The Important Tasks Facing American Religious Demographers

Listen to RSP’s interview with Dr. Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Demographics.”

By Dr. Cyrus Schleifer

It is an exciting time to be mapping out the population and demographic level changes in the American religious landscape. The advent of high-quality data collection strategies – like those pursued by Dr. Robert P Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) – as well as the speed by which religion is transforming in the face of modernizing processes and technological advances have created opportunities for scholars and students of religion in America to revisit and refine our understanding of religion’s place in our society. As Dr. Jones notes in this interview, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated marks a sea change in religious belonging in American over the past 30 years. These PRRI data suggest that around 25% of the entire population and 40% of young Americans no longer identify with any particular religious denomination. These statistics are echoed in the General Social Survey (22% of full population and 33% of those younger than 35 as of 2016), the National Survey of Youth and Religion, and several PEW datasets as well. Given that the rise of the religiously non-affiliated represents a large and potentially growing block of the American populace, understanding the mechanisms that might explain this shift has become one of the more important tasks facing American religious demographers. Below, I briefly outline some of the possible accounts that those studying the sociology of religion have theorized to explain these changes.

One prominent explanation is that America is now – however slowly – beginning to look more and more like Europe in terms of secularization. Indeed, David Voas and Mark Chaves (2016) have recently argued that American can no longer be viewed as an exceptional case in terms of secularization within modernized Western world. Instead, they observe decline in American religiosity that can largely be explained by cohort turnover – changes due to older, more traditionally religious generations passing away and being replace by less religious younger cohorts. These processes could explain the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, particularly among younger Americans.

However, other scholars have rejected this interpretation. In particular, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock (2017) argued that these population-level shifts are not occurring among intensely religious Americans, who have remained a stable subpopulation when viewed as a proportion of the American populace. Instead, they observe declines in religiosity among the religiously moderate, who are opting into a more secular lifestyles or – though much more rarely – into more intensely religious groups. These findings are echoed in Dr. Jones’ study, and both these findings suggest that the American religious landscape no longer has room for these religious moderates. Untangling these processes will remain a major source of debate within the sociology of religion in light of these and other demographic shifts.  

Above, a map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies provides a county-by-county view of the dominant religious groups in the United States. ASARB conducts a census every 10 years, on the same schedule as the US Census. 

One potential move forward would be to acknowledge that individual religiosity can change alongside population level processes. In other words, by focusing entirely on cohort turnover, we may be missing some important individual-level changes in religious expression across the life course. Some of my own research has suggested that we need to begin collecting more panel and longitudinal data to order to better capture individual level change in religion. Panel data observes the same individuals at multiple time points and thereby can map how they change (or do not change) religiously across their life course. Using General Social Survey Panel data, my co-author and I (Bartlett and Schleifer 2016) observe that while young Americans (under 35 years old) are the most likely to disaffiliate religiously, those in the middle age groups (35-64 years old) are more likely to join an evangelical or conservative Protestant groups, and older individuals (65 years or older) – while these least likely age group to change affiliation – are also disaffiliating if they change at all. Accounting for these possibilities could lead to better projections of religious belonging across the US population.

Another popular explanation of the rise of in the religiously unaffiliated among the younger generation is the association of particular religious groups with conservative politics. In their now classic article, Hout and Fischer (2002) find that religious disaffiliation can be partially explained by religious individuals leaving traditional denominations for political reasons. In other words, these Americans remain religious but no longer identify with religious groups who have come to define themselves along political lines (see also: Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). This maybe further complicated by the emergence of political figures such as President Trump, who has been accused of extramarital infidelity that may have raised concerns among the religiously conservative in the past (Whitehead, Perry and Baker 2018) but whose commitment to appointing a judiciary aligned with their religio-political concerns (Martí 2018) allowed these religious conservatives to effectively overlook these potential moral failings.

The final note I wanted to raise in response to this interview is how complicated it is to disentangle one demographic process from another. While Dr. Jones has outlined the End of White Christian America, it is important to recognize that there are two trends that are at once distinct and intertwined: (1) The growth in the proportion of Americans who report no formal religious belonging and (2) the shifting racial composition in the US with new projections suggesting that by mid-century White Americans will make up less than 50 percent of the total population (Frey 2018). Dr. Jones makes a compelling argument that these two trends are, in part, related and can play a role in shaping American politics and religion. But it remains important to understand the ways in which these trends can be understood as distinct and separate as well. While the way forward is complicated, it is also vital. The best approach we have remains careful data collection as well thoughtful, rigorous, and innovative analyses of this information.


Bartlett, Bryce and Cyrus Schleifer. 2016.“Projecting Religious Switching in America: An Increment-decrement Life Tables Approach.” Population Association of America Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Frey, William H. 2018. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics and Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165-90.

Jones, Robert, P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol A. MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4):596-618.

Martí, Gerardo. 2018. “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States.” Sociology of Religion 80(1):1-8.

