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LDS Garments and Agency

A candid discussion with Nancy Ross about Mormon women’s experiences with wearing LDS garments. From the paper “LDS Garments and Agency: A Qualitative Study of Meaning” by Nancy Ross and Jessica Finnigan: “The form of LDS garments has changed over time, from wrist-to-ankle, single-piece long underwear, to versions that included short sleeves and legs, to the two-piece styles that are common today. One of the most difficult aspects of studying garments is that talking about them is a transgressive act.” This is that boundary pushing discussion.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


LDS Garments and Agency

Podcast with Nancy Ross (18 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ross_-_LDS_Garments_and_Agency_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): The form of garments has changed over time from wrist-to-ankle, single-piece, long underwear, to versions that included short sleeves and legs, to the two-piece style that are common today. One of the most difficult aspects of studying garments is that talking about them is a transgressive act. Today, join us as we talk about garments. I’m here with Dr Nancy Ross, Assistant Professor at Dixie State University in St George, Utah. Welcome.

Nancy Ross (NR): Thank you. I’m really glad to be here.

KB: So, let’s talk about garments.

NR: So I should first probably begin by explaining what garments are. Sometimes they’re referred to as “Mormon magic underwear”, by popular media. And that’s a bit of a tricky thing for Mormons, definitely. That’s like super-offensive. But they are religious underwear that committed Mormons wear, night and day, for their whole lives.

KB: What do you mean by a committed Mormon?

NR: So Mormon’s have . . . . So you can go to church on a Sunday if you’re a Mormon . . . and they recently shortened it to two hours and . . .

KB: Because it used to be three!

NR: Right. The whole Mormon world is celebrating! But in addition to Sunday worship there are also opportunities for further worship or deeper worship, or deeper commitment. And those happen in LDS temples. So when people talk about the Mormon Church, they’re typically talking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Or I’m going to use the shorthand LDS church. And there are a number of LDS temples throughout the world. They’re generally very fancy looking buildings. And only committed Mormons can go inside them. And inside they make kind-of further and deeper commitments to their faith, and to God, through a number of different ceremonies – typically through the initiatory ceremony and the endowment ceremony. And in the initiatory ceremony Mormons receive garments. And that’s kind-of the starting point for wearing them for the rest of their lives.

KB: OK. And at what age do they become committed Mormons, usually?

NR: So typically Mormons go . . . we talk about it as “going to the temple for the first time”. And that often happens just prior to young adult Mormons going on a Mission, typically maybe aged eighteen or nineteen. Or it happens just prior to marriage.

KB: OK. For both men and women?

NR: For both men and women.

KB: And so not every Mormon would be committed in this sense, is that right?

NR: Correct. Many adult Mormons are. But not everybody does this in quite the same way. I have some adult Mormon women friends in their late thirties and forties who have chosen never to make this deeper commitment. I think that there are aspects about the commitment that make them feel uncomfortable.

KB: So talk about that a little bit about why it’s such a transgression to talk about garments.

NR: So everything that is associated with the Temple is Mormons would say it’s sacred, not secret. But it’s also secret.

KB: It is also pretty secret! (Laughs)

NR: And so the idea is that something is so sacred that you aren’t supposed to talk about it. And so Mormon Temple ceremonies definitely fall into that category. You are supposed to experience them with your bodies, but you don’t necessarily discuss in great detail their meaning. Even in Mormon circles I certainly have never been, or haven’t often been, part of discussions with highly committed Mormons about the meaning of temple ceremonies. But it’s something you’re supposed to do. And then, garments become the kind-of evidence, or the daily reminder, that you have made that deeper commitment to the LDS Church.

KB: OK. And in your work . . . . It’s a qualitative study. And it’s a questionnaire. And you really. . . . It seemed like you were pushing on the idea of identity.

NR: Yes. So I’ve a co-author on this particular study. Her name is Jessica Finnegan. And what happened is that at the time that we decided to do this study Jessica and I were both committed Mormons at that time, but struggling with the practice of wearing garments. We were both involved in Mormon feminist circles – Yes “the thing”! And garments often came up as a topic of discussion. (5:00) This taboo topic came up as a topic of discussion within Mormon circles which are prone to talking about the things you were not supposed to talk about. And we felt that in order to understand our experiences and our frustrations better that we wanted to study the problem. And so we decided that it would be difficult to interview participants to be interviewed about garments – because that seems very awkward, and kind-of inappropriate, particularly in a Mormon context – but that rather we would set out a survey and that people could participate in the survey anonymously and tell us what their garments meant to them. We collected a lot of demographic data. We asked people about their Mormon belief, if they agreed or disagreed with particular statements. We asked them a lot of questions about garments and how they felt about their bodies: what did it feel like to wear garments? What did their garments mean to them? And how they engaged in a practice of wearing garments. This just wasn’t a very open conversation at that time, beyond my Mormon feminist circles. And I just really needed to know. I was really struggling with issues of faith and the practice of wearing garments. And we just needed to understand. . . . I just needed to understand if it was just me.

KB: OK. So you mentioned in your work this word friction. And it sounds like there was a spiritual friction for you.

NR: Yes.

KB: And you also mention it as a difficult experience for many women especially. Talk a little bit about that.

NR: So in the Sociology of Religion there are a number of frameworks that we often use to describe particular women’s’ experiences and gender traditional religions. Agency is a very common one, I’ve used agency. But also embodiment. And embodiment is also something that’s discussed quite a lot in scholarship of religion and so forth, these days. And I’m still relatively new to embodiment. Agency is something I’ve used more. But as I understand it, a framework of embodiment – or the theory of embodiment – it’s the idea that our bodies can produce religious knowledge, or knowledge about religion and so through the life cycle and our practice of religion.

KB: Something like a Geertz type of experience, here?

NR: A little bit.

KB: OK.

NR: And really, also I think that our bodies interact with . . . you know, even going back like Judith Butler

KB: Oh, I see.

NR: You know, our bodies perform religion and our performances aren’t necessarily conscious and super-intentional. It’s just, like, the stuff of life: what we do unconsciously. And for Mormons who come to our garments, it’s just, like, what you do. It’s your underwear. It’s what you do. You just put them on. And so, over time, this particular practice was difficult. Initially when I first went through the temple and received garments it was prior to my being married. I was twenty-three. I was a grad- student. And I knew that there was a certain weirdness about the practice. But I was framing it in my mind, like, “This is what it means to be an adult in my community.” And so, at 23, and being unmarried, I hadn’t really felt like a full adult in my community. Does that make sense? And I felt like by going to the temple in preparation for a marriage, by receiving and then wearing garments daily that I was becoming a fully-fledged and recognised adult in my community. Making this deeper commitment, and then by wearing the garment day and night represented that commitment. And I was ok with that. That wasn’t something that initially bothered me. There were some initial discomforts. I always felt like my garments were trying to climb out of my neck-hole from my shirts, and I always felt like that. But initially, it was just fine. Like, “This is what it means to be an adult in my community. This is its own coming-of-age sort-of ritual. This is what it is.” And I was ok with that for a long time. But then, when I became pregnant with my first child, my body changed shape in very dramatic ways. I am short person and so my body became very round, very quickly. And the garments that I had did not easily accommodate, or created additional discomforts for my body (10:00). And so there are pregnancy and maternity garments. There are nursing garments that are supposed to help facilitate changes in the shape of women’s bodies. But many Mormon women acknowledge that maternity garments and nursing garments do not do this very well. They are not very accommodating of change in women’s bodies. And so I go through this change, I have an emergency caesarean and I’m in the hospital for a while and I’m trying to figure out how to manage the waistband of my garment bottoms with my caesarean scar. And just . . . the stuff of life and the stuff of many women’s lifespans. And then, after my first pregnancy through the process of nursing, and then getting pregnant with the second child, and going through more dramatic changes in the body. And then having, at the end of that, two very tiny children and not handling that especially well. And feeling kind-of depressed, but also feeling like I’ve been through this big thing and my body has changed. And this practice that was once ok and it was fine . . .

KB: The practice of wearing a garment?

NR: The practice of wearing garments. It was fine. I understood it in a particular cerebral way, and that largely worked. It was ok. Then it became less ok. It became trickier. I don’t know if this falls into the category of too much information . . .

KB: (Laughs).

NR: So you can just let me know. But some Mormons feel like you have to wear the garment underneath your bra. And that can make nursing an infant very difficult. Because if you’re trying to get access to your breast to feed your child and you’re suddenly having to sort out not one or two layers of clothing . . .

KB: But several!

NR: Like a whole raft of layers of clothing! That quickly gets cumbersome. And if you spend your life breastfeeding, which you do if you breastfeed an infant, that’s a lot of difficulty. And a lot of, like, wrestling with your clothing. I changed my practice so that I wasn’t wearing garments under but that felt a little bit scandalous.

KB: Still? Yeah.

NR: To me. And other women would say that that was fine. But that was not necessarily presented to me as being fine. Because I had understood that I had to wear the garment against my skin only. So anyway . . . . Lots of information about Nancy’s garments! So this practice that was initially fine, understood in a particular context and it made sense to me. It’s just that as my body changed and as my need to interact with my body changed, particularly through like the practice of nursing and just growing into a very different shape. Suddenly that didn’t work well. And suddenly things like waistbands became very uncomfortable and just too much effort. And endless tucking. You know, I was just always trying to like re-tuck in my underwear. And that became very frustrating. And so – sorry this is a long way to say this – that’s part of my embodied experience of my garments. Where initially it was ok and I felt like this was in harmony with my religious beliefs. “Yes, it was fine for God to require this of me”, as I believed the time. But then, the garment represents LDS temples and they represent covenants that Mormons make in LDS temples; covenants of commitment to God and church. And so the garments represent . . . they’re like an extension of LDS temples, they’re an extension of a particular kind of belief in God, and commitment to God. And so, as that symbol became more and more difficult to manage in my life, that’s where this – sorry, back to your friction comment – that’s where this friction was really coming from. Literally, there was more friction with my body that was still trying to figure out . . . post-pregnancy I was still trying to figure out what this new shape of my stretched-out body was like. And my new kind-of stretched-out and nursing body did not accommodate garments very well, like my pre-pregnancy and nursing body had. And so this daily everyday practice simply became very difficult. At the same time I had committed to wearing these day and night for the rest of my life. And I felt very committed to my religious belief and I didn’t feel like I could really do anything. I felt a little bit trapped in this particular practice (15:00). So that’s when we start writing papers about Mormon feminism, and we’re complaining about our garments, and we thought “Let’s study this. Let’s figure out if other women are experiencing the things that we are experiencing.” And we figured that a survey is the best way to do this for us so we go through an IRB process and write this survey. And when we put this survey out on line – we used a snowball sampling method – which we realise has some problems in terms, if you’re trying to create a representative sample. We had determined that this would not be a representative sample, but would give us some data about people’s experiences of how they felt. And we actually got more than four-and-a-half thousand responses.

KB: Which is an amazing number!

NR: Not a small number. It’s more data than you can analyse easily, that’s for sure!

KB: Right.

