A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Is Dissing Spirituality Just a Harmless Bit of Fun?

Do you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious?” Well in that case David Webster has a message for you, written on the knuckles of his fist. “When someone tells me that they are ‘Not religious, but very spiritual,’” he writes, “I want to punch them in the face.” Of course he admits that he never acts on this urge, but why does he have it in the first place? Because, “Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy,” or so he argues in a new book. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book, and that I do not intend to either. Why? Because his summary of the project in Religion Dispatches is quite enough:

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That the idea of being “spiritual, but not religious” is, at the very least, problematic. As I suggest in the book, mind-body-spirit spirituality is in danger of making us stupid, selfish and unhappy.

Stupid—because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously. It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.

Selfish—because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realises that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is course for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.

Finally, I argue that the dissembling regarding death in most contemporary spirituality—the refusal to face it as the total absolute annihilation of the person and all about them—leaves it ill-equipped to help us truly engage with the existential reality of our own mortality and finitude. In much contemporary spirituality there is an insistence of survival (and a matching vagueness about its form) whenever death is discussed. I argue that any denial of death (and I look at the longevity movements briefly too) is an obstacle to a full, rich life, with emotional integrity. Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live. Spirituality seems to me to be a consolation that refuses this challenge, rather seeking to hide in the only-half-believed reassurances of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, previous lives and ‘soul’.

Lest you think he’s just musing, there is a real and present danger in modern spirituality according to Webster who wants us to shed the “misconception that astrology, reiki, crystal-healing, cosmic ordering, and the like are just a harmless bit of fun.” He argues that “they have a substantial potential for negative consequences.” While he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as an apologist for “conventional [whatever that means] organized, religion” he wants us to understand that said forms of religion diverge from “spirituality” by being rooted  “in social justice, equality and material needs.” Spirituality, of course, is rooted in selfishness, interiority and personal gain, and Webster no doubt shows this by analyzing the contents of a vast library of new age books.

Now at this point you must have detected that I’m critical of what I read (in Religion Dispatches), but I want to be clear that I’m not critical of Webster’s content analysis. I have no doubt that the cultural artifacts he has cataloged do indeed contain the themes he is outlining. Let’s accept then that these themes factor prominently in the spiritual rhetoric of Western modernity. Fair enough. But based on what evidence does he conclude that the spiritual rhetoric of modernity actually leads to specific social and psychological outcomes? After all, what is so compelling about the argument is the claim that “contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy” (emphasis mine). But does it really make us so? Are the spiritual but not religious more selfish than the plain old religious? Are they dumber? Are they less happy?

I’m not spiritual myself, in fact I wonder sometimes if there are any spiritual bones hiding in my entire body. Yet one doesn’t have to be spiritual oneself to know those who consider themselves to be. In my research, for instance, I have encountered several such individuals. None of them seemed particularity selfish to me. In fact many would be better described as leaning towards selfless rather than selfish, and often as a result of engaging in very well worn traditions of social justice–traditions that do not require membership in any “religion” clubs mind you. What about dumb and unhappy? Nope can’t say those fit the bill either.

Since I did not set out to systematically test Webster’s hypothesis my field experiences are merely anecdotal, but at least they are that. At least they empirically attest to psychological and social outcomes, however unsystematically they do so. And this brings me to my gripe with Webster’s project, and any others that try to extrapolate real human consequences from mere rhetoric. If we want to understand how modern Westerners are reacting to the stuff that culture feeds them we need to go about observing those reactions. This is particularly the case with stuff like  “contemporary spirituality,” which seems to have such a negative effect on its critics that they all too often start interrogating it by begging the question.

Attending without Adhering: What Some Nonbelievers Get up to on Sundays

Today is Sunday, which means a whole lot of Americans are at church. While it is well known that  some of those who report going to church are actually mowing the lawn, sleeping in or fishing, we can be fairly certain that many are in fact attending a service today or at the very least on some other given Sunday. According to the 2000-2010 cumulative GSS data,  73% of Americans say they go at least once a year, 60% report going several times a year or more and 26% claim to go weekly.

I know what you are thinking. In a nation as purportedly devout as the United States these numbers don’t seem particularly interesting. True, but a subset of these figures might still surprise you. Of those who claim to have no religious affiliation (the “nones”) 26% claim to attend church at least once a year, 12% report going at least several times a year and 2% say they go weekly. Who are these people who go weekly, or even several times a year, without identifying as religious? Are they “unchurched believers” who are looking for a way to consume that old timey religion without committing fully to an institution? Not likely. In fact I think it much more likely that it has nothing to do with their religious beliefs at all.

Earlier today Hemant Mehta published a post on his blog, The Friendly Atheist, suggesting that if you are one of these people you might be “Going to Church for Your Spouse.” Mehta’s post consists of a picture of a woman with her face completely disguised by a large hat, sitting alone in a church pew. Written with permanent marker on the photo are the words: “Are there other NON-BELIEVERS who only go to church because of someone you love?” Mehta then asks, “How many of you have done that?”

