This past week in class we heard students present about their visits to different congregations within the Redlands area. The diverse religious landscape found within such a small area will never cease to amaze me, and even the differences found within the vast array of congregations that fall under one major branch of religion. The majority of the students in our class visited congregations that identified themselves as “Christian” in some way or another, ranging from Evangelism, to the church of the Latter-day Saints, to Jehovah’s witnesses, and beyond. I appreciate doing these congregation visits, and hearing about other students’ experiences because it has helped me delve further into the world of sociological thinking, in which one listens and learns about other people’s experiences and beliefs without judging. Prior to taking this class I may have classified some of these religious traditions as “weird,” “fake,” or even “cultish,” but I have learned to become fascinated by the world of religious traditions that differ from my own upbringing, and to learn and understand rather than judge or fear. We have begun to form our own small ethnographies of the religious traditions we have immersed ourselves in, and through this I have personally began to understand the criticality of pluralism, and that we must engage this idea in our study of sociology, anthropology, and religion.
This week for our final Jigsaw, I read an article detailing the experiences of North African Muslim women who emigrated to live in France, and their opinions on the banning of headscarfs in schools. This article fascinated me because it explained such a different cultural narrative than the one we perceive to be “right” and “good” in the United States, which is focused on freedom and not being excessively constrained. Upon reading this article, I found myself frustrated and shaking my head, that these poor girls in school were being restricted from practicing their religion; I understood and respected the opinions of the Muslim women but struggled with still having my own opinion on the matter. Coincidentally, my other class’s readings for that week were also centralized on Muslim women and the veil, and as I progressed through this reading, and the next two that were assigned to me, and the classes that followed those readings, my opinion drastically changed. I realized that I had been guilty of ethnocentrism in a way, in thinking that the French culture was oppressive and that these women were bring stripped of their religious freedom and identity. Before I started studying religion I even thought that the veil itself was oppressive to women.
But I learned that the French culture has a very France-first focused identity for all of the citizens, and that it is no one else’s job, outside of the Muslim women living in France, to have an opinion on headscarves being banned from their schools. In my other class’s discussion on the articles we read I was shocked that so many people did not know the term “cultural relativism” and was frustrated that so many had an opinion on the headscarf without even understanding the concepts of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism, but having realized that I had been guilty of this when reading my assigned article, I realized that it comes from a place of having more to learn, and of not yet understanding.
This past week in class, we read and discussed seven different articles, and took turns presenting the material to the rest of the class. My assigned article was “An Unsecular America” by Roger Finke, which argued that religion is not declining and disappearing as so many of us are inclined to believe. This reading was very interesting because it traced, from a sociological perspective, the prevalence and growth of religion and spirituality in America, and frequently used Europe as comparison to add more context to our perception of our current religious landscape. We have many more religious sects and denominations throughout America, because it is relatively low-cost to create a new church, and to gain new followers; in many parts of Europe religion and state are interconnected and therefore the government can influence how religious sects and denominations are formed. In Europe finding followers and instigating a new religious movement is much more difficult, not to mention costly.
I really enjoyed this particular article because it challenged our ideas of religion in America, and provided an alternative perspective. I feel like religion in America is oftentimes misconstrued, and there is a continuing public dialogue that religion and moral standards are declining in America, but this is not entirely true, as Finke illustrates. I know that for me and many others, religion is still just as much an important part of our lives, and regardless of what minor declines may state. I also appreciated hearing the stories of all the other student’s class articles that gave more context and counterpoints to my assigned article.
This past week we read chapter eight from McGuire for class, which discussed the topic of pluralism and secularism in our society, which led me to think of some topics we have been discussing in my other classes this semester. I am a religious studies major, and I enjoy getting a different look and learning about the different perspectives on religion in our society, and especially in America. In one of my classes, Women, Sex, and Society, we have been talking about where secular space starts and ends, and where this division lands for most people, specifically in the context of sexuality. Many are raised in a religious setting, and once they discover an LGBTQ+ identity, they start feeling like they need to keep their religion separate from that part of their sexuality/identity, especially if their religious tradition is more conservative. They don’t see a connection between their sexuality and spirituality, whether it be by society’s bounds, their tradition’s bounds, or ones they have created in their own head. It is difficult to imagine a space in which sexuality and spirituality can coincide, and this secular division extends to many other areas of life. We frequently don’t see where our religion can come into our lives, that it can be a part of our school, work, identity, and even our sexuality, and this is a way that we secularize our lives. It is fully possible to incorporate religion into all parts of our lives, and it doesn’t need to be totally separated and secularized.
For this week’s readings, I found the “Narrative vs. Theory” article very interesting. There are a lot of different stories portrayed throughout this article that illustrate the religious landscape in America and throughout our world, and I appreciated the new perspective it offered to how Americans experience religion. One narrative that really stood out to me was the one of religious extremists. I had never before considered that religious zealots were educated and proud of what they did, that suicide bombers could be put on the same level as Orthodox Jews, because they both followed their religion to the extreme that they found necessary. The narrative relating to religious secularization also caught my interest, specifically the story about a family so devoted and full of “True Believers,” that a logical explanation for an empty house would be that Judgement Day had finally come. In this case there is virtually no distinction between religious life and daily life, they are one in the same. While this story may seem ridiculous and out of place to us now, we must also understand that for many people secularization is not an option when it comes to their religion, it rules all part of their lives, and religion comes first.
This past week in class we finished up Case Study presentations as well as starting congregation visit reports. My group and I presented on our book, “God Needs No Passport,” which detailed the experiences of immigrants from four major religious groups living in the United States. I really enjoyed reading this book and learning about the different experiences of each migrant, and how parts of their experience were affiliated with their religiosity but for the most part, experiences and ideologies varied based on individuals, and were not solely tied to one religious group. It was also interesting because a lot of the individuals interviewed said that they associated agency and having the ability to make decisions and take control of one’s life with being American, so the individual experiences of each person were not dictated by their religion, but rather by their new identity as Americans. There were definitely similarities within each religious group, for example many Hindus valued family and cited it as something they struggled with in their new life in America, because they were so far from their roots and their home. There was also a definitive pressure to succeed amongst most immigrants, because they gave up a lot to leave their homes, and “success” had very similar definitions amongst the Muslin and Hindu migrants. Many of them came into the US with degrees, and found jobs fairly quickly whilst pursuing further education and working to gain elements of “Americanness” that they found important, such as a house or American technology.
Overall, this book and the similarities I found within it were fascinating to me, and I’m really glad that my group and I had the opportunity to learn and understand this material and share it with the rest of the class.
This past week in class we’ve continually been learning about our peers’ books and what they teach about congregations and religiosity throughout America and the world. I was very interested by presentation about the Ammerman book, “Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes,” and the array of ways people feel spiritual and religious in their daily lives. In class it was mentioned that Amy Moff-Hudec worked on this project, whom I work very closely with in the Community Service Learning Office on campus. I went and talked with Amy and asked about her involvement on the project and learned a lot more about her education and research projects prior to working at Redlands. She told me about her work with Ammerman as a grad student, and the different experiences she had throughout the project, driving all around Massachusetts and other parts of the United States to conduct interviews, as well as the work she did for the book she wrote on her own.
Her favorite experience she had on the Ammerman project was really beautiful to me. She interviewed a Catholic woman who had a higher socioeconomic status than other participants in the study, who lived in a beautiful apartment in a good area. When Amy entered the apartment, she met the woman, lively and beautiful and open to speaking, but was taken aback because the only furniture in the entire apartment was a a single couch in the living room and a table in the kitchen. While talking about her spirituality, this woman explained that she felt called from God to give her possessions away to the sick and needy, and that she did not eat much at all because she preferred to spend her money on giving food to the disadvantaged, even though she was wealthy enough to afford to do both. It was an especially fascinating story because the Catholic church does not mandate such extreme charity, it was part of her own personal call and relationship with God, that came from within and above her, not through any societal or religious pressures.
Our reading from the past week, chapter four of McGuire’s Religion: The Social Context, talked about the ins and outs of official and nonofficial religion, and the different ways that religion, spirituality, and belief could be classified. One thing that really stood out to me from this reading was the assertion that, “No single quality could be used to describe the individual as ‘religious’ or relatively ‘more religious’ than another individual” and the following five dimensions of religiosity. These dimensions were listed as experiential, ritualistic, ideological, intellectual, and consequential. I loved the idea that religion and spirituality influence and are influenced by such different factors, and that there are the different kinds of “levels” or “areas” of religiosity. I think that religion impacts every person in very different ways, which can all be found through the consequential dimension, but I think that each dimension informs the others. I believe that people who identify more with spirituality than religiosity may state that they think more about the experiential or ideological dimensions, while some others who may attend services and bible study every week identify most with the ritualistic and intellectual dimensions. I feel that most, if not all, people have had some sort of brief experience with each dimension, whether it be through observation or direct lived experience. People who have never had an experience with ritual or intellectual religion may go out into nature or hear a choir sing and experience a bliss and connection with the world that could only be described as holy, which opens up to them the experiential dimension of religion. I appreciated the look into religion through this lens, and having a breakdown of where and how religion can be practiced, felt, thought of, and informed.
The Chaves readings this past week focused centrally on the shifting prevalence of different religions throughout America over time. One thing that really stood out to me were the statistics regarding belief in God or a higher power. On the General Social Survey, there are six statements that indicate one’s personal belief in a god of some sort, ranging from certain disbelief to certain belief. In 2014, 91% of the American population had some sort of belief in God or a higher power, even if it wavered at times, which is still the vast majority of the United States, but it is undeniable that those with a certain and fixed belief in God has been on the decline. In 2014, 58% of the American population “knew God really exists and had no doubts about that.”
I thought this was really interesting in the context of all that has happened historically between 2014 and in 1964, when 77% of Americans had a total and unshakeable belief in God. The United States endured the stock market crash, the tragedy of 9/11, and a shifting and unpredictable political climate, not to mention the rising prevalence of focus on television, celebrities, and social media. All of these things would shake up an unmistakable belief in God, for even the most devout worshipper. General acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights were on the rise by this time as well, which would probably appall conservative Christians, as well as those from other religions, and make members of the LGBTQ+ community question their faith in return. I would want to know if such a decline in faith could be considered as inevitable over time, if it could be attributed to all the disasters that shake the world every year, or if people just felt more comfortable answering questions regarding their faith honestly over time due to more acceptance?
This past week in class we watched the film, “Separate Realities,” which grabbed my attention in a very large way. The film portrays two adults who are part of surprisingly different religious traditions in a small town in Pennsylvania. A man who was “saved” and attends a First Baptist Church, and who seemingly uses religion as a way to forgive himself for his past sins through his heavy involvement with the church. The other is a woman who is relatively new to the area and begins attending the local Episcopal church, because she has gone to Episcopal church her whole life, but who is slightly uncomfortable talking about her personal spirituality and her relationship with God.
This film struck a chord with me, specifically the woman’s story. I was raised Episcopalian and have gone to church all my life, but never really understood spirituality, or how one could feel such an intrinsic connection with God that they would want to blatantly talk about it, much less attempt to convert other people to their religion, which was in high contrast to Glenn’s my-way-or-the-highway take on religion. He seemed to believe that there was a definitively right and wrong way to believe in God, and that everyone had the capacity to be “saved,” just as he had been. I connected with the Episcopalian woman’s story, because she expressed discomfort with religion, and did not care to talk about it at all. She remained busy and was a regular churchgoer, but often doubted her own spirituality and if she was “doing it right,” and I feel that this questioning attitude about religion may be something connected to the Episcopal church. In my experience, Episcopalians are quiet about their religion, and approach it from a more intellectual standpoint, questioning each step of the way, and looking for different types of interpretations, not just accepting instantly that they’ve been “saved.” It is seen as a personal journey and something to be found in due time; you may turn to religious leaders and biblical texts to find answers, but there’s no right way, and spirituality is something that is developed by oneself, not always in conjunction with religiosity. This film furthered my fascination with Christianity, and the fact that two individuals who identified as “Christians” could have such wildly different experiences with religion, spirituality, and faith.