NR: And it turned out that a lot of people had very different experiences with their garment. And in a sense, it was comforting to find out there were many women who had had far worse experiences than Jessica and I had had! But also, there seemed to be people that had problems and seemed to be people that didn’t have problems. And there seemed to be people who were just fine with the practice and it was working for them very well in their lives, where there was no friction with body and belief. And there were other people, like me, who were really struggling. There were other people who had stopped wearing their garments. Garments had become, for one reason or another, such a really big issue. One thing we kind-of saw in the data was that . . . ok so garments largely look like men’s underwear. So if you think of men’s underwear as like a T-shirt and some boxer shorts, garments are white versions of those with some special, sacred LDS temple markings.

KB: So they’re not the full-body coverage?

NR: No, they’re not the full-body covering. That wouldn’t work in my desert location! But then, for women, it’s like a cap sleeve shirt with, like, shorts.

KB: Knee-length shorts?

NR: Yes, knee-length shorts. And what we found is that for many men . . . their garments look like the kind of underwear that they would wear, even if they weren’t Mormons, and hadn’t been through the temple.

NR: Nothing foreign to them.

NR: Right – the markings and the requirement, but not fundamentally different. But for women, there were very different issues because women’s bodies change through your lifespan, in the way that men’s bodies do not change. And women’s garments don’t look like women’s underwear. You know if I were to identify like regular standard secular women’s underwear as like a camisole and panties, this was a lot more fabric and a lot more covering. Women’s garments, until very recently, were edged with very itchy lace all over. That’s also very visible, because it creates a very distinct raised line that is visible through outer layers of clothing. And so our data really gets us into what people’s garments meant to them, and also: how are garments functioning in Mormon community? What do garments mean? What are people’s experiences with their garments? How do their garments make them feel? How do garments impact on sexual relationships and marriage relationships? And we just asked a whole raft of questions. And then we were hugely surprised when people seemed really eager to answer these questions. Because it seemed like this might be too taboo. But when we asked the questions, an overwhelming number of people were willing to answer. And so we were able to get a lot of really good data. Which was pretty neat from our research point of view.

KB: Right. So it kind-of sounds like – and I know that people will be putting these pieces together themselves already – is that in a patriarchal society, designed by men, that really police women’s bodies in every way already, it’s not a big surprise that they would be designing underwear for them without their bodies – without especially their sexualised bodies – in mind. So is that something that a lot of the response talked about directly? Or is that just kind-of an implied thing, that you can kind-of infer?

NR: No, a lot of respondents talked about body issues very directly. (20:00) And so I would say, first of all, that the data is data-polooza, and we’re still trying to pick out all of the meaningful, or the most meaningful elements of this data! But one thing is clear. Very loosely, about half of women experience their garments as interfering with their sexual relationship with their spouses. About half of women feel as though – it’s really divided half and half. Half of the women that we surveyed feel that it does impact their sexual relationships and half feel that it doesn’t. And so that’s a pretty tidy divide. Many men reported that . . . not that they felt that their own garments were unattractive, necessarily, but they reported that their wives wearing garments put them off sex. They were unattractive. And that created a problem in their intimate relationships. And so that was really interesting, that men weren’t really concerned about how they looked in their garments, but they were very concerned about how their wives looked in their garments! We didn’t really get women saying that they were concerned about the way that their husband looked in their garments. But we got a lot of women saying that garments impact the relationship they have with their bodies. So, for some of these, that was in terms of feeling sexy and attractive. For some women that was like a literal deadening of the senses. So some women felt that garments deadened their senses and prevented them from being able to feel. Some women felt that the ugliness or unattractiveness they felt from their garments had impacted their life in other ways. Some connected eating disorders with wearing garments.

KB: Oh?

NR: And so it’s not just about sex and sexiness. It’s about women’s relationship with their bodies. And garments were definitely impacting women’s relationships with their bodies in a variety of ways, where men’s bodies didn’t seem to be affected in the same ways. That’s not to say that men’s bodies are not impacted by garments. But largely they seem to be impacted differently. And so it’s not just these different mental, emotional, perception issues. Women also have reported . . . hundreds of women reported medical conditions that were caused or exacerbated by wearing garments. So, the making of garments is controlled. I can’t just, you know, learn to sew one day and whip myself up garments in a fabric or cut that suits me exactly.

KB: And you’re not supposed to modify them either?

NR: No. You’re not supposed to modify them. You’re supposed to wear them as you receive them. And you know, you go to Beehive Clothing and buy them. So there’s a particular distributor. You go to a particular place. And there is a little bit of choice in fabric and cut, but not very much. And what women experience, then, is that some women, hundreds of women, experience yeast infections which are triggered by garments; urinary tract infections, which are triggered by garments; problems with managing menstruation. When the latest version, the two-piece version of women’s garments were created I think women largely wore sanitary pads and belts. And that is not a thing I remember. I think my mom had one!

KB: (Laughs). Yeah!

NR: I think it was in her drawer, or something. But the form of underwear didn’t really matter because manging menstruation seemed to be different. It happened differently. But today, you know, it’s very common to have sanitary products with “wings”, right? And garments don’t accommodate many contemporary menstrual products very well. And so that creates a kind of messiness and a problem, in addition to pregnancy and nursing. So other women reported additional auto-immune disorders or various disorders that were impacted by the wearing of garments. Some women overheated very quickly as a result of wearing garments. Because again this isn’t like, “Well you don’t wear a camisole if you don’t want to wear a camisole.” You have to wear the additional layer on top. And that can lead to other layers. And that can be difficult. I live in a desert. Wearing garments in the desert is very difficult.

KB: It’s uncomfortable. (25:00) So I’m hearing that the friction is happening, then, on another level. We need to kind-of reinforce this idea, maybe remind Listeners that there’s this idea of gender being eternal within Mormonism.

NR: Yes.

KB: So it’s really a physical, embodied religion in that sense. So when you’re having this problem with a gendered body wearing religious symbols and both are supposed to be eternal. . . . Am I reading that right? That that’s how this spiritual friction comes into play?

NR: So the physical issues can become sources of spiritual friction. Because if God, and your promises to God, and your relationship to God are somehow embedded or represented in the garment, then physical friction with the garment, or medical problems, or difficulty with menstruation, or pregnancy, or nursing, or whatever that is, all those problems can then create a feeling of disconnection from God. So if you are beginning to resent the garment and having to wear the garment, having committed to wearing the garment, then what can sneak in there is a feeling like, “I don’t like that God has required me to do this. I’m feeling resentful toward God, or my faith, or my church for this to have happened.” And so those symbols, then, are not positive reinforcements of commitment and identity, but rather they can transform into something negative. And there are real disconnects between people who are like, “No. Garments is a beautiful practice. I feel connected to God”, which is what many people said. “I feel reminded of the temple, and the temple is this very special and sacred place. And that’s a beautiful thing in my life. And so garments are a beautiful thing in my life. I don’t have physical problems wearing them.” There’s a real disconnect between Mormons who feel that way about the garment, and then Mormons who are like, “This is a disaster. And it’s not only a disaster for me physically, it has really begun to impact my faith.” Because through the difficulty of wearing the garment, it introduced faith difficulty as well. The physical friction becomes the religious or spiritual or faith friction.

KB: And a cultural friction?

NR: Yes. Because if you take them off, yes it’s your underwear and you want to say, “Well who’s looking at underwear?”

KB: (Laughs). Well . . .

NR: But in Mormon communities these garment lines are very visible and expected. And it’s an easy way to check. Like, if I were to be in a church setting and I would notice that the woman sitting next to me . . . that she didn’t have the same garment line as everyone else. I would know that. . . “Was something wrong?” And that maybe she had broken her covenant to continue to wear the garment? Or that she had done something in her life that had led the bishop to tell her that she had to stop wearing garments. Because a garment is a symbol of the “in group” of Mormonism. The inner group of very committed individuals.

KB: And Mormons use the word “worthiness”. So when you said something was wrong there, maybe that would be what would come to mind: “She’s not as worthy”.

NR: Right. Mormons meet with their bishop for what we call “temple recommend interviews” to gain access to the temple, which is a special and sacred thing. But they have to be living the tenets of Mormonism in order to be able to do that. And to verify that they are doing that they have to have what we call a temple recommend interview. And one of the questions in the temple recommend interview is about whether or not you are wearing garments night and day as instructed in the temple. And so you can’t, then, continue to participate in the inner group of Mormons if you’re not wearing your garments. And so garments are connected . . . and there are other things that happen. For example, if you are not wearing your garments you may not be able to go to your child’s temple wedding. Or a friend or other family member’s temple wedding. And that can create real isolation. To be wearing your garments is to be more included.

KB: So it’s not just a hierarchy in a culture. It’s also a hierarchy in the religion itself and it’s tied to your salvation.

NR: Yes. Right. Because temples are spaces that reflect and represent the eternities and, to a certain degree, the afterlife in Mormonism. And wearing garments connects people to that sense of salvation and afterlife (30:00). And so not wearing your garments is, I think, for many Mormons, putting themselves in spiritual jeopardy, as well as a community jeopardy, or potential loss of community status, and so there is so much pressure in Mormon communities for people to wear garments – even though clearly, as our survey shows, there are many Mormons who struggle with this practice.

KB: Right. So not having that visible line, that visible emblem of belief, carries a lot of baggage with it.

NR: Yes.

KB: So in your presentation you talked a little bit about the circular thing of going to the temple, and being tied to family, and the garments, and it was kind-of self-reflective . . . Can you just kind-of mention that again?

NR: Sure. Which is that Mormons believe that families can be together forever. And it is the temple ceremonies that people go through that bind them – or Mormons use the term sealing: families are sealed together forever. And then garments are a part of that reminding. And part of that ongoing assurance of salvation. And then, to stop wearing that practice is to put that in jeopardy. Was that what you were . . . ?

KB: Yeah. That was what I was wondering. What does put in jeopardy . . . ? So it’s not just being able to go to the temple that’s in jeopardy. It’s this unseen layer of . . . .

NR: And so many Mormons feel that maybe if they don’t wear their garments or if they stop wearing their garments that they won’t be with their family in heaven after they die. And that is a big weight of expectation.

KB: Yeah.

NR: Where people clearly expressed a loss of agency. They felt that they then couldn’t make a choice to either create an adaptation for themselves that worked – maybe that would be to wear those sometimes, but not at other times – but there was a real resistance to feeling empowered to adapt a practice of garments that would suit their own needs. Rather, that they felt compelled to wear their garments in the way that the community expected them to. And that was necessary for salvation in the Mormon context.

KB: Right. So the sense of identity. Is that identity within yourself, identity within your community and identity of how you relate to God in the eternity?

NR: Yes.

KB: That’s pretty huge.

NR: It’s pretty huge. And you have to do it every day. And it’s something that connects. But then in many ways that’s part of the beauty of garments. That you’re connected to salvation through your underwear.

KB: It’s something so everyday.

NR: So ordinary. And I think that for good reason many Mormons find a lot of beauty in that practice.

KB: And I think that’s what made me think of Geertz. Especially like (audio unclear), unless you been in that, then you don’t know what that means. It’s not just that you decide to not to wear the camisole top one day. That, literally, taking that off is taking off a lot more than just a piece of material.