Considering that “nones” only comprise about 16% of the U.S. population, and no more than 12% of that fraction attend church with any regularity, it is probably safe to answer Mehta with, “not many.” In fact, baring in mind that most nones aren’t actually “nonbelievers,” the answer may even be, “less than not many.” Of course we can problematize that last bit in the other direction as well. Most “nones” do indeed believe in something, but that something (aka “higher power”) is not usually the “personal God” that is most likely being worshiped in a church (or synagogue or mosque for that matter). Furthermore, a very small portion of people who claim religious affiliations are also  nonbelievers, especially if we define non-belief in terms of that afore mentioned personal God. Such “cultural religionists” (for the lack of a better term) could easily be attending services for the sake of their loved ones.

How many Americans actually do this? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s likely not many, and the answer to Mehta overall is most probably still, “not many”…but that doesn’t mean the phenomenon is insignificant. In fact I’d say it is quite significant for a variety of reasons. Consider what one commentator has said at The Friendly Atheist:

I used to be a Mormon. That church is FILLED with people who participate only to keep peace in the family, to avoid divorce, to keep from being shunned, to keep jobs and clients. I imagine the same is true in other very hardline churches.

Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints actually “filled” with people who only go to please others? I’m not sure, but there is a correlation between both partners in a marriage regularly attending the same house of worship and family stability. One way to explore that correlation further would be to look more closely at situations in which nonbelievers are still attending church because of their religious spouses. What are the effects of this behavior on their marriages? Whether positive, negative or neutral an in depth qualitative study would go a long way towards understanding why. For instance, if the effects are positive we might get a better sense of what it is about joint religious activity, as opposed to religious belief, that has pro-family benefits.

But there may be even more to explore here than the family angle. Another commentator offered this description of his own irreligious church attendance:

Originally this was for my wife, and for the shared idea that our children should have the shared community experience.  Now after fifteen years with this church, i’m the only one in the family who chose not to become a member (in doing so i would have to state a belief i do not share) and i’ve since outed myself whenever it has come up.  Now my main reason for going is less about a family experience, but rather because this church has a great community of people i care strongly for.

Of course family cohesion and the experience of community may be intricately intertwined, but the point is that nonbelieving church attendance may be driven by social concerns outside of the family and may have outcomes transcending the family as well. And perhaps such social concerns are particularly poignant when it comes to collective celebrations and other ritual performances. Here is yet another comment:

Weddings, funerals, and baptisms… much else I cannot stand. I respect my family members’ decisions when it comes to where they want to hold their major events.

Of course this individual isn’t part of the regularly attending nonbeliever crowd, but perhaps they still see the social benefits of religious communities when it comes to celebrating the life-cycle, much like Phil Zuckerman has shown that nonbelievers in Scandinavia do.

What this all points towards is the meaningful distinction between religious belief and practice when trying to determine the social and psychological benefits of religiousness. Consider that Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s sophisticated meta-study of U.S. religion, American Grace, suggests that the social benefits of religion lie much more so in practice than in belief. But as for why that is their analysis of large quantitative data sets can only scratch the surface. What better social location to explore that issue in more depth than among those who are actively practicing without believing, or more specifically “attending without adhering?” I look forward to seeing the results of such a study. Any takers?

Forthcoming research on non-religious funerals … stay tuned!

A few months ago, in an article for The New Humanism, “Spitting with the Wind: The Sociology of Irreligion and Ritual,” I opined that it was “time for scholars and community leaders alike to start paying attention to the emerging traditions of non-religious life-cycle ritual all around them.” My own dissertation focusses on just such a tradition, but at the time I knew of no other research like it. How things have changed. I am now familiar with several ongoing projects centered around non-religious life-cycle ritual. In fact the research phase of one of these projects, conducted by London School of Economics anthropologist Mathew Engelke, was recently completed.

With the assistance of funding from The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Engelke spent all of 2011 conducting “an ethnography of the British Humanist Association.” While his ethnography did not focus exclusively on humanist ceremonies he did train to become a humanist celebrant, and consequently spent a great deal of time as a participant-observer researching non-religious funerals. He has written modestly about his research experience in the Guardian:

The idea of a good death is not new. Anthropologists, historians, and other social scientists have long documented the variety of ways in which a good death is achieved. Crucial to this is not only how someone dies, but how that death is commemorated. In many cases, to include Britain today, a good death has to involve a good funeral. Ritual, even in this postmodern age, is flourishing. And whether or not we identify as religious such ritual, it seems, still counts.

I spent last year conducting an anthropological study of the British Humanist Association (BHA), an organisation which on first thought might not bring to mind a commitment to rites de passage. For the association, however, providing funerals to those who do without God is a major aspect of its work. There are close to 300 humanist celebrants, and they conduct more than 8,000 funerals a year. It’s a burgeoning service. As Linda Woodhead noted here last week, “the churches’ hold over birth, marriage, and death has weakened dramatically”. According to a major study by Co-operative Funeralcare, in 2011, 12% of funerals in Britain are now humanist or otherwise “non-religious”.

As an anthropologist, one of the reasons I wanted to study the BHA is because of this commitment to the experiential and embodied side of being non-religious. As an increasing number of philosophers within the atheist and humanist ambit have stressed, much of the god debate over the past six or seven years has been dominated by a hyper-intellectualised version of what it means to do without Him. But godless dons have funerals – most of them do, at any rate. And so do other non-religious people.

To be sure, a good BHA funeral is a carefully scripted event: words matter to the celebrants, and ought to “capture the person”, as some of the celebrants put it to me – and as I learned the hard way, training to become a celebrant myself. (As an anthropologist, I had to go native as much as I could.) The scripts I wrote during the training – a three-month process – were deconstructed by my teachers, word for word. I felt like a student all over again. Yet humanist funerals are also, like all rituals, carefully scripted performances: sensuous events in which the semantic content of what is said is often eclipsed by what exists beyond language.