Schnabel, Landon and Sean Bock. 2017. “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research.” Sociological Science 4(28):2330-6696.

Voas, David and Mark Chaves. 2016. “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” American Journal of Sociology 121(5):1517-56.

Whitehead, Andrew L., Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker. 2018. “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Sociology of Religion 79(2):147-71.

The Interplay of Religion and Popular Culture in Contemporary America

There was a time when the realms of popular culture and religion did not meet — at least in an academic or analytic sense. The space betwixt, between, around, and interpenetrating each was relatively unexplored. Into that gap came God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture with the contention that to understand American religion today researchers must enter the interstitial spaces — the borderlands — that straddle the boundaries between religion and popular culture.
Today, the field of religious and popular culture studies is rich in both depth and diversity. From the exploration of popular culture as a “hyper-real” religion (Adam Possamai), to the examination of aesthetics and material religion (S. Brent Plate and David Morgan), audience-centered surveys of media (Stewart Hoover), and delineation of “authentic fakes” (David Chidester) the research on religion and popular culture is varied and voracious.
In part, the plethora of studies currently available and the profusion of contemporary projects emerged out of the work of McCarthy and Mazur in both editions of God in the Details. Recognizing that the field itself is fluid and that observations of present popular culture phenomena can be obsolete almost as quickly as they were relevant, the editors were sure to release a sequel to their original 2000 work with a 2011 second edition. The principles at play in their particular approach to religion and popular culture still stand.
McCarthy contends — in both her writing and this podcast — that popular culture is an important site for understanding religion in American culture, principally because of the de-institutionalization of religion and the concomitant rise of alternative, assorted, and atypical religious conglomerations and practices. As such the hybrid “third spaces” (Homi K. Bhabha) that proliferate in the contact, cooperation, co-option, and conflict that exist between religion and popular culture offer ample opportunity for resonant readings of religion in the 21st-century.
Indeed, religion and popular culture are engaged in a dialectic of exchange and  interpenetrative feedback, where religion expresses itself in popular culture, popular culture expresses itself through religious memes, religion reacts to popular culture’s representations, and popular culture reacts to religion. Yet, the two cannot be so easily divided into separate categories. Often, religion and popular culture are all mixed up.
Thus, it is helpful that McCarthy proposes that, “[b]oth the field of popular culture studies and the material it examines…seem to be growing at a pace that outstrips the analytical categories and methods available” (Mazur and McCarthy, 3). McCarthy makes the point that the conventional distinction between religion and popular culture is perhaps worth calling into question. At the very least, it is necessary to pay attention to, listen and learn from, and discern the meanings of the “intersection of religion and culture in the ordinary experiences” of individuals across the globe. This is paramount not only terms of understanding and interpreting materials and productions, but of cultures and people, of sodalities and social interlocutors. Mazur and McCarthy wrote, “the borderland where religion and culture meet in popular expression is also a borderland of another sort….these quasi-religious popular culture sites serve as points of intersection — sometimes harmonious, often conflictual — for people of very diverse and disparate identities” (Ibid.) This is ever more important in a world defined by time and space compression (David Harvey) and wherein there are multiple modernities (Shmuel Eisenstadt), which allow for manifold altars upon which religious beings rest their hopes and dreams and find succor and order amidst the chaos (Peter Berger).
To engage in this type of analysis, McCarthy looks to the theoretical constructs of anthropologist Clifford Geertz to not necessarily pin down religion in popular culture, but to wrestle with its workings. Specifically, the idea is to find where individuals are imbuing systems of meaning with significance. This looks more at what religion does than what religion is and allows for research that looks “more widely for the religious meanings attached, explicitly or not” to various media (5), materials, and activities such as eating, dancing, or binge-watching House of Cards.
And yet, in exploring the interstices running along the contours of religion and popular culture researchers must not neglect the embodiment and praxis of religious expression (Manuel Vásquez) in popular culture and vice-versa. This field is not solely one of text or discourse analysis, but is an opportunity to investigate how audiences interact with, how bodies are shaped by and shaping, and how material elements express the mutual and messy forces of religion and popular culture. Without this line of analysis we risk a one-dimensional view of the dynamics at play here. While the text and media of popular culture are important (television, online content, comic books, CDs, etc.) they must be located in time and space, in the rhythms and rhizomes of bio-cultural contexts and communities, and as the result of processes of production and consumption. Indeed, students of religion must immediately recognize that there is something more to popular culture than immediately meets the eye.
McCarthy does this well as she explains the ways in which the musical lyrics, evocations, and concert experience of Bruce Springsteen speak about the possibilities — however mute they may be — in the midst of the chaos introduced by the aperture between “The American Dream” and America’s reality. She not only scrutinizes “The Boss’s” lyrics and the intimations of salvation that exist therein, but sees that deliverance for Springsteen’s fans is not found in disembodied verbiage, but manifest in expressive vibrations of music and dance at a Springsteen concert.
McCarthy came to this line of inquiry quite personally — as a fan of Springsteen growing up in the Northeast. This is not a minor point. While it is paramount that we consider the theoretical foundations for perusing religion and popular culture, which was the aim of the above, it is also pertinent to take a methodological interlude. How does one come to study religion and popular culture? McCarthy talks about the fact that this type of research started as a side project and was invested with personal history and taste. This is not to be frowned upon, but followed.
Taking her lead, those who might want to take up the study of religion and popular culture are encouraged to start small and with something that distinctively engages them. This is a wonderful opportunity for researchers — emerging and established — to chart their own trajectories and check out new contours in the fields of religious, media, cultural studies, or more. It is my contention that, in general, such fields will benefit from a proliferation of studies that engage both reader and researcher and come from a multiplicity of perspectives and personal histories.
For my part, this may mean the analysis of audience interactions and the construction of new genres in the interplay between the music of Kendrick Lamar and black bodies in Los Angeles. It may mean looking at the ways in which identity is constructed, or covered up, in the logos and lore of a popular rugby team named after Muslim armies during the crusades. Perhaps it is found in the probing of the popularity and the pertinence of Muslim superheroes alongside the interviewer of this podcast A. David Lewis.
All of these lines of scrutiny, and others, are perhaps worthwhile. The caution is, as McCarthy rightly notes, in asking whether or not the material bear the weight of analysis. After all, she said, “sometimes a rock song is just a rock song.” Furthermore, it is important that once we determine that the content is promising that our methodology take into consideration both text and practice, ideas and matter, bodies and beliefs, in the interplay and interaction between religion and popular culture.