NR: Right. Garments also represent ideas of spiritual or physical protection. So it’s the sense that like God is watching over you, and people can interpret that more or less literally. But it’s the sense that God is with you and God is watching over you that’s manifest in the garment. You know, it is both beautiful and troubling. Right? And so people experience this as kind-of beautiful or troubling.

KB: Religion is kind-of that way.

NR: Right. Religion is kind-of that way. So it was just a very interesting and complex thing to study, as it turns out that when you imbue religious ideas into people’s underwear, that it just gets into the everyday messy stuff of lives.

KB: A fascinating topic, and I think there’s a lot more that you will no doubt come out with as you continue to go through the surveys. We look forward to reading more about this. Do you have anything published right now that is accessible?

NR: No we don’t. We’re working on . . . Jessica and I figured that garments is a very sexy topic. And so we’re trying to shoot for a higher tier of journal than we would normally go for, in the hopes of capturing somebody’s imagination and wanting to know about Mormon magic underwear!

KB: OK. So nothing yet, but we’ll look for that on the horizon. (35:00) And in the meantime, we wish you luck. And thank you for meeting with us today.

NR: Thank you very much.

 

ADDITIONAL AUDIO

KB: So what you said earlier in your presentation that I found really fascinating was this idea that within the doctrine – and I use that word because Mormon’s are really tied to the written word, and written instructions – the doctrine around garments is really kind-of vague.

NR: Yes.

KB: And it allows for some type of experimentation or personal interpretation and maybe adaptation.

NR: Yes. So this is the tricky thing, I think there’s one of . . . at least for the paper that I gave earlier, one of the bigger findings which is that: yes, there is technically room for adaptation; for you and God to figure out an adaptation that is appropriate and then to adopt that adaptation in good faith. But in practice, things are little trickier than that. When we looked at the data, we saw very few people feeling empowered to make adaptations that suited their needs. We saw instead, more people feeling obligated to wear the garment night and day in a more rigid way. And when we asked people for instance – after you maybe go swimming or go to the gym or something, how quickly do you put your garments back on? I’m going to pull out a rough statistic here: seventy percent of people said that they either put them on within 10 minutes of finishing the activity, or within the hour. And there were very few people who waited longer than that. And so there is a sense, and I’m wondering if this shows up in other kinds of conservative cultural issues – where we have an absence of dialogue, and discourse, and discussion, and certainly a lack of open discussion, and some very taboo topics – that the community ends up defaulting to the rules are the most strict interpretation of the rules. And even if there is, yes, technically, flexibility in the instruction, that that flexibility is never – or rarely – referenced in practice. And many people do not feel empowered to adapt in a way that technically the rules allow for. But in real life practice, when people ever talk about this – which is rare – the rules seem much more hard and fast.

KB: So they err on the side of caution, rather than experiment.

NR: Right. And that’s largely, then, what the community comes to expect. The community expects that people who have been through the temple are wearing the garments. And that kind-of in-group policing, I think, among other things, makes it difficult to find a greater space for experimentation and adaptation. The fact that we don’t talk about it makes it very difficult for people to find space for experimentation and adaptation. Because nobody’s talking about it. Nobody’s frequently saying, “Oh yeah. Well, you need to wear your garments, but if you’re having your period and it’s really not going well, just don’t worry about it.” Or, “If you have a yeast infection, give it a break for a few days.” People are not having those easy kinds of conversation. I wonder if that’s maybe similar to the way in which lots of conservative cultures insist on abstinence but refuse to talk about sex and sexuality.

KB: Right.

NR: So we default to a very conservative – you shouldn’t be kissing – very strict and conservative rules.

KB: And other ways that sexuality and the body is policed.

NR: Right. And that’s, I feel, an idea that is really kind-of evolving and developing out of this survey, is that an absence of discourse and a very conservative community – especially surrounding something like the body – doesn’t create flexibility, it creates rigidity. And that rigidity creates a lot of problems.

KB: And this is one of these paradoxes that I see with Mormonism, is that they do have this prophetic bent that they can be very experimental, and very willing to adapt in one area. But then they’re really rigid, and follow the rules – not just a spirit of the law, but the letter of the law. And it’s this paradox of, how do you hold the tension there of that? And it seems like garments is one of those areas that’s a very material thing, in every sense of the word, that you can bring up to think about that. Is that . . . ?

NR: I would absolutely agree with that. And you know, if you’re wearing your garments or if you’re not wearing your garments those are very measurable things (5:00). And you know, within Mormonism, we often . . . or fringes of Mormonism critique the “check-boxiness” of Mormonism: there’s a list of things and you’re just going to do them. And it’s very clear to say you are wearing them or you are not wearing them. And as Mormons I think we like that. We like the clearness of some rules and expectations. And therefore we default to that very literal interpretation, without there necessarily being a lot of grace for other challenges. It’s also true that men make the rules on garments. And I’m not sure that there are a lot of Mormon men – who struggle to say words like sex in public – who are interviewing women about yeast infection!

KB: Right! (Laughs).

NR: And the problems they’re experiencing during menstruation and pregnancy and nursing. And so it’s like, our taboo around other things to do with bodies creates a knock-on effect of issues. We’ve just got to learn to talk about bodies, and maybe that would resolve some issues here.

KB: Yes. Maybe that would help. I had one other thought about this idea of women’s bodies and men wanting to police them in ways that they don’t police their own bodies. So is there something that you found . . . ? I think maybe the word that kind-of comes up that you mentioned before was covenant. And that God is a very rule-making God. But since God is male, and males make the rules, how does this idea of covenant and rules fit together with policing bodies, especially women’s bodies?

NR: So that’s tricky. So Mormon men and Mormon women both . . . . When we asked people, “What do your garments mean to you?” the most common response was that they represent covenant. And men said that, and women said that.

KB: And by that you mean promises made between you and God?

NR: Yes. Related to keeping commandments, following rules, and commitment to the LDS Church. And so when people were talking about covenants that wasn’t necessarily . . . men and women didn’t have different responses there. They were like, they were responding: “My garments are evocative of my covenants” or “They are a reminder of my covenant.” They were responding in fairly similar ways and largely in ways that they had been taught to respond, and taught, “This is what garments are about. Garments are about covenants.” But this extra issue it seems, you know. . . . The issue had been why women’s bodies are policed extra, or end up being policed extra? I mean, I think historically, you know, within the rise of the evangelical movement and purity culture of the eighties and nineties, Mormonism latched onto that as well. And – not that I don’t think maybe women’s bodies weren’t policed before then – but then this kind of hyper-focus on women and girls and teenage girls as like the gatekeepers of sexuality, and really the ones to kind-of make or break this particular covenant to be chaste. Abstinence before marriage, and chaste in marriage, becomes then a responsibility of women. And so many of the issues with evangelical purity culture find their way into Mormonism and end up being wrapped up with garments as well.

KB: Yes.

NR: There’s a really good book that just came out called Pure, and it has a much longer title.

KB: Oh right.

NR: I think by Linda Kay Klein, about the purity movement. And so much of what she said really resonated with mine and other Mormon women’s experiences of feeling like our bodies were very heavily policed, and that garments were another way to do that. For women’s garments, the lace – men’s garments don’t have lace on them, and there are some forms of women’s garments that no longer have lace but that’s a very, very recent change – but it makes the garment extra-visible for women, somehow. So it’s easier to notice or not notice. And that’s just one more way that women’s bodies end up being extra-policed. By this extra bit of fabric, which is probably meant to make them look more feminine but really makes them more visible through multiple layers of clothing. And then everyone is very clear about which women are wearing garments (10:00). Where if a man is wearing a suit and tie, maybe that’s a trickier thing to see through all those layers. Yeah.

KB: Right. Interesting ok. Well thanks for clarifying that. Because it seems to be a thing that Mormonism gets caught up in in ways that other religions don’t. I think especially having an embodied male God.

NR: Yeah. And I think that there are still elements of that being pressed out.

KB: Even though they have a heavenly Mother and that’s becoming more prominent right now, there’s still this sense of this male God figure.

NR: Oh yeah. I mean I think that there would be some disagreement, among Mormons, as to whether Heavenly Mother was actually God or not God. And what the body of Heavenly Mother was like, or what the role of Heavenly Mother was like. And that’s largely . . . She exists in name only. You know. It’s largely a mystery.

KB: So is it another way that Mormon theology is a little bit lacking on, maybe?

NR: Yes.

KB: Alright. OK. Thank you. I appreciate your time.

NR: No, thank you.


Citation Info: Ross, Nancy and Kristeen Black. 2019. “LDS Garments and Agency”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/lds-garments-and-agency/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Engaging with Religion and Populism

A response to “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”

by Thomas White

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A World-Conscious Sociology of Religion?

A Response to James Spickard on “Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”

by Jonathan Tuckett

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Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

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Living in Limbo

Naomi Thompson, in her interview with the RSP, touched on very interesting points regarding youth, young people’s religiosity, and their exit from the church at teenage years. In this time-limited interview, she gave us a lot of food for thought. In this piece, I would like to discuss her responses in a mixed order while maintaining a proper flow.

Thompson begins the interview by talking about youth, a relative and ambiguous period where most identity formation takes place. I particularly liked her emphasis on youth as a post-industrialist term and how this term is perceived as a threat or a danger. Such negative treatment of the youth by adults is undoubtedly troubling. In a world dominated by the distrust of the adults towards young people, the latter respond to the former by distrusting their daily life-choices including their religious interpretations, church selections, religious rituals, etc. On the other hand, seeing the youth as a threat is a means of limiting their responsibility and eventually ruining their self-confidence. Thus, the youth never come to the age of maturity in the eyes of some adults to the extent that they are not even believed to have the mental or spiritual capacity to separate the good from the bad, shoulder the burden of life, or make sound judgments; therefore, leaving almost no elbow room for young people to make their own decisions.

The problems related to youth are not only peculiar to Christianity. Many other religious traditions, particularly Judaism and Islam, have their own issues with the young members of their religious communities. Muslim immigrant communities in the West, for example, are not always on good terms with their youth. The fear of assimilation, sensible efforts towards integration, and trying to protect one’s religiosity and piety are all part of daily discussions. ms-marvelWhile Muslim parents usually tend to act on the protective side, many young second-generation Muslims feel trapped in a purgatory between their parents and the wider society. They do not want to be isolated from the society and live in secluded enclaves, nor do they want to be fully Americanized. They are in a constant negotiation when they build their identities. This being-in-limbo situation as well as continuous negotiation requires Muslim youth to have some superhuman powers to tackle such problems. Maybe that is why, Marvel, in 2014, introduced its latest female superhero as a second-generation immigrant Muslim girl named Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel: No Normal.

Let us revisit the theme of early exit of the youth from the church. Thompson argues that we should not see this process in terms of the rejection of church or the leaving of the youth, but we should rather fix our gaze through the lens of the transformation of the religious practices by the young people themselves. This is a fair point. Although Thompson also notes that the secularization of the society is another reason for young people’s departure, as a sociologist, I think we could add a few more points to the ones mentioned by Thompson. For example, decisions taken by the churches and Sunday schools, parents’ adoption of modernity and its inherent values, finding other activities that would keep young people busy, the recent trend of “being spiritual, but not religious,” and finally the lack of a religious marketplace in European setting might be counted among some of the other reasons behind young people’s departure from the church.

