worship can design culturally inclusive congregation. Marti also argues that the authentic styles of music and worship in the Black Church can be a model to promote a value of diversity.
Several questions revolve around in my mind when thinking about the issues, religion, race, and ethnicity. How much can be a person or society inclusive to others? Can be a society really multi-cultural? And why is religion so often tied to a certain ethnic group?
The same idea kept reoccuring for me in the reading on Religion and Gender and that was the idea of perspective. No matter how many organizations women create or barriers they break down, the worldview of the 21st century is still a white- heterosexual- Eurocentric male view. This phenomenon permeates all aspects of life including religion. The clever question, what if Emile had been Emily? says it all about the perspectives we have used to study religion or any social science. The perspectives of women have been historically left out.
I found the ideas about identity in the McGuire piece very interesting- especially in regards to the men’s groups. It is interesting the way she describes the male only groups as perpetuating male identity and values. Secretive, exclusive, dominant, status driven, and boundary intensive male clubs/fraternities/religious groups all solidify for men the roles they are socialized to play in society based on their gender. Men are socialized to act in dominant and authoritative ways that of course translates into the way they also practice religion. If men are in the dominant role - then women fill the submissive role.
“Women’s submission is to the authority of a male who discerns God’s will for her.” (178 McGuire)
This statement for me brought together both male and female gendered experiences. Men are free to connect with their religion and experience the “transformation” that occurs when they submit themselves to God. Women are unable to have this transformative experience because they have already submitted themselves to the men (father/husband) in their lives.
All of these ideas from McGuire tie into Chaves’ point that neo-institutionalism is the phenomenon that is shaping women’s ordination. Influences from outside the church are the biggest indicators of whether or not women will be ordained inside the church. The treatment of women inside the church is one thing, but the politics around ordaining women is more of a political statement that shows the rest of the community the stance the church is taking on the women’s movement and modernization as a whole. The readings built off each other in this way- there are behaviors and norms that are socialized around being male and female - those norms blend into institutions such as religions.
Religious institutions are another vehicle used for acting out gendered social roles society as deemed appropriate. Watching religious institutions to see if more women are being ordained or in positions of authority, will be an indicator of the greater societies attitudes about women.
In the last two weeks of class, we have had many opportunities to learn about and discuss Pentecostalism as a transnational phenomenon. In her brief documentary, Analisa Buttici examined West African Pentecostalism in Italy. Her focus seemed to be on what happened at the cultural point of contact between two disparate groups. To hear the Catholic priests on the one hand and dynamic Pentecostal pastors on the other talk about each other revealed how much of a cultural gap existed between these two practices of religion and how little they understood of each other. In my mind several questions arose. One was hopeful: Was it too soon in their sojourn in Italy for Africans to expect to make missionary inroads into Italian culture? The other pessimistic: Will Africans ever be able to break into Italian culture? After all, this “dialogue of the deaf” begs the question: What is necessary to create common ground so these two cultures can meet for true dialogue? After all, for decades Europe has been the exception in global Christianity as the one continent where Christianity is NOT growing. Might this have something to do with the clash of cultures between Old Europe and the new countries in the Global South?
In the second part of the class at Harvard, Professor Nimi Wariboko was called upon to defend Prosperity Gospel forms of Pentecostalism by answering questions from Analisa Butticci and Harvey Cox. It was a difficult task to defend a vast phenomenon that is partially “guilty as charged” and partially represents creative and redemptive forms of popular religion in many parts of the world. The article “Transformational Tithing” that was the backdrop of this class as an assigned reading gave a refreshing understanding of the empowerment that tithing can give to people who know that , through their giving, they are agents in the work of the church in ways that are transforming the world.
For Westerners who sometimes have knee-jerk reactions when it comes to money and its abuse, it is an easy temptation to fall into stereotypes when thinking of large, complex phenomena like Pentecostalism and Prosperity Gospel. However, instead of trying to look at the whole forest all at once, it might be more productive to try and study it one tree at a time.
Commentary on last week’s film on Pentecostalism in Italy among African expatriates opened our 11/20 discussion on religion and economics. We sensed a fear of the Pentecostal movement, driven in part by racial differences and immigration status, and Dr. Tucker noted that European governments are funding studies of Pentecostalism. We wonder about these dynamics in the U.S.
Pentecostal leaders are accused of using the Prosperity Gospel to extract funds from poor members of their congregations. Prof. Wariboko responds that:
Additionally, Premewardhana posits a transformative, empowering aspect to tithing that “mainline” protestants may not understand.