My own research also suggests that attempting to “capture the person” in ritual performance is likely the hallmark of the modern life-cycle ceremony, and especially so in the non-religious realm. But what does that mean? The ESRC digs a bit deeper into the issue in a press release on Engelke’s funeral research:

One of the most striking aspects of BHA funeral ceremonies is that they strive to be true to the individual, to reflect as best as possible the character, world views and the sensibilities of the person who has died. “The focus is almost exclusively on the person, which is often not the case with the more traditional religious ceremonies” says Dr Engelke.

This emphasis on the individual is an increasingly important phenomenon in modern Western life, suggests Dr Engelke. In many societies, and in ritual ceremonies down the ages, the place of the individual in the ritual is often the least important consideration.

In humanist ceremonies, being true to the individual is most central. Dr Engelke commonly came across family members and friends who said: “We told the funeral director John did not go to church so we did not want a vicar to take the funeral”.

“This gives an intriguing glimpse into the extent to which modern citizens feel it important to express their uniqueness and individuality”, says Dr Engelke.

As the ESRC points out, the individual has rarely played as central of a role in ritual as s/he does today, in the contemporary West. Yet, as I am finding in my own research there is a complex set of relationships at play in even the most personalized of ceremonies. I hope that Engelke’s more detailed analysis of humanist funerals goes beyond mere personalization and attempts to decipher to what end ritualized individualism plays out in contemporary non-religious ceremonies. Without giving too much away about my own research I can say that something quite connective if not collective seems to abide under the veneer of the rugged ritualizing American individual.  Is this also the case among British Humanists? We’ll have to wait and see, and of course no matter where Engelke’s analysis takes him this is exciting and timely research. Keep it coming, please!

Repackaging sociology’s “religion problem”

John Boy responded to my post of two weeks ago, “Does Mainstream Sociology Have a Religion Problem,” in part by linking to a discussion from 2010 concerning the state of the field (of sociology of religion). This discussion was driven by the implications of the then recent findings of David Smilde and Mathew May, on the emerging “strong program” in the sociology of religion and took place largely at the Immanent Frame, but also included a piece from Inside Higher Education (IHE). IHE’s summary of the “key findings” of Smilde and May’s research included the following:

  • The articles show “a strong program” emerging on the role of religion in society. At the beginning of the period studied, religion was rarely the independent variable in the research, but by the end of the period, more than half of the articles had religion as the independent variable.
  • For most of the period studied, there was an upward trend in positive findings about the role of religion and a downward trend in negative findings. The last five years have seen an increase in negative findings.
  • American sociology’s study of religion is dominated by religion in the United States and Christianity, with relatively little work on non-Christian religions or the Christian faith of non-Americans.
  • Private funding has increased significantly for sociological research on religion, notably from several foundations.
  • A positive correlation was found between receiving outside funding and positive findings about religion, although to the surprise of the authors, the strongest correlation was not from private sources of funds but from public sources. (The authors do not have a definitive theory on the source of this correlation and suggest it as a topic for further research.)

While this seems to be a good summary Smilde also suggested that these findings are cause for some concern:

…we are concerned that the critiques of the concept of cultural autonomy put forth by feminist, deconstructionist, and postcolonial scholars have barely been heard in sociology. More concretely, we worry that an emphasis on autonomy could lead to a selective focus on those geographic contexts and religious traditions that appear to validate this approach. We also seek to understand whether growing pro-religiousness will marginalize critical perspectives, as well as ignore or understate the existence of uncomfortable religious phenomena.

So maybe there is a different “religion problem” in sociology than the one Christian Smith tried to ferret out? But how is it that a sociologist of religion like Smith feels that religion is constantly being derided in mainstream sociology when Smilde and May’s research shows a relatively steady trend towards “pro-religiousness.” Is there this much of a disconnect between the parent (sociology) and the child (sociology of religion)? It is notable that Ryan Cragun’s response to Smith refers to the moniker “sociology’s ghetto,” (though Cragun doesn’t agree with the characterization) while Darren Sherkat called the sociology of religion a “backwater” of mainstream sociology. Has the sociology of religion developed with such autonomy that it warrants these labels? Is this autonomy contributing to the dissonance between Smilde’s study and Smith’s experience? Or, is it even dissonance in the first place?

When I broached this general question on a listserv I belong to someone directed me to the 1999 paper by Rodney Stark, “Atheism, Faith and the Social Scientific Study of Religion.” Stark’s paper has a similar tone to Smith’s, and in fact he throws in a couple of personal anecdotes about a psychologist and a historian who separately accused him of being a religious apologist at an annual SSSR meeting, presumably because of their own mixture of ignorance and irreligious zeal. Yet unlike Smith, Stark does not complain about mainstream sociology, instead pointing his pistols at two other social sciences – anthropology and psychology. According to Stark these disciplines are still on an unscientific, post-Enlightenment trajectory hostile to religion, while sociology has managed to shed irreligious ignorance transcending into a realm of real “science.” How did sociology manage to become more scientific than its cousins when it comes to religion research? By getting religion. Stark argues that a growing institutional religious influence on the field actually made it more scientific.