I would like to delineate this religious marketplace concept a little bit. In many European countries, the churches enjoy the “sacred canopy” status (a term utilized by sociologist Peter Berger), as opposed to the United Stated, where the phenomenon of religious marketplace dominates the churches and denominations, a term we specifically use for the American context. In a sacred canopy, most citizens are automatically the member of a state-supported church. The priests receive their salary from the state and there is not much incentive to attract a few extra members to the church. Even in some secular Muslim majority countries like Turkey, all imams are paid by the government. As for the United States, churches and all other worship places are funded by the congregants. They need to find more members (whose business equivalent term is “customer”) to keep the church afloat. In such a religious marketplace situation, most churches try to cater to all demographic segments of the society. Many megachurches in America strive to keep the youth in the church by catering to their interests. For instance, Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in the U.S., has various ministries, such as young adult, high school, middle school, and children, designed for young people of all ages. On the other hand, what makes American youth more flexible than their European counterparts might be the flexibility of building their own church community rather than being a part of an established church with an age-old tradition. Those young people can take the taboo issues with them and apply them to their new church settings.

Thompson also discusses the existence of other settings for young people to get socialized into religion. Such socialization, in minority and immigrant communities in the West, usually happens through places of worship. In the United States, when a Muslim young person does not attend mosque, the options of religious socialization are seriously limited. Most immigrant communities have either a mosque or a cultural center to mingle and, even in the latter, there is usually a masjid. Mosques and masjids serve not only religious socialization purposes but also become the venues for the empowerment of women who usually have key social and administrative roles in those mosques compared with the ones in their native country.

Had there been more time, I would have liked Thompson to have shared some real-life examples on these themes from the people she interviewed and also wish I could have more space to discuss her findings. Maybe another time…

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 11 October 2016

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The Catholic Underground: Lithuanian Catholicism Under the Soviet Union

Professor of Sociology at Vytautas Magnus University, in Lithuania has changed during the counter-reformation, the First Republic after WWI, the Soviet Union, and finally after the Second Independence.

According to Dr. Alisauskiene, the Roman Catholic Church heavily dominated pre-Soviet Union Lithuania. Clergy and members of the Church were heavily involved in the politics of the country, often acting as officers of the state. Acting as agents in the public and political sphere, the clergy would make decisions on behalf of all religions, including the small minority of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Orthodox Church, Baptists, Muslims, Old Believers, and other groups, within the state. As sociologists of religion, we know that religion is embedded within culture and with the dominance of Roman Catholicism in Lithuania; it no doubt has influenced the cultural identity of the country.

During Soviet control, there was forced secularization and withdrawal of religion from the public sphere. However, the people of Lithuania were very much still connected to their religion, and often practiced their faith underground. Dr. Alisauskiene points out that the religious institutions at the time lost their property, and the religious clergy experienced destruction of their system of education and were highly persecuted and imprisoned. Religious minorities ar02were able to live their religious lives a little easier during the Soviet Union, but many still retreated to the underground community to practice their faith.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained independence allowing Roman Catholicism to regain influence in the society. The number of people that identified as Roman Catholic pre-Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union remained about the same. The Church once again established a working relationship with the state. The new constitution acknowledges the “traditional” religious communities, and the state enumerates what is considered “traditional”.

With the resurgence of Roman Catholicism in Lithuania, Dr. Alisauskiene poses the question: “what does it mean to be Roman Catholic?” For Lithuanian Roman Catholics, much of that answer lies in the historical embeddedness of Roman Catholicism even under the oppression of the Soviet Union. As Alisauskiene states, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the countries took on a role of pluralism. However in the case of Lithuania, we see the citizens almost promoting a homogeneous set of beliefs and culture. This even comes from those in religious minorities. Instead of expressing a need for pluralism and to be recognized for the differences that their religion brings to the country, religious minorities push for the security of agreeing with the majority. This also creates an overall sense of security for the country. Alisauskiene attributes this to the proximity of Lithuania to Russia in comparison with countries like Poland. Interviewer, David G. Robertson poses the question of current-day migration issues in Lithuania. With the strong stance on homogeneous cultural identity, Alisauskiene states that Lithuania is not a strong proponent of immigration and have resettled very few refugees in the current European refugee crisis.

One of the more interesting parts of this podcast is the discussion of Roman Catholicism underar03 Soviet rule. As mentioned previously, religious institutions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, lost land, buildings, and ways to educate their future clergy. As a way to show the oppression and spread the word about the treatment of the Church under Soviet control, priests and other clergy developed the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.

As was customary before the advent of social media and 24-hour news cycles, the popular means of disseminating materials and political propaganda was in the form of pamphlets and materials to be circulated among the masses. In order to show the political oppression of the Roman Catholic Church, their resilience and resistance, the clergy produced the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania in March 1972 (Dauknys 1985).  According to Rev. Pranas Dauknys in his 1985 article, “The Resistance of the Catholic Church in Lithuania Against Religious Persecution,” The Chronicle emerged out of the unanswered petitions to the Soviet government to stop the persecution of religion under Soviet control. In December of 1971, 17,054 Catholics signed a memorandum to the United Nation General Secretary outlining the religious persecution that was faced by the Lithuanian people (Dauknys 1985). The Chronicle was a series of publication that consisted of statements from Catholic practitioners and clergy of the court proceedings against members of the Church and documentation of the protests against religious discrimination. The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania remained in publication from spring 1972 until the 39th issue was released in the summer of 1979. The entire series of publications can be viewed online, here. Despite the oppression religion faced during Soviet control, Roman Catholicism remained an integral part of Lithuanian society. Believers and clergy proved to be an unstoppable force against religious persecution.

ar04

All in all, Milda Alisauskiene gives a very interesting overview of religion in Lithuania with a glimpse of what religious life looked like under Soviet Union rule. Despite the persecution faced by clergy, limited resources and educational training for new clergy, as well as limitations on public displays of religion, many believers remained faithful. Religion still unites the people and continues to serve as a crucial institution in conceptions of Lithuanian cultural identity.

References

Dauknus, Pranas. 1985. “The Resistance of the Catholic Church in Lithuania Against Religious Persecution.” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 31 (1)

 

 

 

From Secularisation to Religious Diversity: Understanding Religion in Europe

In her interview with the RSP, Grace Davie provides a survey of the history of the discipline of sociology in the study of religion, and considers the manner in which it has developed in British universities, in contrast to European models. Religion, we are told, is located in societies, and is ‘not an abstract thing’, but very concrete. Sociology, as the study of society, is thus an appropriate methodology for the study of religion. In her definition of the sociological approach to religion, Davie provides the following aspects to its methodology – discovering data, the role of explanation and description, and, finally, policy applications. Davie sees sociologists as having a necessary social and legal function in advising governments, with sociological research having wider implications for the forming of policy at state level. Indeed it may be added here that sociological methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis dominate both public and private sector investigation into social trends. Social sciences are often able to represent their immediate relevance to policy-making more effectively than other disciplines, such as those of the humanities.

Davie points out that the founders of sociology emerged at a time of profound change and even crisis in Western society, with the industrialisation and urbanisation of pre-modern society. For Davie, the late 19th and early 20th century scholars who made the major contributions to understanding these changes were: Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel. Indeed these figures represent the ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline of sociology, but it remains to be considered how this discipline relates to the study of religion. Davie makes a clear distinction between the later development of the study of religion, which she associates with contemporary figures such as Ninian Smart, and the foundations of the sociology of religion.

Since the 1950s, Davie suggests that the sociology of religion has moved away from sociology departments and into departments for religious studies and theology. There has thus been a change in where the sociology of religion is located in the university, finding itself within departments of religious studies alongside other approaches to the study of religion. This shift is, she argues, indicative of how sociology has been reluctant to take religion seriously. It might be suggested that this is also indicative of the dominance that sociological approaches have come to have for faculties of religion in UK universities, superseding other classical approaches to the study of religion, such as comparative religion and the phenomenology of religion. For Davie, there has been a ‘relocation’ of the sub-discipline of the social study of religion, from sociology to the study of religion. She highlights that the traditional departments of theology, such as Durham, have broadened into religious studies and the social study of religion. Sociology departments on the other hand like that of LSE, are Davie claims, shifting more towards anthropology and away from the sociology of religion. This comes in contrast to Europe, where in the Nordic case, sociology of religion has always been found in Lutheran theology faculties, whilst in France, theology faculties are proscribed by law in public universities and thus the sociology of religion has developed there in quite a different manner.

Finally, Davie considers the future direction of the sociology of religion and suggests there are many possibilities, but these should focus on two main themes – how European societies manage the trend towards religious diversity along with the trend towards secularisation. She also suggests that the relation of the sociology of religion to politics and history should remain of utmost importance, so that the sociology of religion can maintain its influential role in policy-making and governance. Sociologists must, she says, be ‘politically literate’ and seek to overcome the ‘religious illiteracy’ that has become prevalent in modern society. It could be argued that this religious illiteracy relates precisely to the disjunction between the two main trends that Davie believes are important for the study of religion – the move towards religious diversity and the move towards secularisation. A deeply secular society and system of governance such as France, becomes less able to tolerate the beliefs and practices of different religious groups that do not conform to its Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and la laïcité. The French model of secularity is discussed by Charles Cameron in his article for Lapido Media – a media charity that seeks to promote religious literacy in policy-making and governance. While French secularity, la laïcité, goes much further than the British form, Cameron argues, in prohibiting any influence of religion on the state, this secularism excludes those whose participation in society is guided by their religious background – particularly the French Muslim population.

Davie mentions her own research into religion in Britain and the importance of gender differences, but there are other significant religious divides in British society, aside from that demarcated by gender, between communities belonging to different religious traditions who don’t appear to understand each other, and between whom there is even hostility. Davie points out the limitations of traditional social theory in the academy – that the West has a habit of imposing its own model of religion and understanding of the sociology of religion through its own history of secularisation on other non-western cultures. However, this problem of methodology is indicative of a more substantive one, that with a more religiously diverse population that may not subscribe to modern secularism, Europe finds itself faced with conflicting views about social values. It may be said that secularisation has made the West religiously illiterate, in that it struggles to accommodate those who do not espouse its secular values, particularly the separation of religion from the state (la laïcité). As secularisation no longer appears the end point in the development of a modern society, we must find alternative theories to those established by Davie’s founding fathers of sociology. Indeed it is the comparative study of other social models, not subject to the same distinctions of the religious from the secular that have emerged in the West, which will contribute to understanding the problems that have been posed by increasing religious diversity in Europe.

Whither the Sociology of Religion?

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.

References

Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

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

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.

References

DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at www.iwm.at. [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.

 

 

[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.

Podcasts

LDS Garments and Agency

A candid discussion with Nancy Ross about Mormon women’s experiences with wearing LDS garments. From the paper “LDS Garments and Agency: A Qualitative Study of Meaning” by Nancy Ross and Jessica Finnigan: “The form of LDS garments has changed over time, from wrist-to-ankle, single-piece long underwear, to versions that included short sleeves and legs, to the two-piece styles that are common today. One of the most difficult aspects of studying garments is that talking about them is a transgressive act.” This is that boundary pushing discussion.

