On Thursday we heard the presentations of the second round of congregation visits. This time, what stood out to me were the different points focused on between class members who visited the same congregation as well as in general the different aspects of congregations that were focused on among all the presentations. This just goes to show how in sociology who is asking the questions and what questions they are asking shape their observations/ study. Members of our class all come from different backgrounds and experiences. In our congregation visits, we naturally focused on what stood out to us- which varied and in a way can reflect who we are. It is interesting to me that in sociology and anthropology who is doing the research is relevant and says something about their findings. As much as we can try to remove our biases, it goes beyond that. The questions we choose to ask, our position in the group we are observing, etc. all affect our study.
This week I conducted my religious specialist interview. It was fascinating to talk to a religious leader who I had watched lead a service that previous Sunday. I had made some assumptions based on the service and it was interesting to see what I was right/ wrong about by asking questions that prompted explanations. Through the interview, it also became apparent that there are so many things about a congregation that cannot be uncovered only from observation. Even if I had attended service every Sunday for a long period of time, there are some things that you could only learn through conducting an interview/ asking questions. After completing and then reviewing the interview, I noticed that my more specific questions prompted longer and better responses. If I could change anything about the interview, I would come prepared with more specific questions and less broad questions. I also realized that after I asked a few of my questions, I followed with giving examples of how they could answer. Although my intention was helping them to understand what I meant by my question, this is probably not the best practice because I could be affecting how they answer the question. Overall, I think this was a really helpful glimpse into the research process and into some important things that need to be considered throughout.
This past Sunday I visited the Redlands United Church of Christ as my second congregation visit. I am always nervous before entering religious settings, but I immediately felt comfortable and welcome at this church. The service was led by a female pastor- which in my admittedly limited religious experience I have never encountered before. She talked about the Transgender Day of Visibility as well as about toxic masculinity versus divine masculinity. After the scripture reading, she referenced the story by having different songs played that she said would have been the theme songs for different characters. Also accompanying the talk about the Scripture, a painting by Rembrandt was projected onto the walls and there was some time spent analyzing. Media was again incorporated with the playing of Gillette’s commercial on toxic masculinity. I thought that all of the media/ technological incorporations in the service were well suited and helpful supplements. They were engaging and entertaining. What was striking to me was that I was only there to observe for a class, yet the service made me emotional and entertained me. Although I’m not religious, I feel I was able to get something out of attending and would not be opposed to returning. My own experience at this church made me think about how personal the experience of attending church is for every person. How many other people in the pews that day were not sure of their belief in God but attended anyways because they could get something else out of it? This goes to support the idea that the number of people in the pews does not tell you much about American religiosity.
For the first jigsaw assignment I read Unsecular America by Roger Finke. Finke examines the different claims of the secularization theory and offers counter evidence. He states that church adherence rates have remained stable throughout the 20th century. In America, adherence rates are higher in urban areas and are influenced positively by diversity. The fastest growing denominations believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and are strict with their members. Finke highlights that while the modernization equals secularization model may apply to some European countries, it does not hold true in America . He suggests that this may be because America has traditionally separated church and state while many European countries have long intertwined the two. In countries such as the UK, religion is more heavily regulated and it would be harder for smaller religious groups to start up. It’s much easier to start a religious group in America which leads to greater diversity in religion, which as Finke believes, positively impacts adherence rates.
When reading a scholarly article, especially on a topic I don’t know a lot about, I often believe what the author says without much question. Hearing all of the other groups present their articles in class, and realizing many conflicted with what Finke says in Unsecular America, made me question what to believe. I think the last group’s presentation on their article, which pushed for there not being one right answer and that many things were at play, helped tie the conflicting views together.
Reading about the different religious narratives helped me to tie together a lot that we have learned in the course so far. I realized why it was somewhat difficult for me to summarize what I have learned- because the same data can be interpreted in so many different ways. The narratives of secularization, conservative resurgence, religions as local communities, increased individualism, religious markets, and globalization all have some validity to me and that is difficult for me to wrap my head around. All of these narratives invite support and critique, and there is no way that one can ever be proved the “correct” narrative.
This week in my theory class we read Michel Foucault and his thoughts on discourse seemed relevant to the debates between the different religious narratives. Discourse shapes and defines our reality and ideas. There is nothing pre-existing being discovered though discourse, but it is created through power and knowledge. When reading about the different religious narratives, I thought about how no one discovers some pre-existing truth and there are only interpretations of data. This also made me think of social construction and how scholars construct the reality of religious trends, and because they are constructions none can be classified as “true”.
