Monday, April 27, 2009

Pew Forum and Religious Shopping

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life just released their new report on religious affiliation, disaffiliation, and religious reaffiliation, or the process of "religious switching". The report is titled "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.," and is a follow up and expansion to the the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, also from Pew, which was released in 2008. The survey looks primarily at the religious switching of Protestants and Catholics and excludes respondents from certain traditions, including "other Christian," "other world religions," and "other faiths."

Overall the survey finds that "Americans change religious affiliation early and often." Some of the highlights related to this process include the following:

* Most switching occurs at an early age, usually by the age of 24. In addition, the level of religious devotion in childhood also impacts religious switching later in adult life.

* The “unaffiliated” category is an interesting one which deserves further and more nuanced analysis. It has seen a net gain in growth as one-quarter of those who change religious affiliation end up in this category. Those in this category cite disenchantment with traditional organized religion and their members as a primary reason for disaffiliation. Even so, they retain certain beliefs imparted by those institutions and may be understood as "believers but not belongers" as they have been referred to in other academic studies. The Pew Report indicates that 16 percent of the overall population falls under the unaffiliated category.

The survey also mentions great diversity in the unaffiliated group. "Not all those who are unaffiliated lack spiritual beliefs or religious behaviors..." This diversity and the presence of beliefs within the unaffiliated category may be paralleled in other surveys in the category of "None" stated as the preference for religious affiliation.

In terms of the propensity toward religious change in America the survey states that "previous estimates actually may have understated the amount of religious change taking place in the U.S.". It also reports that both former Protestants and Catholics report leaving "their former religion because they stopped believing in its teachings." These two areas will need to be examined carefully by scholars who interpret the survey results as they need to be harmonized with the results of previous sociological studies on religious affiliation and reaffiliation. For example, scholars such as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have stated that:
"Even in the extremely diverse, unregulated, and very competitive American religious economy, most people remain within the religious organization into which they were born, and most of those who do shift from one organization to another remain within the religious traditions into which they were born - even including conversions across the Christian-Jewish divide, fewer than 1 percent of Americans convert." (emphasis mine; Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion [University of California Press, 2000], 115.)
Stark and Finke also note that converts tend to explain their conversion due to the attraction of "particular new doctrines", however "conversion is seldom about seeking or embracing an ideology." Social scientific studies indicate that converts have a tendency to reinterpret their experience post-conversion in terms of doctrinal reasons, and while beliefs certain play a part in religious affiliation, social networks may play a greater role.

The Pew Forum Survey reveals the continuously changing nature of religious dynamics in the United States, and the significance of the issues related to identifying and interpreting religious affiliation, disaffiliation, and reaffiliation.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Christian Research Journal - Burning Obsession: Examining Postmodern Spirituality at Burning Man

At least a year ago I was interviewed by Steve Rabey, a freelance writer who was researching Burning Man Festival for an article in Christian Research Journal. After a while I was wondering if the piece would ever be published, and since that time I have written critically of two articles in the Journal, including an article on evangelical-Mormon dialogue, and most recently an article on cyberspace. These critical posts of mine made me wonder whether the editor of the Journal would be comfortable incorporating my research and conclusions on Burning Man in their publication.

Yesterday during my time at Barnes & Noble I received a pleasant surprise at the magazine rack with Christian Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 01 (2009) with the article "Burning Obsession: Examining Postmodern Spirituality at Burning Man" found on pages 20-29. The article provides a good and balanced description of Burning Man, and it references my M.A. thesis on the alternative cultural event. The article also includes a few quotations from me given during my interview with Rabey. Overall I am pleased with how this article was done in a conservative evangelical journal devoted in part to apologetic interaction with aspects of contemporary culture.

For those interested in reading my thesis, "Burning Man Festival as Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom 'Middle Way'", it has now been published through Lambert Academic Publishing as a pricey academic title available through Amazon at this link. Readers might also benefit from an interview I gave with Ian Mobsby on this topic.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rethinking the Sacred and Profane

Yet another article from religion dispatches was of interest, this one touching on the concepts of and boundaries between the sacred and profane. In "Sacred & Profane: From Bono to to the Jedi Police - Who Needs God?", Gary Laderman looks at a recent opinion piece written by Bono, and recent affiliations with the spirituality of Jediism, as he rethinks not only the concepts of sacred and profane, but also the new ways in which the spiritual quest is being understood in the church and outside of it.

Laderman's article begins with consideration of Bono's recent opinion piece wherein he praises the charitable works of those who are not Christians, a work which Bono describes as "soul music." The article continues with a description of how this is defined by Bono as a "way to capture, metaphorically, a sacred stance and engagement in the world emanating not from the usual, institutional sites, but from prison cells and investment firms."