Looking for the additional audio mentioned in the podcast? Click on the audio player directly below:

 

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


LDS Garments and Agency

Podcast with Nancy Ross (18 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ross_-_LDS_Garments_and_Agency_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): The form of garments has changed over time from wrist-to-ankle, single-piece, long underwear, to versions that included short sleeves and legs, to the two-piece style that are common today. One of the most difficult aspects of studying garments is that talking about them is a transgressive act. Today, join us as we talk about garments. I’m here with Dr Nancy Ross, Assistant Professor at Dixie State University in St George, Utah. Welcome.

Nancy Ross (NR): Thank you. I’m really glad to be here.

KB: So, let’s talk about garments.

NR: So I should first probably begin by explaining what garments are. Sometimes they’re referred to as “Mormon magic underwear”, by popular media. And that’s a bit of a tricky thing for Mormons, definitely. That’s like super-offensive. But they are religious underwear that committed Mormons wear, night and day, for their whole lives.

KB: What do you mean by a committed Mormon?

NR: So Mormon’s have . . . . So you can go to church on a Sunday if you’re a Mormon . . . and they recently shortened it to two hours and . . .

KB: Because it used to be three!

NR: Right. The whole Mormon world is celebrating! But in addition to Sunday worship there are also opportunities for further worship or deeper worship, or deeper commitment. And those happen in LDS temples. So when people talk about the Mormon Church, they’re typically talking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Or I’m going to use the shorthand LDS church. And there are a number of LDS temples throughout the world. They’re generally very fancy looking buildings. And only committed Mormons can go inside them. And inside they make kind-of further and deeper commitments to their faith, and to God, through a number of different ceremonies – typically through the initiatory ceremony and the endowment ceremony. And in the initiatory ceremony Mormons receive garments. And that’s kind-of the starting point for wearing them for the rest of their lives.

KB: OK. And at what age do they become committed Mormons, usually?

NR: So typically Mormons go . . . we talk about it as “going to the temple for the first time”. And that often happens just prior to young adult Mormons going on a Mission, typically maybe aged eighteen or nineteen. Or it happens just prior to marriage.

KB: OK. For both men and women?

NR: For both men and women.

KB: And so not every Mormon would be committed in this sense, is that right?

NR: Correct. Many adult Mormons are. But not everybody does this in quite the same way. I have some adult Mormon women friends in their late thirties and forties who have chosen never to make this deeper commitment. I think that there are aspects about the commitment that make them feel uncomfortable.

KB: So talk about that a little bit about why it’s such a transgression to talk about garments.

NR: So everything that is associated with the Temple is Mormons would say it’s sacred, not secret. But it’s also secret.

KB: It is also pretty secret! (Laughs)

NR: And so the idea is that something is so sacred that you aren’t supposed to talk about it. And so Mormon Temple ceremonies definitely fall into that category. You are supposed to experience them with your bodies, but you don’t necessarily discuss in great detail their meaning. Even in Mormon circles I certainly have never been, or haven’t often been, part of discussions with highly committed Mormons about the meaning of temple ceremonies. But it’s something you’re supposed to do. And then, garments become the kind-of evidence, or the daily reminder, that you have made that deeper commitment to the LDS Church.

KB: OK. And in your work . . . . It’s a qualitative study. And it’s a questionnaire. And you really. . . . It seemed like you were pushing on the idea of identity.

NR: Yes. So I’ve a co-author on this particular study. Her name is Jessica Finnegan. And what happened is that at the time that we decided to do this study Jessica and I were both committed Mormons at that time, but struggling with the practice of wearing garments. We were both involved in Mormon feminist circles – Yes “the thing”! And garments often came up as a topic of discussion. (5:00) This taboo topic came up as a topic of discussion within Mormon circles which are prone to talking about the things you were not supposed to talk about. And we felt that in order to understand our experiences and our frustrations better that we wanted to study the problem. And so we decided that it would be difficult to interview participants to be interviewed about garments – because that seems very awkward, and kind-of inappropriate, particularly in a Mormon context – but that rather we would set out a survey and that people could participate in the survey anonymously and tell us what their garments meant to them. We collected a lot of demographic data. We asked people about their Mormon belief, if they agreed or disagreed with particular statements. We asked them a lot of questions about garments and how they felt about their bodies: what did it feel like to wear garments? What did their garments mean to them? And how they engaged in a practice of wearing garments. This just wasn’t a very open conversation at that time, beyond my Mormon feminist circles. And I just really needed to know. I was really struggling with issues of faith and the practice of wearing garments. And we just needed to understand. . . . I just needed to understand if it was just me.

KB: OK. So you mentioned in your work this word friction. And it sounds like there was a spiritual friction for you.

NR: Yes.

KB: And you also mention it as a difficult experience for many women especially. Talk a little bit about that.

NR: So in the Sociology of Religion there are a number of frameworks that we often use to describe particular women’s’ experiences and gender traditional religions. Agency is a very common one, I’ve used agency. But also embodiment. And embodiment is also something that’s discussed quite a lot in scholarship of religion and so forth, these days. And I’m still relatively new to embodiment. Agency is something I’ve used more. But as I understand it, a framework of embodiment – or the theory of embodiment – it’s the idea that our bodies can produce religious knowledge, or knowledge about religion and so through the life cycle and our practice of religion.

KB: Something like a Geertz type of experience, here?

NR: A little bit.

KB: OK.

NR: And really, also I think that our bodies interact with . . . you know, even going back like Judith Butler

KB: Oh, I see.

NR: You know, our bodies perform religion and our performances aren’t necessarily conscious and super-intentional. It’s just, like, the stuff of life: what we do unconsciously. And for Mormons who come to our garments, it’s just, like, what you do. It’s your underwear. It’s what you do. You just put them on. And so, over time, this particular practice was difficult. Initially when I first went through the temple and received garments it was prior to my being married. I was twenty-three. I was a grad- student. And I knew that there was a certain weirdness about the practice. But I was framing it in my mind, like, “This is what it means to be an adult in my community.” And so, at 23, and being unmarried, I hadn’t really felt like a full adult in my community. Does that make sense? And I felt like by going to the temple in preparation for a marriage, by receiving and then wearing garments daily that I was becoming a fully-fledged and recognised adult in my community. Making this deeper commitment, and then by wearing the garment day and night represented that commitment. And I was ok with that. That wasn’t something that initially bothered me. There were some initial discomforts. I always felt like my garments were trying to climb out of my neck-hole from my shirts, and I always felt like that. But initially, it was just fine. Like, “This is what it means to be an adult in my community. This is its own coming-of-age sort-of ritual. This is what it is.” And I was ok with that for a long time. But then, when I became pregnant with my first child, my body changed shape in very dramatic ways. I am short person and so my body became very round, very quickly. And the garments that I had did not easily accommodate, or created additional discomforts for my body (10:00). And so there are pregnancy and maternity garments. There are nursing garments that are supposed to help facilitate changes in the shape of women’s bodies. But many Mormon women acknowledge that maternity garments and nursing garments do not do this very well. They are not very accommodating of change in women’s bodies. And so I go through this change, I have an emergency caesarean and I’m in the hospital for a while and I’m trying to figure out how to manage the waistband of my garment bottoms with my caesarean scar. And just . . . the stuff of life and the stuff of many women’s lifespans. And then, after my first pregnancy through the process of nursing, and then getting pregnant with the second child, and going through more dramatic changes in the body. And then having, at the end of that, two very tiny children and not handling that especially well. And feeling kind-of depressed, but also feeling like I’ve been through this big thing and my body has changed. And this practice that was once ok and it was fine . . .

KB: The practice of wearing a garment?

NR: The practice of wearing garments. It was fine. I understood it in a particular cerebral way, and that largely worked. It was ok. Then it became less ok. It became trickier. I don’t know if this falls into the category of too much information . . .

KB: (Laughs).

NR: So you can just let me know. But some Mormons feel like you have to wear the garment underneath your bra. And that can make nursing an infant very difficult. Because if you’re trying to get access to your breast to feed your child and you’re suddenly having to sort out not one or two layers of clothing . . .

KB: But several!

NR: Like a whole raft of layers of clothing! That quickly gets cumbersome. And if you spend your life breastfeeding, which you do if you breastfeed an infant, that’s a lot of difficulty. And a lot of, like, wrestling with your clothing. I changed my practice so that I wasn’t wearing garments under but that felt a little bit scandalous.

KB: Still? Yeah.

NR: To me. And other women would say that that was fine. But that was not necessarily presented to me as being fine. Because I had understood that I had to wear the garment against my skin only. So anyway . . . . Lots of information about Nancy’s garments! So this practice that was initially fine, understood in a particular context and it made sense to me. It’s just that as my body changed and as my need to interact with my body changed, particularly through like the practice of nursing and just growing into a very different shape. Suddenly that didn’t work well. And suddenly things like waistbands became very uncomfortable and just too much effort. And endless tucking. You know, I was just always trying to like re-tuck in my underwear. And that became very frustrating. And so – sorry this is a long way to say this – that’s part of my embodied experience of my garments. Where initially it was ok and I felt like this was in harmony with my religious beliefs. “Yes, it was fine for God to require this of me”, as I believed the time. But then, the garment represents LDS temples and they represent covenants that Mormons make in LDS temples; covenants of commitment to God and church. And so the garments represent . . . they’re like an extension of LDS temples, they’re an extension of a particular kind of belief in God, and commitment to God. And so, as that symbol became more and more difficult to manage in my life, that’s where this – sorry, back to your friction comment – that’s where this friction was really coming from. Literally, there was more friction with my body that was still trying to figure out . . . post-pregnancy I was still trying to figure out what this new shape of my stretched-out body was like. And my new kind-of stretched-out and nursing body did not accommodate garments very well, like my pre-pregnancy and nursing body had. And so this daily everyday practice simply became very difficult. At the same time I had committed to wearing these day and night for the rest of my life. And I felt very committed to my religious belief and I didn’t feel like I could really do anything. I felt a little bit trapped in this particular practice (15:00). So that’s when we start writing papers about Mormon feminism, and we’re complaining about our garments, and we thought “Let’s study this. Let’s figure out if other women are experiencing the things that we are experiencing.” And we figured that a survey is the best way to do this for us so we go through an IRB process and write this survey. And when we put this survey out on line – we used a snowball sampling method – which we realise has some problems in terms, if you’re trying to create a representative sample. We had determined that this would not be a representative sample, but would give us some data about people’s experiences of how they felt. And we actually got more than four-and-a-half thousand responses.

KB: Which is an amazing number!

NR: Not a small number. It’s more data than you can analyse easily, that’s for sure!

KB: Right.

NR: And it turned out that a lot of people had very different experiences with their garment. And in a sense, it was comforting to find out there were many women who had had far worse experiences than Jessica and I had had! But also, there seemed to be people that had problems and seemed to be people that didn’t have problems. And there seemed to be people who were just fine with the practice and it was working for them very well in their lives, where there was no friction with body and belief. And there were other people, like me, who were really struggling. There were other people who had stopped wearing their garments. Garments had become, for one reason or another, such a really big issue. One thing we kind-of saw in the data was that . . . ok so garments largely look like men’s underwear. So if you think of men’s underwear as like a T-shirt and some boxer shorts, garments are white versions of those with some special, sacred LDS temple markings.