In the U.S. Pentecostals and other conservative religious groups consistently rank low on the socioeconomic scale (Smith and Faris). Status bridging effects on social capital are enhanced by church membership but less so for Evangelicals with regard to Corporate Executives (Wuthnow.) Pentecostals are trying to address their low rank and there is some evidence of socioeconomic convergence. (Park and Reimer) We want to explore the links between Pentecostalism and capitalism but sociologists may be overusing Weberian frameworks in this study. Pentecostalism needs to be studied on its own terms.
Christianity grows from the margins. Pentecostalism may be moving to the core via changing internal structures. Its fragmentation/consolidation cycle interests us and may hearken back to church sect theory.
During our class on Wednesday, November 20th, much of the class discussion revolved around the previous week’s trip to Harvard, at which we watched the documentary on African Pentecostal and then heard brief lectures from Professors Wariboko, Butticci, and Cox. Our discussion involved a helpful elaboration of Pentecostalism from Dr. Tucker. Her explanation provided the class with important perspective on the dynamics and diversity within Pentecostalism. Much of our subsequent discussion and questions revolved around three themes: the role of emotionalism within the tradition, the relationship between Pentecostalism and the Prosperity gospel, and how the structures, or lack thereof, of the Pentecostal tradition are affected by the American context.
Dr. Wariboko visited our class for a short question and answer session about the previous week’s discussions. The initial question provided significant fodder for the discussion which was oriented around the relationship between the Prosperity gospel and the economic state of those who espouse and practice such beliefs. In other words, does the affluence of the believer change the tenor of the gospel? Does the message of the gospel change when it is preached in poor parts of Africa as opposed to extreme wealth in a US congregation? Wariboko responded by saying that the desire for wealth in the African context is about wanting comforts and necessities that make life easier and safer. Giving the example of a car or healthcare, he asserted that the message of prosperity is a hope for a good life that has alluded them otherwise.
Many of the tweets during and after class were concerned with similar themes to the lecture and discussion in class: the relationship between structure, economic status, and Pentecostalism. A few select tweets asked similar questions about the ways in which the predominant hierarchical denominational culture in the US impacts the Pentecostal message and orientation. Is there a persistent desire within congregations to remain largely non-hierarchical or does the desire to gain status in the predominant culture push congregations and larger delegations to conform to the hierarchical structure of “mainstream” denominations?
This past week in Sociology of Religion, our discussion zeroed in on social and religious movements, and their impact on communities in every day life. Throughout the class, I ascertained one main theme permeating the conversation that was evident both in our readings and in our discussion. Rhys Williams posits that, “…religions and religious communities form natural bases for social movement activism.” (Williams 315). It was indeed this ideal that made itself known throughout our exploration of the moral majority and politics, as well as through our discussion regarding larger social movements such as civil rights. Though I agree that religious movements often set the stage for large-scale social change due to their already organized nature and their pursuit of a higher, often divine goal, I want to add that the relationship between the two can often be two-fold. I have seen many times religion latch on to pre-established social movements, altering their goals to match their own. One such example of this ideal is found in church missions and the way they are often constructed. Following traumatic events and catastrophes, churches often respond by latching on to pre-established and well organized social movements to bring about relief. Teaming up with the American Red Cross, for example, provides a religious movement the opportunity to bring relief to a troubled community, while also giving it the golden opportunity to bring about spiritual change through evangelism. This is often times the basis for mission trips. One must look no further than Invisible Children’s 97 million hit viral video, “KONY,” and religious movement’s response to this to witness religion feeding off pre-established and pre-organized social movements. Immediately following the secular viral video, geared towards enacting change in Africa through stopping the oppressive leader of the LRA, progressive churches all around the country began showing the film in Sunday services seeking to raise awareness of the issue, while also spiritualizing it through prayer. In these ways, religious movements can provide basis for social change, but also consistently seek to latch on to pre-existing organized movements in the secular sphere, utilizing them to meet their own ends.
Course Learning Objectives
“By the end of the course you should be able to:
• Understand what it means to think sociologically about religion and distinguish between this mode of inquiry and other religious studies approaches
• Apply the basic concepts, theories, and methods of Sociology of Religion to lived religious communities and contexts
• Critically reflect on your own definitional preferences and biases
• Translate the “big questions” of the field into accessible language for non-specialists”