This week the center of our studies was on ethnographies. Ethnographies are interesting to me because, while I believe they can sometimes provide highly valuable insight in ways that other forms of research can’t, they are also very subjective and extremely sensitive. It is extremely difficult for someone to observe a culture that is not their own, for someone to come in as an outsider and expect to make accurate conclusions about what a group of people is like without a deep understanding. While it is true that indigenous studies have biases of their own because it is often difficult for people who live within a culture to examine their culture from an outside perspective, cross-cultural studies pose equally difficult challenges and have just as many biases because they often misinterpret or do not accurately convey the complexities of the the culture it is trying to examine. It is commonly believed that enthotheories provide a more objectionable perspective of a culture, but this is not true because ethnographies are reliant on the perspective of the observer, and everyone’s perspective is objective. Therefore, perhaps the most accurate way to make any conclusion about cross-cultural studies is to look at a variety of perspectives. This was something that was discussed in the lecture that I found very valuable. The more voices and perspectives that are included in the discussion, the better and clearer the picture becomes. When all people are invited to the discussion we get a more well-rounded, complete understanding of what is being examined. That is why diversity of thought is so important.
McGuire names four “narratives” that dominate the sociology of religion and that paint a fundamentally different picture of religion’s place in the modern world. These are: secularization, reorganization, individualization, and supply-side market analysis. She is careful to purposely call these narratives because, while each theory is based in evidence and data, data does not have meaning until a person derives meaning from it. Each narrative is a different interpretation of the same observations about the apparent decline of religious attendance in modern society.
Secularization posits that as the separation between church and state widened, subscribing to religion became something that was no longer “mandated,” but was rather a choice, and this led to more and more people choosing to be secular. Reorganization posits that there has not been a steep decline in religiosity, but rather, people are are reorganizing into smaller, more private places of worship. Individualization posits that the shift in religious attendance is due to more people treating religion as a more individual affair rather than a communal one, and are opting to practice religion in ways tailored to their individual lifestyles. The supply-side market analysis views religion like a business and posits that changes in religiosity are normal fluctuations.
In my opinion, I think that each perspective has valid points. I think some of them could even build upon each other. But, if I had to choose one, individualization would probably be my favorite theory. This is only because I feel like I have personally witnessed this theory in action. From personal experience, I feel like more people are treating religion as an individual experience and favoring interpretations of religion that benefit them.
-Posting this late because I realized I had typed up my response, but it somehow stayed sitting in my drafts and was never actually posted.
This week our articles examined how congregations function as a source of community for their members. The article our group analyzed, titled “Reproducing Ethnicity,” specifically looked at how immigrants use religious congregations as a way to connect them to their home cultures while simultaneously helping them to adjust to their new culture. Because religion and culture are so closely entwined in many parts of the world, it is virtually impossible to separate one from the other. Being able to take part in the religion of one’s homeland even from far away is one way that immigrants are able to reproduce their heritage and pass on traditions to their children. By creating spaces where people can gather to celebrate their native languages, foods, and holidays, those cultural ties can be perpetuated.
While on one hand I can understand how church attendance is declining and why people are moving out of more organized places of worship, I also don’t think that they will ever completely disappear. I think the desire to believe, or to at least entertain the thought that there is something “greater” than us is something that is something that could be considered innate. Since the dawn of humankind people have practiced religion. Because we wield a complex consciousness that allows us to look critically at our place in the world and encourages us to ask questions about our purpose and the reason for our existence, I think religion will always be a part of the human experience and religious congregations will always provide a space for people to seek those answers together.
This week we participated in a jigsaw activity in which we were all responsible for teaching and learning from each other. I thought this was really awesome because I’ve learned about the jigsaw method of teaching from a Psychology of Prejudice class I took a few semesters ago, and how the method is supposed to encourage inclusivity and reduce prejudice by making students reliant on one another.