KB: So they’re not the full-body coverage?

NR: No, they’re not the full-body covering. That wouldn’t work in my desert location! But then, for women, it’s like a cap sleeve shirt with, like, shorts.

KB: Knee-length shorts?

NR: Yes, knee-length shorts. And what we found is that for many men . . . their garments look like the kind of underwear that they would wear, even if they weren’t Mormons, and hadn’t been through the temple.

NR: Nothing foreign to them.

NR: Right – the markings and the requirement, but not fundamentally different. But for women, there were very different issues because women’s bodies change through your lifespan, in the way that men’s bodies do not change. And women’s garments don’t look like women’s underwear. You know if I were to identify like regular standard secular women’s underwear as like a camisole and panties, this was a lot more fabric and a lot more covering. Women’s garments, until very recently, were edged with very itchy lace all over. That’s also very visible, because it creates a very distinct raised line that is visible through outer layers of clothing. And so our data really gets us into what people’s garments meant to them, and also: how are garments functioning in Mormon community? What do garments mean? What are people’s experiences with their garments? How do their garments make them feel? How do garments impact on sexual relationships and marriage relationships? And we just asked a whole raft of questions. And then we were hugely surprised when people seemed really eager to answer these questions. Because it seemed like this might be too taboo. But when we asked the questions, an overwhelming number of people were willing to answer. And so we were able to get a lot of really good data. Which was pretty neat from our research point of view.

KB: Right. So it kind-of sounds like – and I know that people will be putting these pieces together themselves already – is that in a patriarchal society, designed by men, that really police women’s bodies in every way already, it’s not a big surprise that they would be designing underwear for them without their bodies – without especially their sexualised bodies – in mind. So is that something that a lot of the response talked about directly? Or is that just kind-of an implied thing, that you can kind-of infer?

NR: No, a lot of respondents talked about body issues very directly. (20:00) And so I would say, first of all, that the data is data-polooza, and we’re still trying to pick out all of the meaningful, or the most meaningful elements of this data! But one thing is clear. Very loosely, about half of women experience their garments as interfering with their sexual relationship with their spouses. About half of women feel as though – it’s really divided half and half. Half of the women that we surveyed feel that it does impact their sexual relationships and half feel that it doesn’t. And so that’s a pretty tidy divide. Many men reported that . . . not that they felt that their own garments were unattractive, necessarily, but they reported that their wives wearing garments put them off sex. They were unattractive. And that created a problem in their intimate relationships. And so that was really interesting, that men weren’t really concerned about how they looked in their garments, but they were very concerned about how their wives looked in their garments! We didn’t really get women saying that they were concerned about the way that their husband looked in their garments. But we got a lot of women saying that garments impact the relationship they have with their bodies. So, for some of these, that was in terms of feeling sexy and attractive. For some women that was like a literal deadening of the senses. So some women felt that garments deadened their senses and prevented them from being able to feel. Some women felt that the ugliness or unattractiveness they felt from their garments had impacted their life in other ways. Some connected eating disorders with wearing garments.

KB: Oh?

NR: And so it’s not just about sex and sexiness. It’s about women’s relationship with their bodies. And garments were definitely impacting women’s relationships with their bodies in a variety of ways, where men’s bodies didn’t seem to be affected in the same ways. That’s not to say that men’s bodies are not impacted by garments. But largely they seem to be impacted differently. And so it’s not just these different mental, emotional, perception issues. Women also have reported . . . hundreds of women reported medical conditions that were caused or exacerbated by wearing garments. So, the making of garments is controlled. I can’t just, you know, learn to sew one day and whip myself up garments in a fabric or cut that suits me exactly.

KB: And you’re not supposed to modify them either?

NR: No. You’re not supposed to modify them. You’re supposed to wear them as you receive them. And you know, you go to Beehive Clothing and buy them. So there’s a particular distributor. You go to a particular place. And there is a little bit of choice in fabric and cut, but not very much. And what women experience, then, is that some women, hundreds of women, experience yeast infections which are triggered by garments; urinary tract infections, which are triggered by garments; problems with managing menstruation. When the latest version, the two-piece version of women’s garments were created I think women largely wore sanitary pads and belts. And that is not a thing I remember. I think my mom had one!

KB: (Laughs). Yeah!

NR: I think it was in her drawer, or something. But the form of underwear didn’t really matter because manging menstruation seemed to be different. It happened differently. But today, you know, it’s very common to have sanitary products with “wings”, right? And garments don’t accommodate many contemporary menstrual products very well. And so that creates a kind of messiness and a problem, in addition to pregnancy and nursing. So other women reported additional auto-immune disorders or various disorders that were impacted by the wearing of garments. Some women overheated very quickly as a result of wearing garments. Because again this isn’t like, “Well you don’t wear a camisole if you don’t want to wear a camisole.” You have to wear the additional layer on top. And that can lead to other layers. And that can be difficult. I live in a desert. Wearing garments in the desert is very difficult.

KB: It’s uncomfortable. (25:00) So I’m hearing that the friction is happening, then, on another level. We need to kind-of reinforce this idea, maybe remind Listeners that there’s this idea of gender being eternal within Mormonism.

NR: Yes.

KB: So it’s really a physical, embodied religion in that sense. So when you’re having this problem with a gendered body wearing religious symbols and both are supposed to be eternal. . . . Am I reading that right? That that’s how this spiritual friction comes into play?

NR: So the physical issues can become sources of spiritual friction. Because if God, and your promises to God, and your relationship to God are somehow embedded or represented in the garment, then physical friction with the garment, or medical problems, or difficulty with menstruation, or pregnancy, or nursing, or whatever that is, all those problems can then create a feeling of disconnection from God. So if you are beginning to resent the garment and having to wear the garment, having committed to wearing the garment, then what can sneak in there is a feeling like, “I don’t like that God has required me to do this. I’m feeling resentful toward God, or my faith, or my church for this to have happened.” And so those symbols, then, are not positive reinforcements of commitment and identity, but rather they can transform into something negative. And there are real disconnects between people who are like, “No. Garments is a beautiful practice. I feel connected to God”, which is what many people said. “I feel reminded of the temple, and the temple is this very special and sacred place. And that’s a beautiful thing in my life. And so garments are a beautiful thing in my life. I don’t have physical problems wearing them.” There’s a real disconnect between Mormons who feel that way about the garment, and then Mormons who are like, “This is a disaster. And it’s not only a disaster for me physically, it has really begun to impact my faith.” Because through the difficulty of wearing the garment, it introduced faith difficulty as well. The physical friction becomes the religious or spiritual or faith friction.

KB: And a cultural friction?

NR: Yes. Because if you take them off, yes it’s your underwear and you want to say, “Well who’s looking at underwear?”

KB: (Laughs). Well . . .

NR: But in Mormon communities these garment lines are very visible and expected. And it’s an easy way to check. Like, if I were to be in a church setting and I would notice that the woman sitting next to me . . . that she didn’t have the same garment line as everyone else. I would know that. . . “Was something wrong?” And that maybe she had broken her covenant to continue to wear the garment? Or that she had done something in her life that had led the bishop to tell her that she had to stop wearing garments. Because a garment is a symbol of the “in group” of Mormonism. The inner group of very committed individuals.

KB: And Mormons use the word “worthiness”. So when you said something was wrong there, maybe that would be what would come to mind: “She’s not as worthy”.

NR: Right. Mormons meet with their bishop for what we call “temple recommend interviews” to gain access to the temple, which is a special and sacred thing. But they have to be living the tenets of Mormonism in order to be able to do that. And to verify that they are doing that they have to have what we call a temple recommend interview. And one of the questions in the temple recommend interview is about whether or not you are wearing garments night and day as instructed in the temple. And so you can’t, then, continue to participate in the inner group of Mormons if you’re not wearing your garments. And so garments are connected . . . and there are other things that happen. For example, if you are not wearing your garments you may not be able to go to your child’s temple wedding. Or a friend or other family member’s temple wedding. And that can create real isolation. To be wearing your garments is to be more included.

KB: So it’s not just a hierarchy in a culture. It’s also a hierarchy in the religion itself and it’s tied to your salvation.

NR: Yes. Right. Because temples are spaces that reflect and represent the eternities and, to a certain degree, the afterlife in Mormonism. And wearing garments connects people to that sense of salvation and afterlife (30:00). And so not wearing your garments is, I think, for many Mormons, putting themselves in spiritual jeopardy, as well as a community jeopardy, or potential loss of community status, and so there is so much pressure in Mormon communities for people to wear garments – even though clearly, as our survey shows, there are many Mormons who struggle with this practice.

KB: Right. So not having that visible line, that visible emblem of belief, carries a lot of baggage with it.

NR: Yes.

KB: So in your presentation you talked a little bit about the circular thing of going to the temple, and being tied to family, and the garments, and it was kind-of self-reflective . . . Can you just kind-of mention that again?

NR: Sure. Which is that Mormons believe that families can be together forever. And it is the temple ceremonies that people go through that bind them – or Mormons use the term sealing: families are sealed together forever. And then garments are a part of that reminding. And part of that ongoing assurance of salvation. And then, to stop wearing that practice is to put that in jeopardy. Was that what you were . . . ?

KB: Yeah. That was what I was wondering. What does put in jeopardy . . . ? So it’s not just being able to go to the temple that’s in jeopardy. It’s this unseen layer of . . . .

NR: And so many Mormons feel that maybe if they don’t wear their garments or if they stop wearing their garments that they won’t be with their family in heaven after they die. And that is a big weight of expectation.

KB: Yeah.

NR: Where people clearly expressed a loss of agency. They felt that they then couldn’t make a choice to either create an adaptation for themselves that worked – maybe that would be to wear those sometimes, but not at other times – but there was a real resistance to feeling empowered to adapt a practice of garments that would suit their own needs. Rather, that they felt compelled to wear their garments in the way that the community expected them to. And that was necessary for salvation in the Mormon context.

KB: Right. So the sense of identity. Is that identity within yourself, identity within your community and identity of how you relate to God in the eternity?

NR: Yes.

KB: That’s pretty huge.

NR: It’s pretty huge. And you have to do it every day. And it’s something that connects. But then in many ways that’s part of the beauty of garments. That you’re connected to salvation through your underwear.

KB: It’s something so everyday.

NR: So ordinary. And I think that for good reason many Mormons find a lot of beauty in that practice.

KB: And I think that’s what made me think of Geertz. Especially like (audio unclear), unless you been in that, then you don’t know what that means. It’s not just that you decide to not to wear the camisole top one day. That, literally, taking that off is taking off a lot more than just a piece of material.

NR: Right. Garments also represent ideas of spiritual or physical protection. So it’s the sense that like God is watching over you, and people can interpret that more or less literally. But it’s the sense that God is with you and God is watching over you that’s manifest in the garment. You know, it is both beautiful and troubling. Right? And so people experience this as kind-of beautiful or troubling.

KB: Religion is kind-of that way.

NR: Right. Religion is kind-of that way. So it was just a very interesting and complex thing to study, as it turns out that when you imbue religious ideas into people’s underwear, that it just gets into the everyday messy stuff of lives.

