01: The January issue of the journal Contemporary Sociology features a special section on religion, though in an unusual manner. The journal asked sociologists of religion Andrew Greeley, Michelle Dillon, Helen Ebaugh and Daniel Olson, to review the same group of books dealing with changes in American religion (including Mark Chaves‘ Congregations in America, R. Stephen Warner‘s A Church of Our Own and Robert Wuthnow’s America and the Challenge of Religious Diversity) Not surprisingly, the result is somewhat repetitious, yet the different approaches of these scholars also reveal distinct trends and perspectives from such recent literature. For more information on this issue, write: Contemporary Sociology, 1307 New York Ave. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005-4701.
02: While there seems to be no end to books dealing with religion and science, particularly relating to the role of biology and neuro-science in belief, there are few works presenting much original research on these topics. David Hay’s Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit(Templeton Foundation Press, $19.95) is an exception to this tendency. The book is also unique in affirming both Darwinian biology and the validity of spiritual experiences. Hays follows in the trail of his mentor Alister Hardy, an Oxford University zoologist who collected and studied thousands of spiritual experiences.
Along with categorizing and analyzing such accounts, Hay presents the results of more formal surveys he has conducted, particularly a study in 2000 where he found unexpected and sharp increases in the percentages of people claiming spiritual experiences from a 1987 survey, even while their religious involvement declined. Hay argues that people are not experiencing more spiritual experiences today; rather, people feel more “social permission” and less stigma in admitting to such experiences.
Hay adds that many people still use religious language to describe spiritual experiences, including secular individuals. The most common experience seems to be a presence felt during times of extreme distress and joy. Hays recounts the alternative explanations of evolutionary (as a leftover adaptation) and psychological theories (as a mistaken perception), and views them as incomplete and even biased. His concept of “primordial spirituality” holds that spiritual awareness is rooted in our physiological and evolutionary makeup. Hay concludes by advising churches to take seriously these spiritual experiences and foster contemplative prayer and meditation.
03: Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants (Rutgers University Press, $24.95) brings together-relatively short and diverse essays on religious commitment to social justice and faith-based resistance among U.S. immigrant communities. Edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, the book pays special attention to religion as an inspiration for civic action.
Contributor Stephanie Nawyn also reminds us that the “majority of organizations that resettle refugees in the United States are faith based.” Three chapters deal with challenges on the US-Mexican border, including the role of local clergy in migrant sending communities, who now sometimes incorporate migrant counseling in their pastoral services. While all religious workers working on the border want to pursue justice and create a just society, they do not all interpret the social teachings derived from their Christian faith in the same way, writes Cecilia Menjívar. Yet an interfaith “ethic of refuge,“ connecting common teachings of the major world religions, has emerged, according to Nawyn.
Some chapters focus on immigrants and their descendants. Janelle Wong describes young Asian American evangelicals as strongly involved in parachurch organizations on campuses and they, like other evangelicals, tend to be more conservative than their peers. But there are signs this might change; the Asian American evangelical community may be supportive of campaigns for immigrant rights, though not when it comes to issues such as abortion or gay and lesbian rights.
While different from other chapters in the volume, a fascinating contribution by Janet Hoskins reports how Vietnamese Caodaism (an indigenous, syncretist religion incorporating elements from non-Vietnamese religious traditions) has adapted in California. Some Caodaist refugees temporarily accepted “paper conversions” to Christianity, while young people experimented with available offers on the spiritual market. Committed Caodaists have, however, finally rebuilt a community, appropriating local religious elements (the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith being one of them) while universalizing Caodaism.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer