01: If the study of religion(s) “opens itself to calls for direct ‘societal relevance’ to a greater extent, advocacy will gain greater prominence,” writes Michael Stausberg (University of Bergen, Norway) in introducing a thematic issue on the topic of advocacy in the study of religion(s) in the journal Religion (April).
Advocacy research is conducted to promote the goals or interests of a community or group. Often, as it happens in other fields, the fact that a group seems to be treated unfairly will play a role in a scholar turning to advocacy. The articles in this issue make it clear how relationships contribute to the emergence of advocacy. Researchers come to care about the people they encounter in their work. Sometimes they are directly asked to help a group, which might also allow a researcher to gain deeper access to information.
While practical assistance cannot always be equated with advocacy, it easily translates into it, starting when a scholar is asked by a group to write a letter of support. One well-known (and sometimes controversial) case of advocacy is that of scholars who have intervened on behalf of new and marginal religious groups: for instance, in court cases where their expertise was directly relevant to issues under consideration.
Sometimes, such groups have actively attempted to use the expertise of scholars for gaining legitimacy, Stausberg notes, citing the example of Scientology and its request to scholars to write statements authenticating the religious nature of the movement—something that goes beyond mere academic debate, since it may have some consequences for legal decisions as well.
In some cases, advocacy becomes linked to the identity of a scholar: either because their research is intimately linked to their own causes, or because deepening relationships make it increasingly difficult to remain “value-neutral” (with some non Western societies making it more difficult to remain neutral). Still, most scholars seem to avoid engaging into advocacy, as it seems to put into question the required critical distance. It takes time and hardly helps an academic career.
For more information on this issue, write: Religion, Taylor & Francis Inc., 325 Chesnut Street, 8th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106 – http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rrel20#.
02: Young Catholic America (Oxford University Press, $29.95) builds on previous works based on the longitudinal National Survey of Religion and Youth but narrows the focus to look at the steep challenges to and changes in belief and behavior of Catholic young adults, particularly those in the 18-23 age range.
The book, co-authored by Christian Smith, Kyle Longest, Jonathan Hill, and Kari Christoffersen and also based on interviews with Catholics and ex-Catholics, traces much of the dramatic loss of belief and practice they find among the young—aside from general trends present in the wider population—to a large-scale failure of parents to transmit their faith to the next generation. Closely related to this is the case that the Catholic entry into the mainstream of American society came at the same time that unsettling revolutions in the culture—the 60s—and the church—Vatican II—were taking place, setting off a chain of unintended consequences, including a population (born from the mid-1950s to 1960s) who were loosely attached to their faith and less willing and able to hand it down to their children.
The researchers find that young Catholics are not much different than their parents on many religious and moral issues—and, in fact, are more likely to believe in the afterlife—but they attend church far less (in 1970, more than one-third of young adults 18-25 attended Mass while by the 1990s and 2000s it was down to one-fifth). Much of this loss of Catholic practice is generational rather than due to life cycle changes, as is the case with younger Protestants, which means that these Catholics are less likely to return to church as they get older.
Those young Catholics who do remain attached to the church tend to have had strong associations with devout Catholic adults, helping them make the faith their own during their teen years. Other interesting findings from the book include: a narrowing gap between Latino and white young Catholics, with the former (with some exceptions) moving toward less practice and belief; the diversity of ways that young people define their Catholic identity (raising new methodological issues in studying them), which suggests that they are closer to Jewish younger adults in this regard than Protestants; and the waning effect of Catholic schooling in encouraging , particularly as these young adults move into their twenties.
03: The sharp rise of the non-affiliated or “nones” in the U.S. (as elsewhere) continues to generate debate among researchers and religious leaders.
Are these unaffiliated, often younger, Americans headed in the direction of greater secularism, or are they just drifting from religious institutions but still spiritually engaged, as is suggested by the popular—but equally confusing—self-designation of “spiritual but not religious”? In Belief without Borders (Oxford University Press, $29.95), author Linda Mercadante argues that quantitative studies can take one only so far in determining the religious/spiritual status of a large segment of the nones who are not atheists and agnostics.
She instead employs in-depth interviews (of 100 individuals) that allows the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) to describe their own motivations and distinctions in their belief and behavior. Mercadante, a Presbyterian theologian, maintains that the SBNR really occupy a new middle ground in American society—critical of both religious dogma and institutions and secularism. The book accepts its respondents broad definitions of “spiritual”—sometimes just a vague sense of connection to the earth or a secular practice of yoga.
Mercadante parses and categorizing the different ways in which Americans consider themselves SBNR, finding subsets of : “dissenters,” those who stay away from and may have specific theological issues with religion; “casuals,” who use religion and spirituality in practical and functional ways; explorers, who move through religions and traditions like “spiritual tourists,” which is differentiated from “seekers,” who are searching for a spiritual home.
Lastly, Mercadante creates the category of “immigrants,” for those who have found a new spiritual home. Yet the common themes of holding a “post-Christian spirituality” (most reject the New Age label), stressing a rejection of external authority and identifying the sacred with oneself and personal well-being, rejection of exclusivism, and the belief in a mystical core of all religions, marks many of the SBNR. Mercadante concludes that the SBNR seek a sense of community and social activism but their lack of structures may not be enough to give such efforts much longevity.