01: Religious imagery, concepts and practices are often featured in online video gaming but only recently has this become a topic of study among religion scholars.
The current issue of the online Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (Vol 5, 2014) is devoted to religion in digital games, providing an interesting mix of case studies and more theoretical articles. In several of these games analyzed, such as World of BioWare’s Dragon Age and the Mass Effect, religion is a source of conflict and social disruption, and humanist alternatives are advanced. Others adapt traditional religious themes to digital games, including Fatima Postmortem, which has a Catholic Marian theme, and Journey, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s writings on myth.
This issue can be downloaded at: http://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/religions/issue/view/1449
02: The idea of sociology competing with or substituting for religion goes back with the discipline’s founding; August Comte sought to dethrone theology as the queen of the sciences and replace it with his new “science of society.”
In his unusual and controversial new book The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford, $24.95), University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith makes a similar argument, although more as a point of criticism and concern for the discipline’s future. His treatment of American sociology as a sacred and spiritual project is more in line with what today is called implicit religion—ideas, practices and movements that assume an overriding importance and source of meaning and values for their adherents. In the case of American sociology, it is the discipline’s amalgam of social justice concerns, push for emancipation and personal autonomy, and therapeutic mindset that comprises much of this sacred project.
He acknowledges but doesn’t completely answer the question that such ideologies are present in other disciplines as well. Smith examines popular textbooks, journal articles, and recent controversies, and pays special attention to the firestorm over the research of Mark Regnerus on same-sex families, that he sees as illustrating how these values are propagated, protected, and put into practice. Thus, attending sociology conferences is viewed as a “spiritual practice” that reinforces the plausibility of the spiritual project. He argues that explicit religion comes into the picture as the “true believers” in the project of American sociology often clash with traditional faiths and believers, including dissident sociologists, who stand in the way of realizing its progressive goals.
03: As its title indicates, Anthony J. Blasi’s Sociology of Religion in America (Brill, $141) looks at a particular corner of American sociology, but unlike Smith, at least historically speaking, he doesn’t see the discipline opposing or sidelining religion.
Blasi’s book is more the straight and painstaking history of the sociology of religion, focusing on the period from 1895 to the mid-1980s, but along the way the author discusses several long-range trends that still drive the specialization. Blasi finds that the rate of sociology dissertations dealing with religion did not decline. There has been a loss of confessional and denominational sponsorship of associations of sociology of religion—the prime example being the Catholic Sociological Society’s transition to the Association for the Sociology of Religion. But Blasi argues that this is not secularization; scholars are still showing a “secular fascination with religion,” as the book’s subtitle reads.
Blasi notes other interesting trends. The research institutes that were previously the hosts and planners behind many important surveys and other kinds of studies on religion have largely been defunded, although there are some exceptions among those that are connected with research universities, and these projects have been taken up by university sociology departments. The various journals carrying research on religion are actually more secure today than was the case two decades ago, largely because established publishing houses publish them.
04: Lynn Davidman’s 1991 study Tradition in a Rootless World was one of the first to examine the phenomenon of young secular Jews converting to traditional Orthodox groups, and now her new book Becoming Un-Orthodox (Oxford, $27.95) recounts ex-Hasidic Jews leaving the fold.
This reverse trend of de-conversion from Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Judaism has been the subject of several books in recent years, but Davidman provides a unique vantage point in her study. The process that she saw secular people engaging in as they shed their independent and worldly identities to embrace Orthodoxy is now portrayed in reverse, such defectors are literally reinventing themselves as they leave the only communities they have known. Davidman interviewed 40 ex-Hasidic Jews who have left their communities for many different reasons—from family conflicts to cases of abuse and religious alienation.
Davidman pays special attention to the way these ex-Hasidic individuals had to unlearn habits and ways of dealing with issues of the body, especially in adopting a more fluid, individualized appearance in contrast to their more disciplined and tradition-based appearance that they were socialized into. Although, eating habits tended to be retained long after they had de-converted (even if breaking with the kosher diet was their “first transgression” out of Hasidism). This emphasis on the body in “shaping, maintaining, and shedding religious…identities,” is compelling, because Hasidic defection is accomplished more through ceasing to participate in ritual actions than by declarations of unbelief.
05: While the “crises” in the new book Religion in Times of Crisis (Brill, $127) tend to mean a lot of things, the collection of studies do document and analyze important trends in global religion.
The first part of the book, edited by Gladys Ganiel, Heidemarie Winkel, and Christopher Monnot, looks at the “crises” of modernity, ranging from the dislocations of globalization, immigrant alienation and economic downturns. Especially interesting is the chapter on the popular Hillsong movement and the way it brands its distinctive music for a global evangelical market, even while different churches (such as Anglicans) adapt the songs for their own purposes.
A chapter on Internet use by Catholics in Poland shows how the online medium allows for greater deliberation on church teachings and pluralism of thought while providing a sense of community and a sharing of ideas and advice that has become rare in Polish parish life. Another contribution looks at the way immigrant parishes have ministered to the many newcomers in Dublin, providing vitality to greatly diminished Catholics.
The second half of the book examines crises of the nation-state, leading with a chapter on the Zimbabwean political crisis since 2000, and how an ecumenical coalition of Pentecostal and mainline churches has been more effective in such a situation than established church structures.