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.


Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.


“Religion in Peru” — conference report, 2015

The conference, “Religion in Peru : Research itineraries from the social sciences,” was held at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima-Peru, 24 September 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Sidney Castillo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Opening session. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

The study of religion has deep roots in the South American country of Peru. Over twenty years ago, one of this country’s most eminent scholars of religion, the late Manuel Marzal, (1996) wrote an article detailing a century of religious studies in Peru. Since the dawn of social sciences in Peruvian academia, scholars from different schools of thought and institutions have applied their own perspectives to religion, from indigenism to Marxism—and of course the catholic church. These scholars wanted to get a grip on what means to be religious in Peru in order to better understand its people, however they also differed in key ways. For example, some have been concerned with religion as it may relate to establishing enduring political structures, to gain more adherents, or for good old fashioned criticism. Peru is a country rich with not only religious tradition, but also religious innovation. For example, we have both our equivalent of the Popol Vuh, the Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [1] manuscript from the sixteenth century, and also a Peruvian new religious movement, the Asociación Evangélica de la Misión Israelita del Nuevo Pacto Universal from the twentieth century  as examples; this is why the conference presented different approaches to the study of religious phenomena, and discussed its relevance in the 21st century.

The conference was organized by the Master’s Degree in Sciences of Religion of the Faculty of Social Sciences from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, represented by its Coordinator, Jaime Regan and myself (Sidney Castillo) as organizer, in collaboration with the Students Center of Anthropology of the same university (CEAN in Spanish) and the Peruvian Academy of the Sciences of Religion (APECREL also in Spanish). The conference featured anthropological researches based on case study and comparative religion approaches, as well as sociological research in the field of secularism and state regulations, and the sciences of religion itself as an academic field. The scholars who participated in the event were Luis Millones (Professor Emeritus of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos), Diego Huerta (University of Helsinki), Marco Huaco (University of Strasbourg) and Dorothea Ortmann (University of Rostock).

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

From left to right: Huaco, Castillo, Millones, Ortmann and Huerta. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

For myself, as an organizer, it was particularly fulfilling to see the conference auditorium packed and the scholars ready to take the lead on the subject that was of our interest. And it was also fulfilling because we had a lot of competition that day: three academic events in the same faculty at pretty much the same time! We can say then, that people is really getting interested in learning about religion outside mainstream means e.g. churches.

Luis Millones’s talk was about Apostle Santiago and the Moors (Millones : 2015). He presented his latest research done in San Lucas de Colan, a small town within the Paita province in the coastal part of Piura region. His ethnographic research provided an insiders appreciation of the festival offered to Santiago Apostle’s horse, Felipe, in which the image of the patron saint observes the symbolic representation of the horse battling against the Moors. The festival commands both a huge participation on money and coordination from the brotherhood of the saint. Millones viewed this as a means of obtaining prestige among the townsfolk. Interestingly, these kind of festivities are a staple in many different rural and urban places. Particularly, as it’s a way of recreating social bonds with fellow members of the community (or former communities since a lot of people that participate in these celebrations are migrants) by venerating the patron saint and having a huge party lasting several days.

In the second talk, Diego Huerta used a comparative approach in discussing two religious phenomenons comprising some of his past research: the pilgrimage of the Christ of Huamantanga in the outer part of Lima, in the Canta district ; and the (neo)paganism in the urban parts of Lima (Huerta : 2012). His aim was to put into question the factual realization of the secularization process in Peru, in order to examine folk religion and new religious movements as manifestations of an alternative religiosity. Huerta suggested that while the former is more related to popular interpretations of Catholicism, the latter stems more from a product of globalization, embedded in a culture of media driven information on different religious traditions. I found his presentation as indicating that not even tradition is written in stone, tradition changes.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

Lawyer, Marco Huaco. Photo by Alondra Oviedo.

In the third presentation, Marco Huaco’s discussed the policy of laicidad, a.k.a. secularism in church-state relations (Huaco : 2013). He detailed the historical trajectory of the Peruvian constitutions, demonstrating their evolution, developing from constitutions of doctrinal confessionality towards constitutions of historical-sociological confessionality, finally arriving to the present day constitution. This constitution acknowledges the Catholic Church an important element of Peruvian society, and allows the State to take part in partnership with other religious denominations. This is highlighted by the 1980 Agreement between the Holy See and Peru, which he explained, has important consequences in the ordering of public policies (e.g., birth control and lgbt rights) and primary education.

The closing presentation was delivered by Dorothea Ortmann. In it, she presented how the Sciences of Religion was first established in Peru (Ortmann: 2002). Ortmann traced the beginnings of this development from the researches of Julio C. Tello, Rafael Larco Hoyle and Luis Válcarcel, where they tried to explain the syncretism process, noting the economic and political implications of these mixtures on many Andean deities. For example, the Lanzon of Chavin de Huantar and the Teja Amaru[2]. Ortmann discussed how researchers utilized the tools from different disciplines to explain this process (e.g. archaeology, linguistics and anthropology), in order to gain a wider overview of the Andean societies.

The variety of research that was presented at the conference allowed Peru’s academic community to gather a comprehensive entry into what the academic study of religion was and is, noting future possibilities for research. In echoing Ortmann’s sentiments, the academic study of religion in Peru has existed, at least to date, due to the personal interests and dedication of lone researchers (largely at their own costs) and not due to established monetary support from institutions. However, while some valuable research has been supported at religiously affiliated institutions (e.g., Centro de Estudios Teológicos de la Amazonía, Instituto de Pastoral Andina with the Allpanchis journal, Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas, Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones) other perspectives are needed, and at further distance from pastoral inspiration. Shedding some level of ties with the insider perspectives often provided via religious institutions will allow Peruvian academics to study religious phenomena from a variety of fresh perspectives[3].


That this conference took place at the National University of San Marcos was quite inspiring. This was the first university on the continent with a theology and arts faculty during the second half of the sixteenth century. Now, almost five hundred years later, Peruvian academics still have an interest in studying religion. However, our current perspectives and methodologies are far more diverse, and ever broadening. I remain optimistic that, in the near future, the academic study of religion in Peru will be as widespread and supported as other research areas. No doubt, this will be due in large part to the dedication and interest of Peruvian scholars, as this conference exemplifies.


Marzal, Manuel. (1996). “Un siglo de investigación de la religión en el Perú”. Anthropologica. Lima, volumen 14, número 14, pp. 7-28. Accesed on: november 29, 2015.

Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.

Huaco, M. (2013). Procesos constituyentes y discursos contra-hegemónicos sobre laicidad, sexualidad y religión: Ecuador, Perú y Bolivia.  Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Accesed on: november 28, 2015.

Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos. Accesed on: november 29, 2015.

Huerta, D. (2012). De eclécticos e iniciados o una aproximación etnográfica a la práctica del (neo) paganismo en Lima. Licenciate thesis on Social Sciences with mention in Anthropology. Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Faculty of Social Sciences.


[1] Gathered by Francisco de Avila around 1598, and then translated from quechua to spanish by Jose Maria Arguedas in the middle of the tweinthieth century, it’s the only text that accounts for the mainstream fundational mythos of Peru, prior to the spaniards arrival.

[2] The first deity refers to a monolith of 4.5 meters located in the Temple of Chavin. It depicted a zooantropomorphic god with feline and avian features (animals found in the jungle and andes respectively), and was the main deity of the Chavin culture (1000 B.C.). The second one refers to a clay shaped tile representing the Amaru god with features of a otorongo (the peruvian feline), symbolizing the resistance of the spanish influence on andean culture. Some of these tiles were found in southern andean part of Peru and date from the early XIX century.

[3] Many scholars of religion like the late Fernando Fuenzalida, Harold Hernández, Jaime Regan, Juan Ossio and our own speakers of the conference have been doing innovative work in this manner, since they have provided great insights regarding new religious movements, andean and amazonian religion, and the relationship of religion and politics.

“Understanding Religious Change” – 2015 ASR Conference Report

77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (ASR), 20-22 August 2015, in Chicago, Illinois. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Amanda Schutz, PhD student in the School of Sociology, University of Arizona.

The theme of this year’s annual ASR meeting was a familiar one among social science conferences: understanding change. In her presidential address, “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion,” ASR president Melissa Wilde urged sociologists to consider religion a variable of paramount importance, alongside commonly examined ones like race, class, and gender. She stressed that religion remains one of society’s most significant “self-sorting mechanisms” and marveled at its persistent relevance in helping us make sense of the social world. Wilde admitted she chose the theme “Understanding Religious Change” early on in her tenure as ASR president; but as the conference drew nearer, she became “struck by the ways it doesn’t change at all.” Indeed, listening to the many presentations, an alternative conference theme could have easily followed the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

Joint ASR-ASA reception.

These two ideas—religious change and religion’s stability—are not as conflicting as they appear on the surface. Sociologists often embrace this contradiction of simultaneous progress and stasis. We set out to explain cases that are worthy of sociological inquiry precisely because they challenge working assumptions in some respect. Yet at the same time, we rely on the stability of patterns and trends to lend credence to new ideas: we set out to prove that what we suspect is happening isn’t just white noise, coincidence, or spurious, but something real and consistent. Sociologists attempt to explain new social occurrences (change) with reliable, reproducible data (stability). Several presentations at the ASR annual meeting demonstrated this alternative conference theme; three of them are discussed here.[i]

One of the most prominent recent changes in the American religious landscape is the rise of the “nones,” or those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith explore the emergence of a more visible and actualized form of nonreligion in their recent book Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America. Ryan Cragun, Warren Goldstein, and Jesse Smith participated in an Author Meets Critics session devoted to this book. While these critics pointed out that some of the organizational history was inaccurate, nonreligious labels (e.g., atheist, agnostic, humanist, secularist) are not interchangeable, and the book would have benefited from more direct engagement with social movement literature, the overall reception was warm. As atheists as a collective continue to grow and organize, their place in the social world—and the religious world—is worth examining.

However, as “atheist” becomes an increasingly legitimate and salient social identity and atheists organize into groups that increasingly resemble typical social movements, atheism, in many ways, resembles religion. Indeed, Cimino (who was unaccompanied by his co-author) pointed out that atheists often use religious metaphors, practice secular rituals, and may even refer to their gatherings as “atheist church.” This might not be surprising, as some have argued religious terminology is the best we currently have to describe nonreligious beliefs, practices, and ideologies. The Q&A following the panel ended with a short but lively discussion on whether atheism actually is a religion. The argument goes: if an ideology becomes dogmatic and questioning prevailing wisdom is not tolerated, that ideology has morphed into something akin to religion. In other words, if atheists believe without a doubt that god(s) does not exist, they are, in fact, religious atheists. However, the extent to which atheists as a whole accept such a proposition is debatable.

Another presentation added important details to this discussion of nones, and also demonstrated that reinforcement of the status quo can sometimes accompany change. In his presentation “The Dechurching of America: Why People are Increasingly ‘Done’ with the Church…but not with God” (based on work co-authored with Ashleigh Hope), Josh Packard admitted that the trend toward disaffiliation has been impossible for scholars of religion to ignore, and many have discussed at length how and why people lose their faith. (It is also important to note that next year’s ASR conference theme will explore varieties of nonreligion, continuing these conversations in greater depth.)

However, scholars of religion are quick to point out that “no affiliation” is not synonymous with “no belief,” and that the nones are comprised largely of those who still retain some level of religious or spiritual belief, despite disengagement from organized religion. Packard quoted several respondents emphasizing that although they have left the church, they have not abandoned their faith. Indeed, this movement away from institutionalized religion is becoming a popular area of study, as researchers are looking more closely at the various combinations of believing and belonging, which include groups like the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNRs) and cultural Christians (e.g. Orestes “Pat” Hastings, who received this year’s McNamara Student Paper Award and presented “Not A Lonely Crowd? Social Connectedness, Religious Attendance, and the Spiritual But Not Religious”).

A third presentation demonstrating this alternative theme, titled “The Rhetoric of Obedience: Gender, Religion, and Family Life in a Modernizing Indonesian City,” took place during the Presidential Panel on religion and gender. Rachel Rinaldo discussed how the rhetoric of submission among Muslim couples is more complex than we might expect. While men remain the head of the family, whose primary obligation is supporting wife and children, it is not unusual for wives work outside the home—though they often must ask permission of their husbands. There are inconsistencies in this worldview, Rinaldo adds: yes, women are by and large considered equal to men, but their utmost responsibility is the home, where they are expected to obey their husbands.

However, Rinaldo points out that as women become more involved in public life, public and private spheres becomes more discrete; consequently, as women become more visibly independent and their roles more varied, the rhetoric of submission in the home becomes stronger. The workplace may be an “escape” where women are increasingly welcomed (or at least tolerated), but the household is the “last bastion” of women; it is not as affected by social change as the public sphere. And if women need to be reminded to obey, Rinaldo suggests, that means there must be contexts where they’re not. Because the culture of many Muslim societies is changing, if people still wish to continue traditions privately, they must use religion as a justification of such arrangements—not culture.

landon schnabel presenting.

landon schnabel presenting.

Though conference themes are intended to encompass the largest possible range of presentations, the meeting included many panels with varying relevance to the theme of religious change. This included panels dedicated to the intersection of religion with topics like health, the environment, gender, sexuality, violence, and politics. This year’s meeting also introduced the ASR’s first attempt at a Graduate Student Mentoring Lunch, which saw a handful of senior scholars discussing their areas of expertise with graduate students. Rhys Williams, a former ASR president, expressed that graduate students today are forging connections with others in outside departments much more than they have in the past, confirming that conferences like ASR have become an integral part in the development of scholars’ early careers.

You can see the program for the 77th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in its entirety here. Next year’s annual meeting will take place 19-21 August 2016 in Seattle, Washington, and the theme will be “Exploring Diversity: Varieties of Religion and Nonreligion.”

[i] Discussion of presentations is based on those sessions I was able to attend. Also, as a researcher of nonreligion myself, I was prone to see these presentations as particularly exemplifying the theme of religious change.

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.


Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Religious Providence for Religious Action: Investigating Roger Allen Laporte’s French-Canadian Catholic Heritage

In the early morning hours of November 9th 1965, a 22 year old Catholic man from upstate New York named Roger Allen Laporte self-immolated in front of the United Nations in New York City as a strong political protest against the Vietnam War. Even 50 years after the event, Laporte still enflames debate in trying to understand his motivation and the overall meaning of such a drastic action: is it sacrifice or suicide. The key to this discussion, however, is that Laporte on his deathbed claimed it to be a religious act.

In a podcast interview for the Religious Studies Project, Francesca Cadeddu shares the insights of her postdoctoral research on Laporte looking at the psychological, social, and political dynamics at play in generating new forms and/or conceptualizations of martyrdom in the 20th century. Ultimately, Cadeddu seeks to understand the complexity of Laporte’s religious conviction. In this regard, I was struck by the idea of Laporte’s Francophone (or Franco-American) heritage. Though I must admit that it can only be inferred to what degree Laporte was influenced by the culture of French-Canadian/Franco-American Catholic identity,[1] it still remains an interesting aspect to explore as another layer of Laporte’s religious conviction.

In this brief response, I wish to deepen the discussion by investigating the discursive link and importance Catholic Ultramontanism played in constructing French-Canadian/Franco-American identity on both sides of the Canada/US border. I propose that exploring the 19th century construction of a racialized French-Canadian Catholic identity based on Christian Providence may shed further light into the depth of Laporte’s actions of religious martyrdom in the 20th century.[2]

French-Canadian Predestination

From c.1850 to 1950, Catholic culture was thoroughly dominated by an Ultramontanist discourse, which was an ecclesiastical effort to emphasize the importance of the Catholic Church in countering the perceived ill effects of modern society. For francophones in North America, Ultramontanist ideology became paramount to the socio-political and cultural construction of identity.[3] Their main concern was the survival of French language and culture against the hegemonic forces of a dominant Anglo-Protestant society both in Canada and the US.

In the same period, the province of Quebec was experiencing tremendous demographic and economic transformations. The population had drastically changed with the immigration of French Canadians to the burgeoning industries of New England.[4] Nive Voisine characterized it as “the march of misery and exile”[5] because French Canadians who sought employment abroad were leaving their lands without guarantee of returning. This caused a moral panic for the clergy. The architects of the Ultramontanist Church in Quebec therefore deployed a racialized and exclusivist identity framework along the lines of religion, language, land, occupation, and family. These socio-political ideals were tethered to the belief that ‘French-Canadians’ were predestined by God to be morally righteous missionaries in North America.

One of the most important ideologues for this identity programme was historian cleric Lionel Groulx (1878-1967).[6] In his mind, French-Canadian civilization[7] needed to perpetuate itself by means of a certain ethnic identification. Groulx formed a racial categorization of French Canadians in North America he called la race nouvelle (i.e. the new race)[8] as a projection of Catholic hegemony through (1) an assertion of French Canadian homogeneity, (2) an idealization of piety embodied in the parish and the family, and (3) the notion that patrimony equals land and that one needs to fight to assert his/her nationalism. Groulx saw the perfection of French Canadian identity represented as “service at the altar, service under arms, and the tilling of the soil.”[9] Groulx presented a heroic amalgam of priest and pioneer who were literally able to imbue the land and its people with an inherent Catholic morality. Therefore, the French-Canadian must take his/her place in the moral complex of the symbolic village—which was characterized by clerical guidance, independent and hard work, and the large Catholic family—in order to act in forging a better world. According to Groulx, this is the on-going mission field predestined by God to raise up the righteous Franco-North American civilization.

But the question remains: how does this inform the character of Roger Allen Laporte’s religious action? On one level, it is difficult to assume that it had any influence on his actions, especially in 1965 which saw the great transformation of the Catholic Church shedding the weighty tiara of Ultramontanist ideology. However, there is something important to be stated with the minority standing of the French-Catholic community in the US and especially in New England. In countering the struggles of social, cultural, linguistic, and religious assimilation, this racialized idealization acts to inflate one’s conviction and moral justification at the level of identity. By pointing to the need to perpetuate one’s French identity as an action of Christian Providence is a pretty lofty idea. One that could have had residual affects on a man like Laporte when it came to taking unambiguous political action.