The second part of the article addresses a phenomenon of great interest to me, that of hyper-real spiritualities, those new expressions of the spiritual quest that draw from the well of popular culture, particularly from the fantastic in literature, film, and television in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Laderman describes a BBC news story that describes the hyper-real spirituality of Jediism shaped by the Star Wars films:

"In the largest police force in Scotland, eight police officers recently listed their religion as 'Jedi' on the voluntary diversity forms they were required to fill out. In the words of one reviewer: 'Far from living a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, some members of the noble Jedi order have now chosen Glasgow and its surrounding streets as their home.'

"The BBC reports the rather astronomical-sounding numbers from a recent census of England and Wales indicating that 390,000 identify themselves with the Jedi religion, and nearly 14,000 who claim allegiance to the Jedi Force in Wales. But even more tellingly, we learn that the Office of National Statistics there does not recognize the religion separately, so followers were bunched under the 'atheist' category (which is, after all, fitting since there is no deity in the Star Wars cosmology)."

Two aspects of the story on Jediism are of special interest to me as a theologian and missiologist specializing in popular culture and practical theology. First, popular culture must be recognzed as a significant source and reservoir for the formation of the spiritual quest of increasing numbers of people. Second, our religious survey work and the interpretation thereof needs to be done carefully so that the broad categories of surveys as well as respondent self-definitions are properly understood. A recent ARIS survey indicated an increase in the number of those who claim atheism or affiliation with no religion, but this may not necessarily mean an increase in the number of atheists or agnostics. As the rise of those expressing an interest in Jediism who were put under the category of atheism indicates, surveys may be more accurately interpreted as indicating the decline of traditional and institutional religions which still form the backdrop and assumptions of many surveys, and a shift to non-traditional expressions of spirituality such as Jediism where no appropriate categories currently exist in surveys for proper classification.

In the conclusion of his article Laderman states:

"I can hear my New Testament and Systematic Theologian colleagues reading this with skepticism if not disgust—and indeed I’ve encountered these kinds of reactions in public forums. 'Surely anyone identifying their religion as Jedi is just being silly,' they say. Or 'How do you know this is genuine religion and not just some passing fancy?' I imagine after the death of Christ members of the early Christian community may have faced the same kind of incredulity and disdain.

"My response: Welcome to the twenty-first century, when sacred matters are not limited to the monotheists, or confined by conventional religious traditions. Bono and Warren Buffet, Master Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi are legitimate guiding religious lights whose words and actions stir the imagination and rally the faithful in ways those of us who study religion are only beginning to understand."

To these concluding thoughts of Laderman I add my hearty agreement. One person's "fringe religion" is another person's sacred pathway, and these new forms of spirituality must be taken just as seriously by theologians as more mainstream, traditional, and familiar forms of religion and spirituality. Welcome to the twenty-first century Western world and its new forms of the sacred.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Eric Reitan: Is God a Delusion?

I don't normally deal with issues related to atheism on this blog because the focus is on varieties of belief and engagement between adherents of these belief and ritual systems, but a recent couple of articles at religion dispatches caught my eye for a few reasons.

An article touches on the "new atheism," that brand of very vocal atheism now found in various expressions in pop culture, particularly through authors like Richard Dawkins. Eric Reitan is the author of Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers (Wiley-Blackwell, 208) and in an interview at religion dispatches he makes a few points that demonstrate problems on both sides of belief and disbelief. For example, his research into the misrepresentation of Thomas Aquinas' arguments for God's existence by Richard Dawkins, and the development of his arguments for atheism from these misrepresentations, led him to the writing of his book. Interestingly, Reitan points out that both Christians and atheists frequently allege that the natural result of either atheism or theism is immorality and irrationality. Reitan is careful to point out flaws in both sides of this debate, and he calls for representatives of these belief systems to move beyond this problematic rhetoric.

Reitan also reminds us that arguments for "a fundamentally mysterious reality beyond the empirical world" do not have to be all or nothing, either proving God's existence beyond a reasonable doubt or tossed aside as of no value. Reitan states that "Just because an argument doesn’t take us all the way to God doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to the case for theism." Christians, especially apologists, need this helpful reminder, along with a dose of epistemic and sociological humility in the process of developing arguments for theism.

Finally, in the interview Reitan mentions the influence of Marilyn McCord Adams through her book Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Adams develops the thesis that evil is central to Christian theology and that "incarnation and crucifixion as God’s solution to the problem." The title and topic are intriguing, and I've added it to my "to be purchased" list.

I applaud the efforts of writers like Reitan who seek to move representatives of belief and unbelief beyond the rhetoric which preaches to the choir so that individual constituencies can cheer for their heroes and takes us to more promising attempts at understanding and engagement.