KB: A fascinating topic, and I think there’s a lot more that you will no doubt come out with as you continue to go through the surveys. We look forward to reading more about this. Do you have anything published right now that is accessible?

NR: No we don’t. We’re working on . . . Jessica and I figured that garments is a very sexy topic. And so we’re trying to shoot for a higher tier of journal than we would normally go for, in the hopes of capturing somebody’s imagination and wanting to know about Mormon magic underwear!

KB: OK. So nothing yet, but we’ll look for that on the horizon. (35:00) And in the meantime, we wish you luck. And thank you for meeting with us today.

NR: Thank you very much.

 

ADDITIONAL AUDIO

KB: So what you said earlier in your presentation that I found really fascinating was this idea that within the doctrine – and I use that word because Mormon’s are really tied to the written word, and written instructions – the doctrine around garments is really kind-of vague.

NR: Yes.

KB: And it allows for some type of experimentation or personal interpretation and maybe adaptation.

NR: Yes. So this is the tricky thing, I think there’s one of . . . at least for the paper that I gave earlier, one of the bigger findings which is that: yes, there is technically room for adaptation; for you and God to figure out an adaptation that is appropriate and then to adopt that adaptation in good faith. But in practice, things are little trickier than that. When we looked at the data, we saw very few people feeling empowered to make adaptations that suited their needs. We saw instead, more people feeling obligated to wear the garment night and day in a more rigid way. And when we asked people for instance – after you maybe go swimming or go to the gym or something, how quickly do you put your garments back on? I’m going to pull out a rough statistic here: seventy percent of people said that they either put them on within 10 minutes of finishing the activity, or within the hour. And there were very few people who waited longer than that. And so there is a sense, and I’m wondering if this shows up in other kinds of conservative cultural issues – where we have an absence of dialogue, and discourse, and discussion, and certainly a lack of open discussion, and some very taboo topics – that the community ends up defaulting to the rules are the most strict interpretation of the rules. And even if there is, yes, technically, flexibility in the instruction, that that flexibility is never – or rarely – referenced in practice. And many people do not feel empowered to adapt in a way that technically the rules allow for. But in real life practice, when people ever talk about this – which is rare – the rules seem much more hard and fast.

KB: So they err on the side of caution, rather than experiment.

NR: Right. And that’s largely, then, what the community comes to expect. The community expects that people who have been through the temple are wearing the garments. And that kind-of in-group policing, I think, among other things, makes it difficult to find a greater space for experimentation and adaptation. The fact that we don’t talk about it makes it very difficult for people to find space for experimentation and adaptation. Because nobody’s talking about it. Nobody’s frequently saying, “Oh yeah. Well, you need to wear your garments, but if you’re having your period and it’s really not going well, just don’t worry about it.” Or, “If you have a yeast infection, give it a break for a few days.” People are not having those easy kinds of conversation. I wonder if that’s maybe similar to the way in which lots of conservative cultures insist on abstinence but refuse to talk about sex and sexuality.

KB: Right.

NR: So we default to a very conservative – you shouldn’t be kissing – very strict and conservative rules.

KB: And other ways that sexuality and the body is policed.

NR: Right. And that’s, I feel, an idea that is really kind-of evolving and developing out of this survey, is that an absence of discourse and a very conservative community – especially surrounding something like the body – doesn’t create flexibility, it creates rigidity. And that rigidity creates a lot of problems.

KB: And this is one of these paradoxes that I see with Mormonism, is that they do have this prophetic bent that they can be very experimental, and very willing to adapt in one area. But then they’re really rigid, and follow the rules – not just a spirit of the law, but the letter of the law. And it’s this paradox of, how do you hold the tension there of that? And it seems like garments is one of those areas that’s a very material thing, in every sense of the word, that you can bring up to think about that. Is that . . . ?

NR: I would absolutely agree with that. And you know, if you’re wearing your garments or if you’re not wearing your garments those are very measurable things (5:00). And you know, within Mormonism, we often . . . or fringes of Mormonism critique the “check-boxiness” of Mormonism: there’s a list of things and you’re just going to do them. And it’s very clear to say you are wearing them or you are not wearing them. And as Mormons I think we like that. We like the clearness of some rules and expectations. And therefore we default to that very literal interpretation, without there necessarily being a lot of grace for other challenges. It’s also true that men make the rules on garments. And I’m not sure that there are a lot of Mormon men – who struggle to say words like sex in public – who are interviewing women about yeast infection!

KB: Right! (Laughs).

NR: And the problems they’re experiencing during menstruation and pregnancy and nursing. And so it’s like, our taboo around other things to do with bodies creates a knock-on effect of issues. We’ve just got to learn to talk about bodies, and maybe that would resolve some issues here.

KB: Yes. Maybe that would help. I had one other thought about this idea of women’s bodies and men wanting to police them in ways that they don’t police their own bodies. So is there something that you found . . . ? I think maybe the word that kind-of comes up that you mentioned before was covenant. And that God is a very rule-making God. But since God is male, and males make the rules, how does this idea of covenant and rules fit together with policing bodies, especially women’s bodies?

NR: So that’s tricky. So Mormon men and Mormon women both . . . . When we asked people, “What do your garments mean to you?” the most common response was that they represent covenant. And men said that, and women said that.

KB: And by that you mean promises made between you and God?

NR: Yes. Related to keeping commandments, following rules, and commitment to the LDS Church. And so when people were talking about covenants that wasn’t necessarily . . . men and women didn’t have different responses there. They were like, they were responding: “My garments are evocative of my covenants” or “They are a reminder of my covenant.” They were responding in fairly similar ways and largely in ways that they had been taught to respond, and taught, “This is what garments are about. Garments are about covenants.” But this extra issue it seems, you know. . . . The issue had been why women’s bodies are policed extra, or end up being policed extra? I mean, I think historically, you know, within the rise of the evangelical movement and purity culture of the eighties and nineties, Mormonism latched onto that as well. And – not that I don’t think maybe women’s bodies weren’t policed before then – but then this kind of hyper-focus on women and girls and teenage girls as like the gatekeepers of sexuality, and really the ones to kind-of make or break this particular covenant to be chaste. Abstinence before marriage, and chaste in marriage, becomes then a responsibility of women. And so many of the issues with evangelical purity culture find their way into Mormonism and end up being wrapped up with garments as well.

KB: Yes.

NR: There’s a really good book that just came out called Pure, and it has a much longer title.

KB: Oh right.

NR: I think by Linda Kay Klein, about the purity movement. And so much of what she said really resonated with mine and other Mormon women’s experiences of feeling like our bodies were very heavily policed, and that garments were another way to do that. For women’s garments, the lace – men’s garments don’t have lace on them, and there are some forms of women’s garments that no longer have lace but that’s a very, very recent change – but it makes the garment extra-visible for women, somehow. So it’s easier to notice or not notice. And that’s just one more way that women’s bodies end up being extra-policed. By this extra bit of fabric, which is probably meant to make them look more feminine but really makes them more visible through multiple layers of clothing. And then everyone is very clear about which women are wearing garments (10:00). Where if a man is wearing a suit and tie, maybe that’s a trickier thing to see through all those layers. Yeah.

KB: Right. Interesting ok. Well thanks for clarifying that. Because it seems to be a thing that Mormonism gets caught up in in ways that other religions don’t. I think especially having an embodied male God.

NR: Yeah. And I think that there are still elements of that being pressed out.

KB: Even though they have a heavenly Mother and that’s becoming more prominent right now, there’s still this sense of this male God figure.

NR: Oh yeah. I mean I think that there would be some disagreement, among Mormons, as to whether Heavenly Mother was actually God or not God. And what the body of Heavenly Mother was like, or what the role of Heavenly Mother was like. And that’s largely . . . She exists in name only. You know. It’s largely a mystery.

KB: So is it another way that Mormon theology is a little bit lacking on, maybe?

NR: Yes.

KB: Alright. OK. Thank you. I appreciate your time.

NR: No, thank you.


Citation Info: Ross, Nancy and Kristeen Black. 2019. “LDS Garments and Agency”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/lds-garments-and-agency/

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Engaging with Religion and Populism

A response to “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”

by Thomas White

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A World-Conscious Sociology of Religion?

A Response to James Spickard on “Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”

by Jonathan Tuckett

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Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Living in Limbo

Naomi Thompson, in her interview with the RSP, touched on very interesting points regarding youth, young people’s religiosity, and their exit from the church at teenage years. In this time-limited interview, she gave us a lot of food for thought. In this piece, I would like to discuss her responses in a mixed order while maintaining a proper flow.

Thompson begins the interview by talking about youth, a relative and ambiguous period where most identity formation takes place. I particularly liked her emphasis on youth as a post-industrialist term and how this term is perceived as a threat or a danger. Such negative treatment of the youth by adults is undoubtedly troubling. In a world dominated by the distrust of the adults towards young people, the latter respond to the former by distrusting their daily life-choices including their religious interpretations, church selections, religious rituals, etc. On the other hand, seeing the youth as a threat is a means of limiting their responsibility and eventually ruining their self-confidence. Thus, the youth never come to the age of maturity in the eyes of some adults to the extent that they are not even believed to have the mental or spiritual capacity to separate the good from the bad, shoulder the burden of life, or make sound judgments; therefore, leaving almost no elbow room for young people to make their own decisions.

The problems related to youth are not only peculiar to Christianity. Many other religious traditions, particularly Judaism and Islam, have their own issues with the young members of their religious communities. Muslim immigrant communities in the West, for example, are not always on good terms with their youth. The fear of assimilation, sensible efforts towards integration, and trying to protect one’s religiosity and piety are all part of daily discussions. ms-marvelWhile Muslim parents usually tend to act on the protective side, many young second-generation Muslims feel trapped in a purgatory between their parents and the wider society. They do not want to be isolated from the society and live in secluded enclaves, nor do they want to be fully Americanized. They are in a constant negotiation when they build their identities. This being-in-limbo situation as well as continuous negotiation requires Muslim youth to have some superhuman powers to tackle such problems. Maybe that is why, Marvel, in 2014, introduced its latest female superhero as a second-generation immigrant Muslim girl named Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel: No Normal.

Let us revisit the theme of early exit of the youth from the church. Thompson argues that we should not see this process in terms of the rejection of church or the leaving of the youth, but we should rather fix our gaze through the lens of the transformation of the religious practices by the young people themselves. This is a fair point. Although Thompson also notes that the secularization of the society is another reason for young people’s departure, as a sociologist, I think we could add a few more points to the ones mentioned by Thompson. For example, decisions taken by the churches and Sunday schools, parents’ adoption of modernity and its inherent values, finding other activities that would keep young people busy, the recent trend of “being spiritual, but not religious,” and finally the lack of a religious marketplace in European setting might be counted among some of the other reasons behind young people’s departure from the church.