The articles that we were assigned intrigued me because, although many of them analyzed the same religious trends, they all had different conclusions to make about the role of religion in Western life. Some scholars claimed secularization is a myth, while others vehemently defended that secularization is the new reality. Some scholars believe that we are moving toward an era of extreme conservatism, while other scholars disagree. It just illustrates how data alone is not sufficient to make a conclusion; it is people who give data meaning, and people have different interpretations and perspectives, meaning there might not be one objective truth.
It was also interesting to hear how religiosity differs in Western countries; the general consensus seems to be that in religion is declining in Britain, but in America religion still plays a big role in people’s lives (even if it is less so than in the past). Knowing that both Britain and America were deeply religious a few hundred years ago, it makes me wonder how this shift occurred. What parts of history influenced each country to create this difference, and what are the potential implications for how this change affects policy making in each nation? One of the reasons why I value sociology so much is that we have the responsibility to connect the dots, to make educated inferences about the ramifications of different worlds trends, and we, as sociologists, can see changes in the worlds through a more analytical lens.
In chapter 8 of Mcguire’s book, there is discussion of how the role of religion in society has transformed over the decades. While some look to the role of religion in the past and view things such as the predominance of churches, higher church attendance, the prevalence of traditional religious values, and the bleeding of religion into political and social life as important pieces of religion’s “good old days,” it is argued in the book that there were also many downsides to the pervasiveness of religion in the past.
“That same firm sense of tradition and community, however, also gravely restricted individual freedom: Choices of marriage partners, occupations, leisure-time activities, and political options were all controlled, sometimes subtly and often overtly. The societies that so firmly supported traditional religion were generally authoritarian, patriarchal, highly stratified, and nondemocratic. Indeed, the very discovery of the individual, with emotional needs and human rights and prerogatives of choice, is a peculiarly modern feature of a society.” -McGuire, Meredith B.. Religion: The Social Context (Page 284)
This statement echoes some of the conclusions I drew from my sociology capstone last semester. My capstone focused on the transformation of American marriage and how definitions of modern marriage compare to those of the past. One of the conclusions I posited based off of my research is that that modern marriages in general tend to reap more emotional and psychological benefits than in the past. I believe the role of religion in society has a lot to do with this transformation. As marriage has become more about love and companionship than about creating a traditional family unit, and as people have become more and more accepting of flexible definitions of marriage as opposed to the strict definitions of marriage often enforced by churches, the institution has changed to greater benefit spouses.
The value of sociology is being able to see and make these connections. No social institution can exist without being influenced by other institutions, and it is interesting to see how the role of religion has affected other pieces of society.
As people were presenting on their congregation visits this week, it was interesting to see not only the variety of belief systems within the different churches, but also the variety of beliefs the people in our class had about their churches. It seems most people enjoyed their experiences, but some people described the congregations they had visited as “weird,” “strange,” or “crazy.” I think it’s important to remember to be careful with our words and recognize that just because something is different than what a person might be familiar with, doesn’t necessarily make it weird or bad. These evaluative statements suggest negative moral judgements that generalize and misunderstand other people’s perspectives.
What this made me think of was a reading we did for another class called, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” It reads like an ethnography of an anthropologist among a strange group of people who practice rituals such as keeping magical potions in a charm box on the wall which they believe they cannot live without, inserting a small bundle of hog hair into their mouths with a magical substance and then moving it around their mouths, and men scraping their faces while women bake their heads. Upon closer reading, ‘Nacirema’ is actually ‘America’ spelled backwards, and the rituals the author describes are routine activities of American daily life. The magical potions in a charm box are medicines in a medicine cabinet, the bundle of hog hair people put in their mouth with a magical substance is really a toothbrush and toothpaste (back when toothbrushes used to be made of hog hair), and the men scraping their faces while women bake their heads is meant to be men shaving their faces while women dry their hair at salons. The point of the article is to show how we should be careful when evaluating a culture that is not ours because we might be prone to exaggerate or misunderstand what is really happening. This same concept applies to our congregation visits. Especially since we are only visiting these churches one time, we really don’t have a full understanding about what is going on and we should be careful with our judgements.