Leaving aside Stark’s claims about anthropology and psychology, or the cause of greater scientific rigor in the sociology of religion (which are all questionable to various degrees) the religious history of the discipline he presents should be of interest to a discussion of sociology’s “religion problem.” Stark points out that not only are contemporary sociologists of religion often religious, but the institutional structures that support them had religious origins. For example:

Thus the American Catholic Sociological Society (ACSS) was organized in 1938 by 220 American Catholic sociologists seeking shelter against the withering atheistic (and often Marxist) abuse they suffered within the American Sociological Society…[they] began to publish their own journal, The American Catholic Sociological Review. Then, as the ecumenical spirit grew in post-war America, the Catholics were prompted to rename their journal Sociological Analysis.

Sociological Analysis was of course renamed Sociology of Religion, following the change in organizational nomenclature from ACSS to the Association for the Sociology of Religion. The Religious Research Association (RRA) then developed as the “Protestant counterpart” to the ACSS. They publish the Review of Religious Research. A similar trend occurred in Europe, where Archives de Sciences socials des Religions and Social Compass were also organized by Catholic sociologists. Stark describes other efforts, like the SSSR and their journal as “secular,” but overall paints a picture of a movement started by religious sociologists that ended up providing “an outlet for articles reporting social scientific research on religion, which the existing journals too often rejected on the assumption that the subject was passé—that these were merely studies of a dying and objectionably phenomenon.” In fact Stark then suggests that the existence of this institutional support structure is what brought an influx of the personally devout into sociology in the 1960s. So maybe the sociology of religion is indeed a ghetto of its parent discipline. But why does that matter?

It matters because intellectual ghettoization has implications inside and outside the academy. In one of the many responses to Smilde and May’s findings, Stephen C. Paulson frames the issue as a matter of “institutional parochialism,” by which he means, “a tendency for scholars to study people in their own societies, or to study people with whom they share a cultural affinity.” Paulson points out that the sociology of religion is by no means alone in being parochial, but that this shouldn’t prevent us from considering parochialism’s entailments. For instance Paulson suggests that as long as the current institutional structures supporting the discipline are in place it is unlikely to look too far outside of Western Christian contexts. It may also, as Paul Lichterman suggests confine religion, as a category, in particularly Christian ways:

As the authors of “Toward a new sociology of religion” say, and as I have said elsewhere, religion is often equated with “belief systems” or creeds, all the while our studies—particularly of non-Christian religion—show that beliefs and faith in the certainty of beliefs are not always as central to religious practice as the terms of our research often assume. A study that makes religion the causal actor can be interesting and intriguing, but I want to ask this actor—the strong, silent type—to say more: does that (causal) strength come from the “personal religious beliefs” that we often use as the stand-in for “religion”? Does it grow out of the status- or subculture-building power of religious identity? Or does that strength come from the self-building, life-organizing power of religious ritual? Might it depend on the organizational forms that our strong, silent type leans on? Maybe strength by itself isn’t quite as telling as we assume.

In his concluding remarks of the Immanent Frame discussion, Smilde picks up this thread, revisiting the autonomy that religion is granted as a social phenomenon within the sub-field. First he outlines three positive aspects.  He sees “the carving off of a domain of social reality as ‘religious,’ autonomous, and separate from other, ‘secular’ domains” as part of a historical process through which the Church was able “to maintain a space for religious authority vis-à-vis encroaching secular authority.” Likewise, he opines that the “irreducibility of religion is an important image” for those of any background who cherish human freedom. Finally, treating any subject, like religion, as sui generis “provides a time-honored foundation of legitimacy for a discipline’s professional activity.” But not all is positive according to Smilde:

When having a “moral order” is considered a fundamental component of human nature, then those whose religious practices (or lack of them) appear eclectic and inconsistent become less-than-human “others.” When “true” religion is considered autonomous and disinterested, then people whose religion is oriented towards practical interests and engaged in everyday life are portrayed as insincere and vacillating, and their religious practice as inauthentic and unsustainable. We sociologists of religion need to soberly realize that our structural position is going to lead us time and again to emphasize the sui generis reality, coherence, and irreducibility of our subject matter; and need to have enough self-reflexivity to realize that this may unduly impact our analysis, and in ways that in turn may unduly impact people.

If we step back to the origin of the current discussion, Christian Smith’s complaint about mainstream sociology, we can now imagine his complaint in more human terms. Is it the complaint of someone who feels like he’s being treated as a “less-than-human ‘other’,” because of his religious position vis-à-vis mainstream sociology, or at least how he imagines mainstream sociology? It seems quite likely, and it should remind us that this issue is not merely one of “structural positions” but one of emotional and cognitive dispositions as well. Scholars are just as human as the people they study.  The impetus for scholars of religion, and specifically sociologists of religion, to grant their subject complete autonomy may have as much to do with how those scholars position themselves in society at large as it does with their position within the academy.

Keeping this in mind I would like to return to the positives outlined by Smilde and raise some questions about his valuation of them. The sui generis treatment of religion has immense implications to the politics of church and state, and indeed the first two of Smilde’s three positives attest to that fact directly. Treating religion as autonomous has allowed religious institutions to maintain varying degrees of authority and in our present age at least this is in no small part due to the way that religious freedom is imagined. This is why I am not surprised, for instance, that while the recent Hosanna-Tabor Supreme court decision unanimously sided with claims of “religious freedom” made by “the church,” religion scholars by and large sided with it.* Why am I not surprised?

