In their best-selling 1980s book on the tensions between community and individualism in America, Habits of the Heart, my Berkeley colleagues Robert Bellah and Ann Swidler, along with three other coauthors, described the version of religion that a woman whom they called Sheila had described to them. She believed in a faith of loving and being gentle with oneself; she labeled this theology “Sheilism” – “just my own little voice.” The authors of Habits saw her declaration as an expression of a growing tendency in America toward isolation and self-absorption raised here to an ethical principle. (The term “Sheilaism” is now so well-known it has its own Wikipedia entry.)
There were and are other signs of a make-your-own religious boom. Outside of the standard religious structures, we see the excavation of old, pagan traditions like Wicca and the construction of hybrid, New Age faiths and Eastern blends with practices such as yoga and Kabalistc mysticism. Inside standard religious structures, variants such as independent churches, new liturgies and rituals, and even re-defined theologies have emerged. Some religious leaders describe all this as “cafeteria-style” faith: take what you like and disregard the rest. (And there is a Wikipedia entry for “Cafeteria Christianity,” too.)
Such religious inventions may well have burgeoned in recent decades, especially since the 1960s. Getting good numbers to test that assumption would be difficult, especially when so many “new religious movements” are informal and some even hostile to becoming formal institutions. But one thing is clear: This is not new.
Old Time Religions
The 19th and 20th century witnessed the creation of many American-born religious movements that remain with us such as Scientology, Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Reconstructionist Judaism, and yet earlier, Christian Science, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Disciples of Christ, and Seventh-Day Adventism. Yet, many more, whether invented here or imported, have come and gone – or come and stayed under the radar.
During the early 19th century, in particular, America was Awash in a Sea of Faith, as an important book by Jon Butler is titled (subtitled, Christianizing the American People), by which he means that America was flooded by all sorts of religious campaigns and frenzies. Some, like the Mormons and the Baptists, developed into major and lasting institutions; many more flared up and burned out. Many “faiths” of the day were roughly Christian; others were magical, quasi-pagan, or cult-like folk beliefs. It would take until late in the century before most Americans were conventionally “churched” in the way we take for granted today, a convention that really did not solidify until the 1950s.
Even Sheilaism, a self-defined individual faith, is not new. For example, in the early 19th century, a Mrs. Lucy Mack Smith of New Hampshire decided, as others like her occasionally did, to follow her own reading of the Bible rather than her church’s interpretations. Eventually, she persuaded a minister to baptize her as, in effect, a Christian of her own individual denomination. Her son Joseph later founded the Mormon faith.
“No Religion” Faith
In 2002, Michael Hout and I published a study that drew remarkably widespread attention and replication. We tracked the increasing percentage of American survey respondents who, since about 1990, chose the last option in this question: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In 2010, 18% picked that option, up from 7% c. 1990. Recently, Robert Putnam and David Campbell expanded on these findings and arguments in American Grace.
Critically, the increase in the “no religion” answers is only weakly tied to atheism. In the 2008-10 General Social Surveys, for example, 66% of those who chose the “no religion” option nonetheless said that they believed in a higher power or God; 20% of them said that they had “no doubt” of God’s existence. And 54% of them said that they probably or definitely believed in “life after death.” (Rather than being a thought-out rejection of theism, the increase in “no religion” answers is largely a rejection of organized religion and a reaction against its growing identification with the political right.)
I suspect that many, perhaps most, of these “no religion” Americans are really “new sort of religion” Americans, seeking a way of keeping faith in something beyond the corporeal despite their skepticism toward organized religion. This may lead them to join others in new “spiritual” practices or even to a Sheilaism of some kind. In these ways, they’d be true to a long American faith tradition.
(This column was re-posted on The Berkeley Blog on December 22, 2011.)