This week we listened to presentations on a variety of different religions. What I found most interesting, which was a theme I connected back to the book our group will present on, is how there really is no one “right” way to participate in religion. Within every country, within every religious group, within every domination, within every place of worship, everyone is practicing a little bit differently. This is something that I have long pondered over.
The reason why I distanced myself from my childhood faith was I had a hard time grappling with the idea that a loving God could condemn good people to Hell for worshipping the wrong way (or not worshiping at all). As a child, I noticed the differences in the way people worshiped, even within my own church, and how easily people would condemn one another for the way they chose to practice their faith. It is even worse between denominations. One high-school friend of mine who went to Calvary Chapel told my Mormon friend she was going to Hell. As a Lutheran, I was told many times by Christians from other denominations and from Calvary Chapel (non-denominational) that I wasn’t a true Christian which never made sense to me, especially since Lutherans were pretty much the original protestants. My great uncle, a Baptist pastor, asked to pray over my dying Grandma, who was also Lutheran, to ask God to let her into Heaven because he didn’t believe she would go to Heaven because of her faith. This is why I distanced myself from religion. In my mind, we were all worshiping the same God, weren’t we? And even those who weren’t worshipping the same God, weren’t they also just trying their best to make sense of the afterlife? It has been interesting hearing about the different ways people learn and practice religion, and although I’m not sure what I believe about the afterlife, I feel confident that there is no one “right” way to Heaven/enlightenment/Nirvana/etc
In the last half of chapter 3, Chaves assets that while the number of Americans who identify as religious has gone down, the number of Americans who identify as “spiritual” has gone up. It’s interesting to see the stats on this because this is a sentiment that I can confirm I have heard often in my interpersonal interactions. The term “spiritual” seems ambiguous to me, and I’m not quite certain what people mean when they say it, but I would agree with Chaves’ generalization that the term spiritual, when used by people who don’t also identify as religious, seems to describe those people who may not participate in organized religion by going to church or practicing traditional religious customs, but that still believe in a higher power and practice their spirituality in different, non-traditional ways.
Chaves makes a remark in the last sentence of the chapter that I find highly insightful. Chaves claims, “The spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon…is best seen as one aspect of American’s overall softening involvement in religious tradition…and as a part and parcel of a growing skepticism in American society about the value of organizations and institutions in many spheres of life, including religion,” (page 40). He suggests that this growing demographic of spiritual non-religious people is a reflection of a shift in American society to de-emphazing the role and importance of institutions in regulating people’s lives, which I would for-see as having many interesting ramification for future generations if this trend continues. It seems to me that many young Americans are embracing a new society in which there is a higher tolerance for grey-areas, including in religion, and are re-defining what it means to be a spiritual person.
McGuire, in the opening chapters of our book, asks some interesting questions about religion and the way it transforms generationally and locationally. Though people may unite under the title of one faith such as Christian or Muslim or Jewish, there seems to be no one way to practice any religion. The way that religion is practice varies as much person-to-person as it does by age, class, location, period, etc. It seems to be that religion does not have a single purpose, and its function very much depends on the environment of the believer.
Of Black-American Muslims, McGuire asks,
“How does this religious commitment constitute a form of protest against the values and attitudes of the dominant US. culture? How does religion figure into racism and other intolerance in US. society?”
In modern American society, American Muslims who reveal their religious identities to the public are forced to practice their religion as a form of protest to combat Xenophobic norms. A person who openly practices Islam, who wears a hijab, sets time aside in their place of work to pray, or who unashamedly wears the crescent moon does so with the knowledge that there are many in America who will look down on their beliefs. For Black-Americans that practice Islam, it becomes even more complicated. A Black-American Muslim not only must face backlash against their religion, but against their race (as America has a long and pervasive history of racism that still persists). These identities are compounded, along with the social issues of racism and Xenophobia which will come to effect Black-American Muslim’s social, political, and socioeconomic lives.
The intersectionality of human identities comprise an important part of the way a person will be treated or fit into a society. It follows then that compounding a person’s religious identity on top of other ways they identify will have real-world ramifications for that person. As sociologists, we should look at how the function of religion varies from person-to-person and how it comes to effect people’s relationship with society.