If the courts look to what is mainstream in the study of religion, they are faced with the same logic that leads to treating “the church” as an autonomous legal entity akin to a person. Perhaps religious autonomy of this sort is so scribbled into our cultural DNA that we currently have an endless feedback loop between the legal system and scholarship, but that would imply that the everyone outside of the academy was equally happy about Hosanna-Tabor which isn’t so. I find it much more likely that scholarship on religion has a particularly strong tendency of favoring the sui generis categorization of its subject for a variety of reasons some of which have to do with the religious identities of those producing it.  If this is true then the very personal religious lives of religion scholars may not simply have an impact on the politics of the academy but also the policies of the state. If the discussion of sociology’s “religion problem” were to continue it would be nice to see scholars implicating themselves (and not just their structural positions) a bit more fully in the work they do, and in turn to consider the very real political consequences of that work outside of the academy.

* The Immanent Frame notably published an early piece that was much more critical of the implications of Hosanna-Tabor, “The Church.”

Can the Catholic Church Count on its E.J. Dionnes?

Yesterday E.J. Dionne explained to Washington Post readers why he, as a liberal Catholic, would not “quit” his Church despite its moral conservatism. Dionne was prompted to defend his institutional loyalty after seeing the “Open Letter to a ‘Liberal’ and ‘Nominal’ Catholics” put out by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The FFRF wants to impress upon liberals like Dionne that their continued support of the Church enables the Bishop’s  “war against women’s rights to contraception.” Dionne was not impressed:

My, my. Putting aside the group’s love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shocking to learn that I’m an “enabler” doing “bad” to women’s rights. But Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.

I’m sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. It may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.

And on women’s rights, I take as my guide that early feminist Pope John XXIII. InPacem in Terris, his encyclical issued in 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” Pope John spoke of women’s “natural dignity.”

“Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument,” he wrote, “they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”

Dionne is clearly not alone in maintaining a personal connection to a version of Catholicism that stresses liberal values (pro-social justice, anti-death penalty, etc.) as opposed to conservative ones (pro-life, anti-homosexuality, etc.). In other words he belongs to a sizable group of Catholics in the United States who are maintaining their religious identities in spite of the Bishops. But how do these Catholics stack up against those who might actually agree with the FFRF enough to take them up on their offer?

According to an informal study conducted last fall on the behalf of the diocese of Trenton NJ, facets of social conservatism are high on the list of reasons why Catholics in the Trenton area have been disaffiliating from the Church. Four of the top seven reasons in fact:

2. The church’s stance on homosexuality

5. Perception that church hierarchy is too closely tied to conservative politics

6. Church’s stance toward divorced and remarried Catholics

7. The status of women

The study creators suggest that the Church can adapt its practices in ways that will mitigate the loss of adherents. Of course perhaps they do not care to do so, and in fact Dionne suggests that the conservative elements of the Church might be happier if the liberals jump ship. While I do not profess to know whether or not that is true, I do believe that the Church has a thing or two to learn from the sociology of religion if they seek to retain their liberal members.

When the 1990s saw unprecedented numbers of Americans losing their religious affiliations, sociologists were busy trying to interpret the trend. One early theory for the near doubling of religious “nones” in that decade (from 7-14%) came from Michael Hout and Claude Fischer. They considered the trend a reaction to the religious politics of the 1980s. Liberals were so turned off by the politicized moral conservatism of the Religious Right that identifying as “Christian” or even “religious” no longer suited them.  While there have been a handful of scholars who are critical of parts of Hout and Fischer’s paper (and in my view rightfully so), virtually no one challenges the basic premise that religious moralizing in the political sphere had a negative impact on adherence.

Lest the Church believe that Hout and Fischer’s  analysis is not a cause for them to be concerned, perhaps they should be reminded of the Republican primary. Catholic Republicans by and large chose a Mormon, Mitt Romney over a much more socially conservative and devoutly Catholic, Rick Santorum. On the other hand Santorum, by faithfully sticking to much of the current party line of the Bishops, managed to impress Republican Evangelicals. In other words he appealed to exactly the bloc of voters who were energized by 1980s moral conservatism; the same 1980s moral conservatism that pushed a great number of liberals away from religion altogether.

So the Church ought to be asking itself: for every E.J. Dionne out there how many non-Dionnes are there? How many Catholics are going leave their community if they continue to politicize social conservatism? My sense is that there are many more than the Church can bring itself to believe. Only time will tell.

Fight for your Right to Ritual

With Obama’s public declaration of support for gay marriage still reverberating throughout the nation this story is bound to get little attention. The ACLU of Indiana recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana over wedding rights. Yes you read that correctly, wedding rights. Their complaint is not about the right to enter the institution of marriage, but the right to do so in a certain way. From the ACLU press release:

Indianapolis – Indiana allows religious groups to perform marriages in accordance with their beliefs. But marriages performed by a non-religious group that trains and certifies secular celebrants are not recognized by state law — a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“From a First Amendment perspective, it is proper and necessary for the state to allow religions to marry people according to their beliefs,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk. “However, the state law becomes unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause when you say that religions are the only groups with rights to have their beliefs recognized in marriage ceremonies.”

