Today, when I logged onto social media or went for lunch in the Plaza, the news of the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral was everywhere. Although I am not Catholic, I’ve been thinking about it all day, and as it’s been tugging at my heartstrings, I felt compelled to write about it in my blog.
As we’ve gone through the semester and studied the impact of religion on society, I feel that this devastating event has illustrated some of the things we have learned. I’ve seen people of all faiths post how saddened they are by this loss of our collective history. I’ve read about crowds of people who gathered outside of the Cathedral and mourned the loss of it together, hugging one another and singing hymns. The original Cathedral was built some 800 years ago, and it has since become one of the most important landmarks, not only in France, but to the Catholic faith in general. It contains many relics and many still attend mass there. It has been a place of worship for many generations, and it is considered an important part of religious and human history, especially for Catholics, but seemingly for all Christians. It represents past and current religious/spiritual experience and ritual, and contains relics which are sacred to the Christian story, belief, and history.
Unfortunate as this tragedy is, it just goes to show how it can bring people together. It has illustrated to me the communal aspect of religion and how it functions in society to allow for shared experiences, past and present. The Notre Dame Cathedral represents this community, faith, and shared experience that religion has allowed for hundreds of years (and beyond that- thousands, millions maybe). It allows us to not only continue to share these feelings and experiences with those currently around us, but it gives us a way to connect with our ancestors.
This Sunday my partner and I attended the Hope Center, which is a Pentecostal congregation. I went in not knowing what to expect as I had never been inside a Pentecostal Church, and I knew very little of the religion other than what I have seen in Hollywood movies. The first thing I noticed was how welcoming everyone was. As soon as Claire and I walked in, we were greeted and welcomed. We were given little slips of paper to fill out and then given a pamphlet of upcoming events. After we went down and took our seats, the reverend came up and talked to us after he noticed we were students. He welcomed us as well and said he hoped we would return.
The very first thing that happened as the service started was singing; there was a lot of it! The music was definitely a main part of the service, and it lasted for about an hour. The whole first half consisted of the choir singing songs which revolved heavily around the Lord and forgiveness of sin. A couple of the singers were very highly enthusiastic, and a few were clearly having very intense spiritual experiences through the music. The congregants were clapping their hands, raising their arms, and jumping around. This was like no other church experience I have ever had. It really did feel like I was at some kind of rally or concert. After the singing portion, the reverend started his sermon. At first, it simply consisted of reading from the Bible. However, before long, he was yelling and red in the face. Some of the congregants and other religious officials would periodically yell out “yes!” in agreement to his statements. During the sermon, a few people started speaking in words I couldn’t make out; I then realized they were speaking in Tongues.
What I noticed about this particular congregation was the intensity of the religious experience. Although the message didn’t quite reach me and I didn’t feel the same sense of spirituality that those around me felt, it was obvious that many shared a very intense spiritual experience. This experience was achieved and shared through song, scripture, and stories. I did not observe much in the way of ritual, although they did talk of baptism. The main message was of salvation through Christ, and repentance of sin.
This week, I read the jigsaw article From Community to Heart by Caitlin Killian. She conducted interviews with first- and second-generation French Muslims from North Africa. She observed the differences in attitudes regarding the secularization in France. Not only is religion expected to be private, but religious symbols, including the wearing of the headscarf, were banned from public institutions in 2003. A majority of those interviewed accommodated to expected private practice in France, even if they did not agree with the ban. They have adapted their religion in order to make it more compatible with their secular society.
Killian mentions the terms “positive” versus “negative secularism”. She suggests these terms as a way of explaining the difference between secularization, or separation of church and state, in the United States and France. While the United States government, according to the Constitution, cannot favor any specific religion and must allow freedom of religious expression, the French government has banned public religious expression altogether. In this way, French society has adopted positive secularism, while American society has adopted negative secularism.
Despite the ban on religious symbolism in the public sphere, the French culture is still centered around Catholicism, and the Christian calendar is observed. Younger, second-generation Muslims have taken notice of this and view it as a sign of discrimination against their culture and religious expression. While the covering of the head is an important aspect of Muslim faith, wearing the cross is not essential to Christian belief. Therefor, not adorning a cross won’t make someone look any less of a Christian, while not wearing a headscarf may leave a Muslim woman vulnerable to accusations of not being a good Muslim. This has posed a dilemma for some French Muslims- should they be a good French citizen at the expense of their religious identity, or should they be a good Muslim with the risk of being shunned by the larger society?
My jigsaw reading for this week was Understanding Fundamentalism by Antoun. I really enjoyed this reading and it indeed helped me to not only understand fundamentalism, but it helped me understand fundamentalists. I attempt to see things from the point of view of others, but I sometimes simply just don’t understand why people think or feel a certain way. It seems that Antoun went further into explaining the secularization our society is currently undergoing in order for the reader to better understand why some people fear and/or oppose it. Essentially, what he was saying is that our focus has shifted from relationships, religion, and human morality to production/work/technology, big government and corporations, and money. These modern aspects of society are viewed as most important in ensuring the success of our country and overall well-being, and going along with it is a measure of national loyalty. Antoun has termed this “secualar nationalism”.
Obviously, some see this move away from tradition as an indication that people are losing their morals and will sacrifice what is right for personal gain. I see both sides of the debate. While it’s no secret or surprise that our society is rapidly changing, especially technologically, have we indeed become increasingly selfish? Perhaps in some respects. However, although fundamentalists reject the concept of pluralism and globalization, they are very real consequences of the increase in technology. That being said, I think the move away from tradition and the need for increased acceptance of other viewpoints isn’t all that bad. In fact, I think it may be used as a defense mechanism. Since we can now connect with people all over the world, if we were always worried about worldviews which don’t align with our own and what that may mean for the individual, we would probably all have incredibly high anxiety. I can understand the fear that we are living too much for material possession and personal gain and what that may be doing to our psyche. However, it does seem that to a degree, we may be forced to “go with the flow” or “move with the times”. Maybe the increased privatization of religion in our society is simply the way in which we’ve attempted to balance this need for tradition and the need for modernization.
In chapter 8 of McGuire’s book, she explains the different theories which sociologists have proposed to answer the question of how religion has changed in the United States and how it may change in the future. The first of these theories is secularization, which suggests that we no longer live in a society dominated by religion. Reasons which have been given for this shift include differentiation, societalization, and privatization. Institutional differentiation and societalization essentially suggest that we live in a a corporate society which is made up of many large-scale institutions and corporations. Government institutions such as welfare offices have now replaced small church organizations; people look to religion less and less to solve their problems. Privatization suggests that religion plays much less of a role in an individual’s social life. Instead, it is seen as a private aspect of life, and many are against religion playing a role in public policy and government. I wondered why McGuire proposed this reasoning for why Americans may now be less religious, considering she admits that this explanation doesn’t necessarily suggest that people are against religion or are less religious. Instead, it simply suggests that they may not make it as central to certain aspects of their lives, and they view it as a separate and private role. Privatization strikes me as being one of the central concepts in Ammerman’s “Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes” book that my group and I conducted our presentation on. While she seemed to suggest that the American people have become more private in their religious life, and are less willing to accept every part of one religion, she does not suggest that Americans are less religious. Instead, she observed that many of the people she interviewed did in fact find religion to play an important role in their lives; the role was more private and tended to be separate from their political and social lives, although it did seep in at times.
In the last few chapters of Chaves’ book, he summarizes the changes and fluctuations which have been observed in American Religion in the past few decades. One of these major changes has been the steady increase and stabilization of practicing Conservative Evangelical Protestants versus the decrease of practicing Liberal Mainline Protestants. He discusses how Conservative Protestants are becoming more conservative, and Liberal Protestants are becoming either less religious/unaffiliated or moving to more Conservative Churches later in life. He also points out though, that Americans seem to be, overall, becoming more liberal. Although the more liberal stance on social and political issues has been increasing much more slowly among those who are more religiously and politically conservative, it is still happening. For example, even among conservative congregations, homosexuality has become more acceptable and tolerated.
Chaves discusses the increasing polarization among religiously/politically liberal and conservative individuals, providing evidence that division among them has increased since the 1970’s. I found it somewhat striking that despite America’s trend toward more liberal views, the Conservative Christian Church seems to be growing, or at least staying steady. When I was reading this, my mind went back to chapter two of McGuire’s book when she mentions the term, “anomie”. If a Conservative Congregation feels pressured to conform to social norms, even if they go against the Church’s teachings, they may feel that their morals are being threatened. This can potentially increase secularization within the church or, at the very least, push the congregants to hold tighter to their beliefs and follow them more strictly.
When Chaves mentioned that the term “Christian” has come to denote the Evangelical Protestant, it finally gave me a potential answer as to why I have come to be an adult who no longer feels she can call herself a Christian. Politically, I consider myself to be “left of center” and I typically lean more toward the Democratic political party. I also found it interesting when Chaves stated that the largest group of Mainline Protestants are Methodists, as I went to a Methodist Church as a kid. It appears I would be one of the many Americans who have moved from a more liberal religious stance to being religiously unaffiliated.
Last week, everyone did their presentations on their congregation visits, and it was really interesting to see the differences among them. My partner and I attended a Catholic Church, and I would consider it highly ritualistic and formal, especially in comparison to some of the Protestant congregations the other groups visited. The traditional church we visited was a far cry from the more “secularized” churches which implement a concert-like feel. The social component seemed to be missing from the congregation we visited, and while there was a togetherness in the sense that everyone was there for one purpose, it was very individualistic. There was not a whole lot of mingling, and each individual was there simply to worship and pray. While the dress was less formal than I assumed it would be, it was definitely not as informal as some of the Protestant churches described, specifically the Priest’s dress. Not only is the Priest dressed formally, he wears symbolic vestments. When we went, it was green, which symbolizes the Spring season of rebirth and hope.
The Protestant Churches I attended as a child were, while similar in some respects, quite different from the Catholic one. The Pastor would often talk about his own life in relation to the Gospel, and that was absent in the Priest’s sermon. The churches were typically very small and everyone knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood. The biggest difference I noticed was Communion. Although a sacred event in the Christian Church, it is much less formal in the Protestant Church. I can remember a man simply bringing the plates around and handing each person a small cup of juice and a cracker. I’m looking forward to going to a sectarian congregation. It may be uncomfortable, but I’m excited to go and learn about another congregation, and see how it differs from those we’ve already learned about.
This week my group and I conducted our presentation over our book, “Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes”. I enjoyed the questions we were asked and the comments that were made as they helped to clear things up in my own mind. I think the main point Ammerman may have been attempting to make is that even though people may be practicing in different ways, and not as many people are worshiping within the four walls of a congregation anymore, religion is still very much alive in the culture we live in today. She found that not many of her participants seemed to actually be “spiritual but not religious”. Although many people made that distinction, there is commonly a connection between spirituality and religion. That is, most people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” may in fact be both; these phenomena are often interconnected, spirituality stemming from religion. Ammerman’s goal for her research was to figure out the reasoning behind why people are denouncing religion and distinguishing themselves from it. She found that some people mistrust the institutions in which religion is associated- that is, they do not agree with all of the teachings of the church. Some may be afraid to associate with religion because the changes in society are sometimes at odds with the traditional teachings of the church. I’m sure some people are afraid of being considered intolerant or bigoted.
I personally feel that this is very likely a reason behind why I have considered myself to be “spiritual but not religious”. I think this class is making me realize that I am one of many of us who may actually be both. While I don’t agree with everything I was taught at church, I still find religion to be important in my life. This world is not black and white, and we have to make sense of it the best we can. I think religion has acted as a way for us to conceptualize what is right and what is wrong- our “moral compass” if you will. As these ideas of right versus wrong change, should religious institutions also change?
As I was reading chapter 4 of McGuire’s book, I was drawing a few parallels to the book my group has been reading, “Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes”. The participants in Ammerman’s study vary from religious to nonreligious, religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, both, or neither. I think that overall, Ammerman’s research showed that religion has become more and more individualistic in American society, which may be the reason for the rise in those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”. Sure, those who are religious may feel a strong sense of connection to their congregation/community, but even among the most religious, each individual expresses his/her religiosity in different ways outside of the congregation. It is also apparent that of those who are affiliated with a certain religious group, they have become increasingly likely to disagree with certain teachings, and they are increasingly likely to admit to it. McGuire discusses how the religious institution will hold a model of the individual and the socialization the person must be exposed to in order to be considered a part of the organization. Conformity to this model has been changing; it seems that, overall, people have been conforming less. It would make sense that the less a person conforms to this model of his/her religion, the more he/she may wish to identify as “spiritual but not religious”.
I believe that this is exactly what happened in my own life. I used to be religious and attend church regularly. I also read the Bible, prayed daily, and pretty much accepted all the rules and beliefs of the church. However, as I got older, I stopped going to church, prayed and read the Bible less, and questioned the teachings of the church more. Since I did this, I thought of myself as no longer being able to call myself a Christian because I no longer conformed to the model of what it means to be one. I really enjoyed reading this chapter because I feel like McGuire described my own experience to me in a way which I haven’t been able to. It now makes perfect sense as to why I have become one of the many Americans who claim to be “spiritual but not religious”.
I was really intrigued by the paragraph McGuire wrote on religious extremism on page 184. She suggests that the changes in modern society has essentially bred this extreme stance. She mentions the “New Christian Right” and the role of sectarian religion in politics, and I realized that this may be true of our current political climate now more than it ever has been. McGuire explains how a religious group may feel forced into becoming increasingly sectarian in response to changes in society. As many in the United States move toward more progressive ideals, Conservative “right wing” politicians attempt to ensure the country stays “traditional”. I trace this back to chapter 3, where McGuire brings up the concept of “anomie”. Members of the Christian Right likely view the trend toward liberal attitudes on topics such as abortion and legalization of gay marriage as a crisis in the morality of the American populace. It seems that our current president was a perfect candidate for many members of the Christian Right, saying things like “I am the law and order candidate” during his campaign.
In chapter 2 of his book, Mark Chaves goes into more detail on the religious right’s influence on American politics. He suggests that the greatest reason behind the decline in those who identify as religious is due to this influence. He essentially states that this involvement in politics has turned many liberal/moderate members of the church away, and the increasingly progressive attitude of the American people has made them less likely to want to affiliate with religion. It might be fair to assume that this decline in religiosity further lends to the Christian Right’s feeling that the country is in a state of anomie, or lack of moral order. To combat this, they will either have to become more denominational, or they will have to become more sectarian. However, the more sectarian the religious right becomes, I suspect it may have the opposite effect and even more people will becomes less religious. Perhaps this is why our forefathers warned us about keeping religion separate from politics; so that this type of conflict could be avoided.