01: Nancy Ammerman’s new book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes (Oxford, 29.95) employs innovative methods to make the argument that the everyday dimensions of religion have not been adequately appreciated in the study of American religion.
Ammerman and her research team not only interviewed 95 Americans on their spiritual and religious lives but asked them to keep oral diaries and take pictures of places that are meaningful to them. While there is a tendency to divorce spirituality and religion, Ammerman argues that the two are often merged, as people apply their religion to everyday life.
Interestingly, the book finds that those who make a sharp distinction between being religious and being spiritual tend to be neither, and are actually engaging in “boundary maintaining discourse to distance themselves from forms of religion they reject.” It is by participating in “spiritual tribes”—which are often congregations but can be any religious group—that people learn spiritual discourse and then apply it to everyday activities.
From the diaries and photos taken by subjects, Ammerman and her team found signs of everyday religion that are hidden from conventional survey questions that focus on how many times one prays or reads the Bible in a week—from wearing tattoos to having sacred images in one’s home to keeping a journal. Ammerman argues that people develop “extra-theistic” and “ethical” spiritualities that are not necessarily tied to a deity (though often are) allowing them to recognize a “more than ordinary” dimension in life.
It is especially in work, care-giving (such as to elderly parents), health and wellness, and voluntary charitable action where these forms of spirituality are present; somewhat surprisingly, political action was rarely the subject of religious and spiritual reflections.
02: In the last few years a circle of sociologists have argued that research on religion in the U.S. has focused on its positive dimensions and has overlooked its more negative aspects.
Sociologist Ryan Cragun’s What You Don’t Know About Religion (But Should) (Pitchstone Publishing, $24.95) is one such example of revisionism, arguing that religious institutions, beliefs and practices have as much negative as positive effects on individuals and society. The book seeks to show the dark or at least gray side of American religion through extensive use of survey data.
In cases where religion appears to have clear positive effects, such as on volunteering, alleviating crime and promoting marriage, Cragun tends to cite unintended and non-religious factors that are actually at work. For instance, Cragun says religious people are more likely to volunteer because they have greater access to social networks.
But in areas where religion is reputed to be detrimental to society, such as gender inequality and environmentalism, he traces the effects to “fundamentalism.” It is here that the measures Cragun employs differ from many other studies. For instance, he cites “misogyny” as the underlying cause for a church not ordaining women, thus establishing a detrimental social effect at least to a certain type of religion.
Cragun allows that the religious influence of moderates and liberals is “benign,” though that is mainly because they have learned the lessons of secularism and science. The book is written in a humorous and irreverent vein, providing many interesting anecdotes about Cragun’s journey from Mormonism to secular humanism.
03: The emergence of Neopagan and indigenous religious movements in Eastern and Central Europe since the fall of communism has caught Western practitioners of these faiths somewhat by surprise.
They have found that the egalitarian and countercultural dimensions of Neopaganism in the West stands in sharp contrast to the more traditionalist and nationalist (in some cases, far-right) aspects to its counterparts in the east — a reality richly documented in the book Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe (Acumen, $99.95), edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson. The book brings together insightful contributions on indigenous and Neopagan movements and groups in most countries in these regions (going as far east as Armenia), with several chapters on Russia.
Although these movements became visible in the post-communist era, there were active pagan movements in diaspora communities (from Ukraine and Lithuania, for instance) in the U.S. earlier in the 20th century and they can be traced back to 19th century romanticism, even if such retrievals of their pre-Christian pasts are selective.
Several contributors note that it is too simple to divide Neopaganism into eastern and western camps; these movements share, to varying degrees, a rejection of Christianity (Judaism and Islam); a desire to get back to one’s origins; and a strong environmentalist thrust. There are also some interesting cases of pagans blending their practices with Christianity; in the largely pagan Mari El Republic in the former Soviet Union, indigenous believers may also be nominal members of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But there is clearly a tone of concern in several of the chapters on the blending of far-right activism and paganism—there are growing incidences of violence and even terrorism by far-right groups with pagan orientations (most notably in Russia) against churches and mosques; talk of “social justice” in some of these groups means justice for one’s own ethnic group without the moderating virtue of mercy taught by establishment religions.
Other noteworthy chapters include an examination of Czech Neopagan groups and how they are growing in a strongly secular country while divided between Western and Eastern strains, and a look at how pagan groups use the Internet for recruitment and teaching in Romania.
04: Rural Life and Rural Church (Equinox, $39.95), edited by Leslie J. Francis and Mandy Robbins, is the result of a long-term research project examining how churches minister in rural Britain.
The anthology is a mix of sociology, theology and church history, but on the whole it provides an empirical examination of the changing dynamics of the rural church. In the midst of declining congregations and fewer clergy, rural churches are also seeing a new interest from visitors who value these historic structures for ascetic and spiritual reasons. Several chapters look into the interaction between these visitors and congregational life, using such innovative methods as the content analysis of prayer cards and visitors’ books.
The studies seem to confirm that these visitors are not strictly secular tourists as they value the special nature of these sacred places (providing peace and a place for prayer), but they do not show much religious interest beyond such experiences. Other chapters include a look at the puzzle of why confirmation rates in rural churches have declined more than in urban churches and research showing rural churches tend to draw personalities oriented toward emotion and the need for continuity.
05: As its title implies, Testing Pluralism (Brill, $133), edited by Giuseppe Giordan and William H. Swatos, looks at the way globalization has resulted in a “de-territorialization” of religion and a new pluralism in many nations.
The contributors show that due to the globalizing forces of immigration and communications, it is increasingly difficult to associate only one particular religion with a given territory or nation (aside from Muslim nations). The editor argues that it is this new pluralism rather than secularization that is the overriding reality in the world today.
As a chapter on Australian Catholics suggests, the decline in church participation by native Australians is seen as secularization — yet the vibrant faith of immigrant Indian and Filipino Catholics presents a different reality. Other chapters include: an examination of the growth of Eastern Orthodoxy and Sikhism in Italy; the growth and competition between non-theistic groups in Norway; and an examination of how internal pluralism can change into external pluralism in the case of the conservative schisms within American Anglicanism.