Falk said the statute, Indiana Code § 31-11-6-1, also violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it denies the non-religious group its rights to spread its “essential beliefs” by performing marriage ceremonies, while allowing religious groups those same privileges.

Detractors of the complaint could easily argue that there is no law preventing nonreligious groups in Indiana, or in any other state, from spreading their “essential beliefs” through ritual practice. The right to ritual is already enshrined in rights to free expression and assembly. Couples are free to have a leader from the Center for Inquiry (on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed) or any other irreligious institution, officiate a ceremony for them. What these leaders cannot do in Indiana is to solemnize the marriage in the eyes of the law.  Yet what does making it legal have to do with spreading “essential beliefs?”  Nothing particularly, and that leads to a vital question.

Why should any religious official have the right to spread the essential beliefs of a religious community while acting as a representative of the state? In order to argue for the equal rights of their clients the ACLU has had to claim that from  “a First Amendment perspective, it is proper and necessary for the state to allow religions to marry people according to their beliefs.” But in the ACLU’s statement two forms of “marriage” become conflated; one is religious and the other is civil. As we know religious and nonreligious groups are already on equal footing when it comes to performing rites of the (ir)religious sort, but only one group is currently vested with the power of the state to actualize those of the civil sort. Does the First Amendment really profess that it is “proper and necessary” for any group (religious or otherwise) to be vested with that civil power?

A little historical context could be useful here. Colonial era marriages were almost exclusively civil. The Puritans of New England, who were fervent Reformation anti-ritualists didn’t believe that marriage was a sacrament. Civil magistrates performed wedding ceremonies in those days and continued to do so even after the British crown opened the field up to clergy (no doubt because of their very close relationship to the Anglican Church … aka themselves). After the Revolution, the drafting of the Constitution, and yes the addition of the First Amendment, weddings remained a mostly civil affair. Clergy could, of course, perform them in a civil capacity according to state laws, but even so most people didn’t have a church wedding until it became fashionable to do so in the Victorian era.

While I would never invoke originalism, it is interesting to wonder how the Framers would have considered this question, given the very different context in which most marriage rites were performed at the time. It is also important to remember that most marriage law is not regulated  by the federal government.  Why is that important? Because the enshrined practice of allowing clergy to represent the state in the matter of marriage has been the product of state law making. It may very well relate to the freedom of religion conceptually, but it would be difficult to claim that it relates specifically to the intent of the First Amendment. Of course the more important questions still remain. Far from being protected by the First Amendment, might this long established practice not in fact run contra to it? And if it does why has it never been challenged?

We have long been willing to grant religion an exceptional place in our society. For instance consider the recent unanimous decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case. There is apparently no debate among the Supreme Court’s justices about whether or not religion is sui generis in the eyes of the law; it just is. How far religious rights extend may be debated, but that religion is somehow a category unto itself is to be taken for granted. What has happened historically when nonreligious groups want to be vested with the power to wed their constituents is that they have been recognized as if they were religious. That is how the “leaders” of Ethical Culture are granted the power to legally perform marriages for instance. That is also what the ACLU seems to be asking for now; that the state of Indiana recognize the Center for Inquiry as if it were a religious institution.

Why exactly does the ACLU, or more importantly the Center for Inquiry want to challenge marriage law on that premise? It seems backwards to me. Why not argue that current practices vis-à-vis allowing clergy to act as representatives of the state while performing their religious duties are themselves unconstitutional? In other words, why not challenge religious exceptionalism head on? Either way one could only hope this case and others like it raise important questions in the halls of power about the tangled mess of marriage laws we have. If the federal courts and federal lawmakers were actually to untangle that mess we might end up with a simpler collection of laws that reflect the spirit of our Constitution a bit better all around. And yes I’m thinking here again of Obama’s announcement this week …

Does Mainstream Sociology have a Religion Problem?

A couple of weeks ago the Immanent Frame ran a condensed, summary version of an essay by Christian Smith under the title, “In Defense of the Sociology of Religion,” in their Here & There section The original essay, “Beyond Ignorance and Dogma: On Taking Religion Seriously,”  was published in the Footnotes section of the American Sociological Association website about a month prior. I was one of two people to leave a comment at the Immanent Frame about Smith’s essay hoping to provoke some discussion. Nothing really came of it, but then a couple of days ago I saw this in my twitter feed:

I was a bit surprised that they were calling attention to the comments over a week later but  obviously I wanted to start a discussion so I’m quite grateful. I am also hopeful that this time around that might actually happen. So what would I like to see discussed?  Christian Smith is an immensely accomplished sociologist who does great work on, among other things, the religious lives of American youth. As a sociologist of religion Smith apparently feels that outside of his sub-discipline sociologists don’t respect religion a whole lot and that this disrespect stems from a mixture of ignorance and anti-religious sentiment. Here’s the extent to which the Immanent Frame quoted Smith in their condensed version of the essay:

To be clear, what is at stake here has nothing to do with scholars’ personal views about religions, whether for or against. What matters is simply being educated and intelligent about an important part of human social life. The issue is not personal belief but basic professional aptitude and integrity.

We sociologists like to think that we have the hard facts about social life, reliable empirical findings, insights and understanding that ordinary people lack. Common sense, we tell our students, is often wrong—which is true. So why, when it comes to religion, do so many sociologists suddenly stop being sociological and become ideological and ignorant? For some reason, many American sociologists feel free to avow and impart superficial views of religion, as if they were learned, sophisticated, and realistic.