Again, I cannot claim that the Ultramontanist ideals of French-Canadian identity were forefront in Laporte’s mind—a man who sought symbolic resources outside of his faith as a means to political protest. Yet the idea of struggle and action as being an inherently religious paradigm is relevant to Laporte’s case. It is not difficult to imagine that in your bones (i.e. the discursive genealogy of your ethno-cultural identity) lies the tools of moral justification and religious conviction to fight against insurmountable odds (that is, the saliency of a heritage of religious Providence that leads to religious action).


Bélanger, Claude. “Lionel Groulx – Histoire Du Québec.” L’Encyclopédie de L’histoire Du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia. Accessed May 5, 2015.

Bélanger, Damien-Claude, and Claude Bélanger. “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930 – Readings – Quebec History.” Accessed May 5, 2015.

Bock, Michel. A Nation Beyond Borders: Lionel Groulx on French-Canadian Minorities. University of Ottawa Press, 2014.

Brault, Gerard J. The French-Canadian Heritage in New England. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England ; Kingston Ont, 1986.

Buckner, Phillip A., and R. D. Francis. Canada and the British World Culture, Migration, and Identity. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Vancouver BC: UBC Press, 2006.

Desjardins, Bertrand. “Le Programme de Recherche en Démographie Historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) – PRDH-IGD.” Accessed May 5, 2015.

Gagnon, Serge. Quebec and Its Historians: The Twentieth Century. Canadian Electronic Library. Books Collection. Montreal Harvest House, 1985.

Gareau, Paul L. “Le Providentialisme d’hier à Aujourd’hui : La Construction Idéologique Ultramontaine de L’identité Canadienne-Française dans le Développement de l’Armée de Marie.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 42, no. 3 (September 1, 2013): 346–63.

Groulx, Lionel. Notre Grande Aventure : L’empire Français en Amérique du Nord (1535-1760). Collection Fleur de lys. Montréal: Fides, 1958.

Lefebvre, Solange. “The Francophone Roman Catholic Church”. In Paul Bramadat and David Seljak (Eds.) Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2008. 116-153.

Voisine, Nive. Histoire de l’Église Catholique au Québec (1608-1970). Montréal: Éditions Fides, 1971.

[1] It is interesting to note that Laporte is ranked 110th by the PRDH as a popular surname in Quebec. Cf. Desjardins, “Le Programme de Recherche En Démographie Historique (The Research Program in Historical Demography) – PRDH-IGD.”

[2] For a more in-depth discussion on the Ultramontanist construction of a moral geography in Quebec, cf. Gareau, “Le Providentialisme D’hier à Aujourd’hui : La Construction Idéologique Ultramontaine de L’identité Canadienne-Française dans le Développement de l’Armée de Marie.”

[3] Cf. Lefebvre, The Francophone Roman Catholic Church.

[4] This was a drastic demographic change that saw some 900,000 French Canadians immigrating to New England between 1840-1930. Cf. Bélanger and Bélanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930”; Brault, The French-Canadian Heritage in New England; Buckner and Francis, Canada and the British World Culture, Migration, and Identity.

[5] “[La] marche de misère et de l’exile.” Voisine, Histoire de l’Église catholique au Québec (1608-1970), 55.

[6] Cf. for photo credit, Bélanger, “Lionel Groulx – Histoire Du Québec.”

[7] Groulx speaks not only of Quebec but in its broadest terms to include francophones of French-Canadian heritage who have left and are living in New England and all over Canada. For an in-depth analysis, cf. Bock, A Nation Beyond Borders.

[8] Cf. Groulx, Notre grande aventure.

[9] Gagnon, Quebec and Its Historians, 128.

African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?

Secular, Spiritual, Religious: American Religion Beyond the Baby Boomers

In his wide-ranging interview with Dusty Hoesly, Wade Clark Roof both re-emphasizes the importance of the baby boomer generation and suggests some ways to think beyond it. In the second half of the interview, in particular, he offers two different narratives for understanding the boomers, their uniqueness, and their place in the history of American religion. Looking at each in turn, this short essay uses recent scholarship to build on Roof’s observations and point to some facets of the current sea change in American religion.

Roof’s first historical narrative culminates in a deadlocked polarization. He suggests that the 1960s were a time of upheaval, and he sees the conservatism of the 1980s and Generation X as a direct response. This story of antagonism is consistent with Robert Wuthnow’s account in The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). Throughout the 1980s, the cleavage between religious conservatives and liberals began to correspond to that between political conservatives and liberals. The 1990s inaugurated a period in which high levels of religiosity began predicting membership in the Republican party—with Catholics and Black Protestants as notable exceptions (Campbell and Putnam 2010:290-321). Religious antagonism that grew out of a backlash against the 1960s became so polarized that it began predicting political antagonism, as well.

Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer (2002) narrate this polarization as one of the catalysts behind the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or the so-called “nones,” who now comprise around a fifth of the American population (Funk, Smith, and Lugo 2012). The percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation doubled through the 1990s, jumping from 7 to 14% after remaining relatively stable for the two decades prior. Hout and Fischer explain this change in two ways. The first is demographic: more Americans than ever were raised with no religion in the wake of 1960s counterculture. In the second, they argue that the rise of the Religious Right led political moderates and liberals with weak religious attachments to disavow their religious affiliations.

Hout and Fischer show in a recent working paper (2014) that the “nones” reflect a reversal in a longstanding causal trend: political preferences now predict religious affiliation rather than vice-versa. Writing in American Grace in 2010, David Campbell and Robert Putnam agree with Hout and Fischer and argue explicitly that the increasing association of religion with conservative politics spurred a mass exodus from organized religion, especially among young people. In their view, these changes amount to no less than another restructuring of American religion in which the new poles of the spectrum are religion and the secular. Out of the polarization Roof describes between conservatives and liberals, a new polarization has arisen.

And yet, while these statistics might appear to show a growing antagonism between religious and secular Americans, it is important to remember that no religious affiliation does not mean nonreligious. Recent work on the nones has shown that they are a deeply heterogeneous group that includes the spiritual but not religious, unchurched believers, avowed nonbelievers, and those who only intermittently affiliate with a religion (Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). In acknowledging how capacious and even misleading the “religiously unaffiliated” label has become, we might wonder if its growth is symptomatic of a taxonomy that has failed to keep pace with restructuring.

Roof’s second historical narrative is supersessionary, and it underscores the challenge of distinguishing between the secular and the religious following this recent sea change. Roof endorses a kind of dialectical model of secularization in which “secularity breeds religious reaction, but the religious reaction is more secular than it would look like in an earlier age.” “Where is the religious? Where is the secular?” he asks rhetorically. “The secular is in religion; religion is in the secular.” Roof then admits that this phrasing is confusing but nonetheless accurate. Though I would question whether this process should be called “secularization,” my own research on organized nonbelievers and secular activism supports Roof’s cryptic formulation, as does other recent scholarship that considers the role of supersessionary narratives in fashioning the boundary between the secular and the religious (Fessenden 2007, Modern 2011, Yelle 2013).

There are clear examples of Americans whose very existence is a challenge to this boundary and who fit awkwardly in the available categories on religious surveys. Along with Alfredo García, a colleague at Princeton, I have built an original dataset that shows that there are roughly 1,400 nonbeliever communities in the United States. A minority of these groups even consider themselves religious, despite being avowedly non-theistic. Religious humanists, for instance, might claim affiliation with an Ethical Culture Society, a Society for Humanistic Judaism, or a Unitarian Universalist Church. They are, therefore, not “nones.” By contrast, many secular humanists and other kinds of nonbelievers, such as atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, would consciously avoid calling themselves religious or claiming a religious affiliation, even though they might also consider themselves to be a part of a “morally intense community” of non-theists (Putnam and Campbell 2010:361).

Recent efforts by groups in the U.S. and the U.K. to found “godless congregations” have spurred controversy among observers and especially among nonbelievers who choose not to organize. Yet they have also tapped into a great deal of latent interest. For instance, in late 2012 the Humanist Community at Harvard and the American Humanist Association began partnering to found “godless congregations”—a term that many secularists would find an oxymoron. Emboldened by tremendous growth in their budgets, staff, and membership over the past decade, these organizations hope they can create spaces for religious belonging and even religious practice without religious belief, and usually without the term “religious.” Many involved in these groups see themselves creating hybrids of religion and the secular, and they pursue interfaith partnerships and invite believers of various stripes to attend their godless services. They are challenging us to ask whether these godless congregations are religious or secular, and in so doing, they are consciously trying to mend fences and to undermine the polarization of the secular and the religious.

What do religious belonging, believing, and behaving look like in a country in which a third of its young people have no religious affiliation and describe themselves using complicated negations like “spiritual but not religious,” “nonreligious,” and “nonbeliever”? Are they secular if they believe and behave religiously but do not belong? Or what if they belong but do not believe or behave? Who gets to decide whether something is secular or religious, and what are the stakes of that decision (Blankholm 2014)? Like Roof, I find this blurry boundary and the questions it raises central to understanding the present restructuring of American religion.



Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4): 775-790.

Campbell, David E. and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Funk, Cary, Greg Smith, and Luis Lugo. 2012. “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved November 24, 2012

Hout, Michael, and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165.

———. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” NYU Population Center Working Paper Series. Working Paper No. 2014-03.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol Ann MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49:4 (2010): 596–618.

Modern, John. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1988. The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yelle, Robert. 2013. The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India. New York: Oxford University Press.