Before break, we watched a film about a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. It was shocking to me how much church was involved in their everyday lives. The pastor inserted himself into the relationships of his attendees as well as into the education of their children. One of the people focused on by the film was a man whose brother wanted him to become born again. The man had been going through a tough time, especially with his marriage. His brother had also gone through marriage troubles, but tried to convince his brother that becoming born again would save him. The man clearly was very torn, because he did not feel like he was in place where he was ready. During a “discussion”, his brother and other members of the church tried their best to convince him to accept, making the man extremely emotional. It was an intimate moment that I’m surprised happened while a camera crew was in the room.
Throughout this course I have tried to remain objective and not pass judgements based on my own feelings. However, following the story of the woman who was not able to see her children because she was living with another man and would not accept the faith was emotional to watch. Her ex was clearly abusive towards her and the kids, but she was made out to be the “bad guy” but her ex and the pastor at the church because she was not going to church and was living in sin. Although I have no actual way of knowing, I was of the feeling that her ex was using religion as an excuse to punish her for leaving him. No matter his motivations, it was frustrating to also see the pastor try to convince her to return to her previous relationship. Overall, this documentary opened my eyes to how all encompassing religion is for some.
I really enjoyed listening to everyone’s congregation visits this week. It was striking to me how different everyone’s experiences were. While I found some similarities in my visit with others, I felt like there were definitely more differences. I visited the Center for Spiritual Living and so I felt their beliefs were very different from most being presented in class. It made me wonder what brought the attendees at the Center for Spiritual Living to that space, since I assume most were not born into that belief system. It also made me wonder about the congregations other class members visited, and which ones had more people who were born into their religion. Did members at the CSL once attend different services in Redlands? I think each presentation group succeeded in giving a “feel” for the congregation they visited that made it easy for me to differentiate between them. For a long time I thought of churches as all being basically the same, and the different groups helped me to further understand many of the ways they are all different. Since we were all outsiders visiting the congregations, I was really interested to see how our class members were treated during their visits. Some were immediately welcomed and engaged in conversations, while others were not paid much attention to.
This Sunday I visited the Center for Spiritual Living. I was very nervous about attending, as I had never been to a religious service before. It was a small gathering but immediately I felt very welcomed. Previous to the main service there had been a meditation group and when I entered people were in the back talking and drinking coffee and tea. For seating, there was an option to sit at one of the several tables or in the pews that were on either side of the room. I decided to sit in one of the pews. Many songs were sung, some the whole congregation sang together and instruments were distributed. The service felt very joyous, there was a lot of dancing and laughter. There were about 20-25 people in attendance. Most were 60+ and there were two little kids. Overall, this was a very different experience for me and I was glad to have visited a religious service. It was also interesting to consider the questions provided on the observation guide while in attendance. The whole time I was there I was concerned about finding answers to these questions in addition to doing my best to be respectful as a visitor. I was definitely taken out of my comfort zone which added another challenge to this assignment.
The case study I read was Passionate Journeys by Marion Goldman. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and was moved by the stories of the women who decided to devote their lives to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. I had never heard of Rajneeshpuram or sanyassins before reading this book. Goldman tells the life stories of 3 women, although each composite is made up of multiple women. This was something that was difficult for me to wrap my head around, because Goldman was so descriptive of each of their lives. After reading the book, I google searched to discover more about Bhagwan’s movement. Many of the articles had titles like “Crazy Stories from Inside Oregon’s Sex Cult”. After reading Goldman’s book and understanding the stories of some of the women who were a part of this movement, to see it reduced to a sex cult was very jarring. In each of the women, I saw parts of myself and of others I know. Part of Goldman’s message in this book was to show that the decisions and commitments these women made were not so different or crazy compared to decisions we make all the time. Each women always felt like they were missing something and seeking for something more, and none of them were satisfied until they discovered the Rajneesh movement. These women were smart and successful, and ended up on the path they did due to a mixture of things internal and external. It is easy to look at pictures of Rajneeshpuram where devotees are wearing all orange, and headlines reducing the movement to a sex cult, and believe that all who joined must have been crazy, irrational, etc. But when reading the stories of the women and recognizing how intelligent and analytical about their choices they were, and also seeing how their life played out, their decisions seemed to make sense. I appreciated how Goldman used the stories of successful female sanyassins to ask general questions about women in America and their searches for fulfillment.
This week we read about religious involvement in America. This chapter made me think about the future of religion in our country. Chaves states that less children today are raised in religiously active households, and religious involvement as a child is one of the biggest predictors for religious involvement as an adult. Most of my friends/ peers would not describe themselves as religious and if they did, most would not be able to say they are religiously involved. However, I know that for my age group it is typical for religion not to be a big part of our lives, and I also know that many of my peers were religiously involved as children. It makes me wonder how many people I know now who brush off religion will again become religiously involved as adults. I also wonder the reasons as to why people who stray from religious involvement come back to it. It was also interesting to me when Chaves explained how although elderly people are considered a highly religiously involved group, these are also people who were raised in religiously involved households. When the elderly group one day consists of people who were not raised religiously involved, will they still be a highly religiously involved group?