Here are the facts: the social, historical, and moral realities of religions are just as complicated, scrambled, and difficult as every other social practice and institution in human life—both the ones we personally like and the ones we don’t. The truth about religions is complex and challenging. Historically and today, religion involves plenty of good and bad, light and darkness, splendor and evil to go around.

When I read this I became curious about how widespread the problem actually was and eagerly hopped over to the original piece. Much to my dismay it provided very little evidence of what Smith was complaining about. In fact the essay only provides one exemplary anecdote from a recent book review. When I hunted the review down I was again dismayed, but this time because it seemed that the review had been quoted out of context. That’s why I “took him to task” in my comment, if you want to call it that. Here’s what I wrote:

As someone who utilizes sociological research methodologies from within religious studies I would like to ask an innocent question — how common is the problem Christian Smith identifies? It clearly isn’t a common problem within the sociology of religion as a sub-discipline (in fact I’ve heard avowedly secular sociologists of religion complain about the opposite problem in that context). So I’m curious how often sociologists who do not focus on religion display this kind of ignorance in a professional setting.

One of the reasons why I ask is because Smith only relays one anecdote to support his claim. In the full version of the essay he writes:

“For example, in a recent Contemporary Sociology book review, the reviewer, a senior sociologist from an Ivy League university, chides a book author for not knowing enough about religion. The reviewer then asserts that the real ‘net effects of religion and faith’ operating ‘on a macro level’ are ‘a few thousand years of horrible wars, genocide, slavery’s ideology, sexual exploitation, torture, devaluing others as not human, terrorism, and organized hatred.’ That opinion is not uncommon—I frequently see and hear it expressed by sociologists.”

With the assistance of Google I tracked down this book review and it appears he has taken the quote out of context. The quote is actually presented as a counterpoint to, but not an argument against, the notion that religious belief is a net benefit to human happiness because it “is a proxy for social interaction and sometimes a spur to useful and noble volunteer work.” What the reviewer was getting at by inserting the counterpoint is that “determining the net gain of religiosity to overall happiness is a remarkably difficult task.” But that’s not what I understood from Smith when I initially read his critique, which even suggests something remarkably similar to what the reviewer actually meant. Smith writes that the “truth about religions is complex and challenging. Historically and today, religion involves plenty of good and bad, light and darkness, splendor and evil to go around.” I couldn’t agree more with Smith about the fact that the quote he reproduced presents a caricature of religion, but what about his own out of context presentation of that quote?

If the answer to my first question is that the problem Smith identifies is as serious as he claims then it would behoove of us all to do a much better job addressing it than he has. The answer simply cannot be caricaturing and misrepresenting the work of others in order to bolster an argument which ironically is itself about not caricaturing and misrepresenting something else.

Here is the review in question for those who are curious. Ryan Cragun wrote a response to Smith which was published in the ASA’s Footnotes recently. While Cragun’s essay is thoughtful I do not think it addresses the basic empirical questions here of whether or not there really is a religion problem in mainstream sociology and if there is a problem what it actually looks like.  When I read Smith’s essay I couldn’t help but get the impression that his frustrations might actually be coming from a personal place.  I wondered if it was less the result of what mainstream sociologists are publishing or presenting at conferences than what they may be saying in non-professional settings — like faculty meetings or cocktail receptions. I was and am fully cognizant of Smith’s claim that the problem  “has nothing to do with scholars’ personal views about religions, whether for or against,” but it is hard to understand why we didn’t get better evidence of professional bias in that case. Is it possible that this is a personal level problem primarily? If it is there is still an interesting discussion to be had, but it isn’t quite the one Smith was provoking. So what is it? Is there a conversation here and if so where does it actually start?

UPDATE — A continuation of this discussion can be found in my followup post, “Repackaging sociology’s ‘religion problem’.

Doomsday Predictions and the Bizarro Orient

I have to admit something. Eschatology has never interested me. It’s always seemed a bit like paying for live music and being so preoccupied with imagining the encore that you miss the entire show. And what if the encore never comes? You get the picture.  So why now? Well, you see Reuters recently commissioned a “worldwide” poll to determine how widespread beliefs are about the impending Armageddon. Of course the notion of a “worldwide” poll is a bit silly, but we shouldn’t let that spoil our fun. The biggest news item from the poll was that a whopping 1 in 7 people think the end is near. Furthermore 1 in 10 people think that the “Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012.” That 1 in 10 people, the world over, have even heard of the Mayan calendar is pretty astonishing if you ask me. Hmmm.

According to the poll not only do 1 in 10 people worldwide agree with the Mayan calendar but 20% of the Chinese population does! Who polled them, Mike Daisey? Add 13% of Turks, Russians, Koreans, and Japanese people to the list and you have to admit it’s a bit mindblowing. Here I thought this was a distinctly Euro-American obsession, you know part of the wider panoply of New Age beliefs. I know that we borrow spiritual ideas from the East with frequency, but surely mainstream Chinese people are not in some strange twist of events becoming New Agers all of a sudden? Of course a couple of years ago the idea that Chinese elites would be champing at the bit to own a Buick would have sounded equally far fetched to me. Fair enough, but 20% of the Chinese population are into New Age reinterpretations of traditional Mayan beliefs? I don’t buy it for a second. But the Huffington Post sure does.

So this is where we get to the part that interests me. Why? Why are Reuters and the Huffington Post so eager to believe this clearly flawed poll with god knows what kind of margin of error (if one would even call it that)? Is it this enticing to think that people across the globe share the exact same projection of anxiety over what has been happening in the last few years? Or is there something else going on? I’m honestly curious, so tell me already.

Move Over Science, I have an Agenda

Do you ever come across a piece of writing that makes you so angry you feel compelled to discover what other intellectual crimes the author is guilty of? Yesterday I had this experience after following the breadcrumbs on a tweet in my twitter feed:

Click. Blink. Scroll. Blink. Scroll. WHAT!?! Apparently the Chronicle of Higher Education decided that its readers would benefit from an uninformed rant by Naomi Schaefer Riley equating all of black-studies with a “blame the white man” mentality. And what are Riley’s qualifications exactly when it comes to the state of “black-studies?” I’ll let you know when I find them.

In any event I had the unwholesome urge to see what else Riley has written in the last few years, and that’s when I stumbled upon this two year old piece from the Washington Post: “Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too.” Was I going to find the same voice from the Chronicle in this older story? I honestly wasn’t sure.  After all how could someone tie  the failure rate of interfaith marriages into a reactionary racial agenda?

Her language is revealing. It’s as if our society’s institutional rules about nondiscrimination in hiring an employee or admitting someone to college have morphed into rules for screening romantic partners.

Ten years ago, the journalist Philip Weiss wrote in the New York Observer that Jewish objections to interfaith marriage are “racist.” And today, some young people go to great lengths to make sure that they don’t appear to earn that label.

Apparently where there is a will there is a way. Of course as infuriating as that sounds, other aspects of the story are equally bad. As she states herself, the point of her entire essay is summed up by the adage that “the family that prays together, stays together.” And indeed studies have shown a correlation between religiously homogamous marriage and lower divorce rates. But Riley seems to have missed another venerable adage, one that doesn’t come from the marketing efforts of Christian institutions, but from the sciences, that “correlation does not imply causation.” Studies also show that the positive effects of shared religion on the endurance of a marriage are mostly tied to active participation by both spouses in the same religious communities outside of the home. In fact the very study Riley refers to, by Christopher Ellison, points out that shared beliefs alone aren’t correlated with enduring marriages.

In other words there is much more to the story than Riley lets on, and there is no evidence that religious adherence or segregation based on religious adherence actually create a good conjugal mojo. But to be fair to Riley she’s not the first, nor will she be the last to thumb her nose at the difference between causation and correlation when trying to tame the social sciences to an agenda. In fact it’s one of the two requirements if you want your political screed to feign empirical support. The other is to use lots of anecdotes, and it’s a double bonus when you can imply causation through those anecdotes. Let’s say someone were to figure out a way to anecdotally tie the nation’s increasing divorce rate to the rise of multiculturalism and anti-discrimination policies. That … would be a double bonus.

UPDATE: Since I posted this I’ve found this excellent response to Riley’s anti-black studies piece, along with a petition for people to voice their concerns.

UPDATE II: Looks like we could have all been spared this recent nonsense had someone at the Chronicle listened to legal philosopher Brian Leiter last year – “What is Naomi Schaefer Riley Doing with a Blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, part 2?”

UPDATE III: Also update worthy is Jeff Sharlet’s review of Riley’s apparent hack job of a book called, God on the Quad. She wasn’t into doing actual research then either.

UPDATE IV: On 05/07/12 the Chronicle decided to let Riley go because of all the negative feedback.

Is it Hip to be Spiritual?

Over at the Religion in American History blog Michael J. Altman reviews the collaborative genealogy of spirituality known as

For me, Frequencies is the Portlandia of spirituality. Like the incredible hipster sketch comedy show, Frequencies smartly digests, analyzes, and catalogs hipster culture and in the process produces some of  best pieces of hipster culture. It slides back and forth from critiquing the culture and situating itself within the culture. Likewise, Frequencies is more than a genealogy of spirituality, it is a prime example of spirituality, down to the aesthetics of the flickering pixels on the screen. It just looks like spirituality.

Altman illustrates (quite literally) how important aesthetics are to the freq.uenc.ies project and entangles those visual sensibilities with a sociocultural location he refers to as “middle brow.” What’s that you say? If you identify with the Mac in those Apple ads, you’re middle brow. If you can imagine Ira Glass’ voice when you hear his name, you’re middle brow. If you listen to Wilco, you’re probably middle brow. And according to Altman isn’t just cataloging middle brow proclivities, it’s a product of them. And so the wheel turns.

This assessment feels right if nothing else. In fact it feels right just as, in Altman’s final words, freq.uenc.ies, “looks like spirituality.” But this feeling also makes me stop and wonder about the actual sociocultural location of the “middle brow” denizens of freq.uenc.ies. Are they really your average readers of the Atlantic? In the world out there is it really this hip to be spiritual and is there really this much spirituality in being hip? The review offers a clue, if not an outright answer, because it has already identified the denizens with the artists or more appropriately perhaps  the catalogers with the cataloged. Freq.uenc.ies is a genealogy of spirituality by religion scholars, for religion scholars. No wonder it all seems so familiar, though all is not lost in this revelation. Just consider the very real spiritual possibilities of navel-gazing

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