Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Church Social

Periodically, stories appear describing non-religious Americans trying to form secular versions of churches, even with Sunday ceremonies. Anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann asks, “How do we understand this impulse to hold a ‘church’ service despite a hesitant or even nonexistent faith? Part of the answer is surely the quest for community.” I think she’s right and it serves to remind us that the role of the church in America–especially in its earliest days–was at least as much social as spiritual.

Churches serve many functions: They answer profound existential questions; tell human history; explain tragedy and injustice; instill morality and sometimes discipline immorality; define identity; organize collective action, including caring for the needy, mobilizing political partisans, and mounting missions to save souls; baptize and bury members; guide family life and sometimes commercial life; and–not the least of these–offer places for sociability.

While most discussion about the role of churches in modern life focuses on how well they sustain the first few of these functions, those involving faith, how well they provide the last, sociability, may be at least as important. Indeed, research suggests that churchgoers do better than church-avoiders precisely because of the social connections people find in church. Early in America, churches were one of the few public places that provided such social bonding. From then on they had to face considerable competition from other places.

It is amazing that American churches survived that competition so well.



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Scholars of religion and scholars of American society (including me) have conventionally described the United States as religiously “exceptional” compared to other affluent Christian nations. The claim has at least two features: First, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have been notably more religious than other westerners. Second, the U.S. has not experienced the decrease in individual piety (“secularization” in this discussion) that seems to have accompanied “modernization” in much of the affluent West. Indeed, observers have often been struck that, paradoxically, the U.S. has been at the same time the most “modern” society in the West and the most religious.god-we-trust

This description has, of course, been repeatedly challenged. Two new articles strongly argue that, at minimum, the U.S. has been experiencing “secularization” in the last several decades, so that, if American faith ever was immune to the supposedly secularizing forces of modern life, it is no longer.

Maybe. Maybe not.


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Many of America’s cultural battles in recent decades seem to be face-offs between science and faith: over the teaching of evolution, the reality of climate change, the value of stem cell research, the personhood status of an embryo, and the so on. Many on the liberal side of these issues see the controversies as part of a confrontation between ignorance and knowledge. For the more philosophically inclined, it is about a centuries-old tension between Faith and the Enlightenment’s assertion of reasoned observation. (Scientific American writer Michael Shermer’s “Skeptic” column is largely devoted to this theme.) Recent research suggests, however, a more complex structure to these debates and Americans’ views: Many of those on the religious side are far from scientific naifs; some are scientifically quite knowledgeable. It’s when science directly touches faith that the conflict flares up.


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Holy-Day Exceptionalism

A visit to Old City of Jerusalem in the holiday season, where Christian pilgrims, Jewish Hanukkah revelers, and Muslim muezzins’ calls to prayer mix in very tight quarters, underlines again the atypical nature of religion in the United States. Many countries, including western ones such as Israel, explicitly join state and church. Many have a formal state religion — in much of the Islamic world, and elsewhere, such as Argentina and Finland. Government officials in other countries route tax money to support clergy and church institutions. Many nations establish separate public school systems by religion, for instance, in Northern Ireland, Fiji, and some Canadian provinces. Governments mandate religious training in, for example, Finland, or provide separate religious instruction, as in Germany. Most dramatically, police forces enforce Islamic cultural codes in, for example, Saudi Arabia.

In contrast, church and state are officially separated in the United States, although this has been an evolving practice. For example, reading the (Protestant) Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools was quite common for much of American history. That Protestantism was long the default religious culture of American public schools sparked strong resistance from Catholics and the construction of a private parochial system. Some would argue that tax deductions for church dues today breach the separation. Still, the U.S. remains relatively distinct in its formal blindness to religious affiliations. The key distinction, however, is the grass-roots, associational nature of church in America compared to the more “tribal” nature of church elsewhere.


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In 2002, then-Berkeley (now-NYU) sociologist Michael Hout and I published a paper pointing out a new trend in Americans’ religious identity: A rapidly increasing proportion of survey respondents answered “no religion” when asked questions such as “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In the 1991 General Social Survey, about 7 percent answered no religion and in the 2000 GSS, 14 percent did.* We explained the trend this way:

the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, [but] it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion.

If that is what religion is, most of the “Nones” seemed to be saying, count me out.

In the years since, the trend has continued, Nones reaching 20 percent in the 2012 GSS. And a good deal of research has also accumulated on the topic (some of it reported in an earlier post). Notably, Robert Putnam and David Campbell refined our argument in their 2010 book, American Grace, pointing more sharply to lifestyle issues as the triggers for Americans declaring no religious identity.

Mike and I have just published a paper in Sociological Science updating the trend over an additional dozen years, applying new methods to the trend, and retesting explanations for the rise in Nones. We – actually it’s 90 percent Mike’s work – find that our earlier account stands up even more strongly.


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Bible Readings

A recent story noted that president of the Hobby Lobby company, the company that took its religious objections to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) all the way to the Supreme Court, is a leader in a campaign to put Bibles and Bible classes into American public schools. As you would expect, this move is getting push back from groups like the ACLU.



The latest controversy is yet one more episode in a long-, long-running series of conflicts over the Bible’s proper role, if any, in American public schools. The most ferocious such episode was probably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. As part of rolling battles in American cities between Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants, this one was sparked by Catholic objections to requiring reading the King James Bible in the public schools. In the backlash, several people were killed and Catholic churches were burned. Typically, conflicts over bible-reading were less physical and more political.

We misunderstand today’s debates on the issue if we imagine that Bible reading was once a universal practice in American schools only recently banished by the courts. And we misunderstand if we think about the controversies simply as disputes over whether to have religion – or which religion to have – in the schools. Historians have shown that the Bible played a complex role in American schools. (My major sources are here, here, and here.) In the end, many ministers decided they would just as soon have no Bible-reading in the public schools than the Bible-reading they were getting.


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For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it—farmers and other rural residents—have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment”; highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.

The urban left’s eco-puritanism takes many forms. Well-educated, secular Americans in particular pay extra for organic products, explore “natural” alternatives to Western medicine, and join environmentalist campaigns as donors and participants.

Whatever the virtues of each practice, running through all of them is the exaltation of nature. This cult of the natural has deep roots in America.  — Read more on the Boston Review website.

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