I would like to delineate this religious marketplace concept a little bit. In many European countries, the churches enjoy the “sacred canopy” status (a term utilized by sociologist Peter Berger), as opposed to the United Stated, where the phenomenon of religious marketplace dominates the churches and denominations, a term we specifically use for the American context. In a sacred canopy, most citizens are automatically the member of a state-supported church. The priests receive their salary from the state and there is not much incentive to attract a few extra members to the church. Even in some secular Muslim majority countries like Turkey, all imams are paid by the government. As for the United States, churches and all other worship places are funded by the congregants. They need to find more members (whose business equivalent term is “customer”) to keep the church afloat. In such a religious marketplace situation, most churches try to cater to all demographic segments of the society. Many megachurches in America strive to keep the youth in the church by catering to their interests. For instance, Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in the U.S., has various ministries, such as young adult, high school, middle school, and children, designed for young people of all ages. On the other hand, what makes American youth more flexible than their European counterparts might be the flexibility of building their own church community rather than being a part of an established church with an age-old tradition. Those young people can take the taboo issues with them and apply them to their new church settings.

Thompson also discusses the existence of other settings for young people to get socialized into religion. Such socialization, in minority and immigrant communities in the West, usually happens through places of worship. In the United States, when a Muslim young person does not attend mosque, the options of religious socialization are seriously limited. Most immigrant communities have either a mosque or a cultural center to mingle and, even in the latter, there is usually a masjid. Mosques and masjids serve not only religious socialization purposes but also become the venues for the empowerment of women who usually have key social and administrative roles in those mosques compared with the ones in their native country.

Had there been more time, I would have liked Thompson to have shared some real-life examples on these themes from the people she interviewed and also wish I could have more space to discuss her findings. Maybe another time…

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 11 October 2016

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The Catholic Underground: Lithuanian Catholicism Under the Soviet Union

Professor of Sociology at Vytautas Magnus University, in Lithuania has changed during the counter-reformation, the First Republic after WWI, the Soviet Union, and finally after the Second Independence.

According to Dr. Alisauskiene, the Roman Catholic Church heavily dominated pre-Soviet Union Lithuania. Clergy and members of the Church were heavily involved in the politics of the country, often acting as officers of the state. Acting as agents in the public and political sphere, the clergy would make decisions on behalf of all religions, including the small minority of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Orthodox Church, Baptists, Muslims, Old Believers, and other groups, within the state. As sociologists of religion, we know that religion is embedded within culture and with the dominance of Roman Catholicism in Lithuania; it no doubt has influenced the cultural identity of the country.

During Soviet control, there was forced secularization and withdrawal of religion from the public sphere. However, the people of Lithuania were very much still connected to their religion, and often practiced their faith underground. Dr. Alisauskiene points out that the religious institutions at the time lost their property, and the religious clergy experienced destruction of their system of education and were highly persecuted and imprisoned. Religious minorities ar02were able to live their religious lives a little easier during the Soviet Union, but many still retreated to the underground community to practice their faith.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained independence allowing Roman Catholicism to regain influence in the society. The number of people that identified as Roman Catholic pre-Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union remained about the same. The Church once again established a working relationship with the state. The new constitution acknowledges the “traditional” religious communities, and the state enumerates what is considered “traditional”.

With the resurgence of Roman Catholicism in Lithuania, Dr. Alisauskiene poses the question: “what does it mean to be Roman Catholic?” For Lithuanian Roman Catholics, much of that answer lies in the historical embeddedness of Roman Catholicism even under the oppression of the Soviet Union. As Alisauskiene states, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the countries took on a role of pluralism. However in the case of Lithuania, we see the citizens almost promoting a homogeneous set of beliefs and culture. This even comes from those in religious minorities. Instead of expressing a need for pluralism and to be recognized for the differences that their religion brings to the country, religious minorities push for the security of agreeing with the majority. This also creates an overall sense of security for the country. Alisauskiene attributes this to the proximity of Lithuania to Russia in comparison with countries like Poland. Interviewer, David G. Robertson poses the question of current-day migration issues in Lithuania. With the strong stance on homogeneous cultural identity, Alisauskiene states that Lithuania is not a strong proponent of immigration and have resettled very few refugees in the current European refugee crisis.

One of the more interesting parts of this podcast is the discussion of Roman Catholicism underar03 Soviet rule. As mentioned previously, religious institutions, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, lost land, buildings, and ways to educate their future clergy. As a way to show the oppression and spread the word about the treatment of the Church under Soviet control, priests and other clergy developed the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.

As was customary before the advent of social media and 24-hour news cycles, the popular means of disseminating materials and political propaganda was in the form of pamphlets and materials to be circulated among the masses. In order to show the political oppression of the Roman Catholic Church, their resilience and resistance, the clergy produced the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania in March 1972 (Dauknys 1985).  According to Rev. Pranas Dauknys in his 1985 article, “The Resistance of the Catholic Church in Lithuania Against Religious Persecution,” The Chronicle emerged out of the unanswered petitions to the Soviet government to stop the persecution of religion under Soviet control. In December of 1971, 17,054 Catholics signed a memorandum to the United Nation General Secretary outlining the religious persecution that was faced by the Lithuanian people (Dauknys 1985). The Chronicle was a series of publication that consisted of statements from Catholic practitioners and clergy of the court proceedings against members of the Church and documentation of the protests against religious discrimination. The Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania remained in publication from spring 1972 until the 39th issue was released in the summer of 1979. The entire series of publications can be viewed online, here. Despite the oppression religion faced during Soviet control, Roman Catholicism remained an integral part of Lithuanian society. Believers and clergy proved to be an unstoppable force against religious persecution.

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All in all, Milda Alisauskiene gives a very interesting overview of religion in Lithuania with a glimpse of what religious life looked like under Soviet Union rule. Despite the persecution faced by clergy, limited resources and educational training for new clergy, as well as limitations on public displays of religion, many believers remained faithful. Religion still unites the people and continues to serve as a crucial institution in conceptions of Lithuanian cultural identity.

References

Dauknus, Pranas. 1985. “The Resistance of the Catholic Church in Lithuania Against Religious Persecution.” Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 31 (1)

 

 

 

From Secularisation to Religious Diversity: Understanding Religion in Europe

In her interview with the RSP, Grace Davie provides a survey of the history of the discipline of sociology in the study of religion, and considers the manner in which it has developed in British universities, in contrast to European models. Religion, we are told, is located in societies, and is ‘not an abstract thing’, but very concrete. Sociology, as the study of society, is thus an appropriate methodology for the study of religion. In her definition of the sociological approach to religion, Davie provides the following aspects to its methodology – discovering data, the role of explanation and description, and, finally, policy applications. Davie sees sociologists as having a necessary social and legal function in advising governments, with sociological research having wider implications for the forming of policy at state level. Indeed it may be added here that sociological methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis dominate both public and private sector investigation into social trends. Social sciences are often able to represent their immediate relevance to policy-making more effectively than other disciplines, such as those of the humanities.

Davie points out that the founders of sociology emerged at a time of profound change and even crisis in Western society, with the industrialisation and urbanisation of pre-modern society. For Davie, the late 19th and early 20th century scholars who made the major contributions to understanding these changes were: Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Simmel. Indeed these figures represent the ‘founding fathers’ of the discipline of sociology, but it remains to be considered how this discipline relates to the study of religion. Davie makes a clear distinction between the later development of the study of religion, which she associates with contemporary figures such as Ninian Smart, and the foundations of the sociology of religion.

Since the 1950s, Davie suggests that the sociology of religion has moved away from sociology departments and into departments for religious studies and theology. There has thus been a change in where the sociology of religion is located in the university, finding itself within departments of religious studies alongside other approaches to the study of religion. This shift is, she argues, indicative of how sociology has been reluctant to take religion seriously. It might be suggested that this is also indicative of the dominance that sociological approaches have come to have for faculties of religion in UK universities, superseding other classical approaches to the study of religion, such as comparative religion and the phenomenology of religion. For Davie, there has been a ‘relocation’ of the sub-discipline of the social study of religion, from sociology to the study of religion. She highlights that the traditional departments of theology, such as Durham, have broadened into religious studies and the social study of religion. Sociology departments on the other hand like that of LSE, are Davie claims, shifting more towards anthropology and away from the sociology of religion. This comes in contrast to Europe, where in the Nordic case, sociology of religion has always been found in Lutheran theology faculties, whilst in France, theology faculties are proscribed by law in public universities and thus the sociology of religion has developed there in quite a different manner.

Finally, Davie considers the future direction of the sociology of religion and suggests there are many possibilities, but these should focus on two main themes – how European societies manage the trend towards religious diversity along with the trend towards secularisation. She also suggests that the relation of the sociology of religion to politics and history should remain of utmost importance, so that the sociology of religion can maintain its influential role in policy-making and governance. Sociologists must, she says, be ‘politically literate’ and seek to overcome the ‘religious illiteracy’ that has become prevalent in modern society. It could be argued that this religious illiteracy relates precisely to the disjunction between the two main trends that Davie believes are important for the study of religion – the move towards religious diversity and the move towards secularisation. A deeply secular society and system of governance such as France, becomes less able to tolerate the beliefs and practices of different religious groups that do not conform to its Republican values of liberté, égalité, fraternité and la laïcité. The French model of secularity is discussed by Charles Cameron in his article for Lapido Media – a media charity that seeks to promote religious literacy in policy-making and governance. While French secularity, la laïcité, goes much further than the British form, Cameron argues, in prohibiting any influence of religion on the state, this secularism excludes those whose participation in society is guided by their religious background – particularly the French Muslim population.

Davie mentions her own research into religion in Britain and the importance of gender differences, but there are other significant religious divides in British society, aside from that demarcated by gender, between communities belonging to different religious traditions who don’t appear to understand each other, and between whom there is even hostility. Davie points out the limitations of traditional social theory in the academy – that the West has a habit of imposing its own model of religion and understanding of the sociology of religion through its own history of secularisation on other non-western cultures. However, this problem of methodology is indicative of a more substantive one, that with a more religiously diverse population that may not subscribe to modern secularism, Europe finds itself faced with conflicting views about social values. It may be said that secularisation has made the West religiously illiterate, in that it struggles to accommodate those who do not espouse its secular values, particularly the separation of religion from the state (la laïcité). As secularisation no longer appears the end point in the development of a modern society, we must find alternative theories to those established by Davie’s founding fathers of sociology. Indeed it is the comparative study of other social models, not subject to the same distinctions of the religious from the secular that have emerged in the West, which will contribute to understanding the problems that have been posed by increasing religious diversity in Europe.

Whither the Sociology of Religion?

Grace Davie’s discussion of the sociology of religion provides a comprehensive overview of the field. She offers insights garnered from her own eminent career within British sociology of religion and speaks directly to the ways in which the field has been shaped as much by its social location and historical movements as it has been by theoretical innovations and scholarly developments. Her overview will serve as the foundation for the Religious Studies Project’s forthcoming series of discussions covering a broad spectrum of topics related to sociological inquiry into religion. This podcast could be easily integrated into course materials for undergraduate courses as it provides a succinct description of the field’s history and attends to questions of its public worth, which I imagine could prompt lively classroom discussion and debate. In addition, Davie’s unassuming discussion of the multiple shifts the field has taken over the course of her own career should warrant consideration on the part of junior scholars in any discipline who are thinking about the larger trajectory of their careers and the ways in which we balance our scholarly interests, pedagogical ambitions, and institutional obligations. In this context, Davie wants us to take seriously the social value of and potential contributions by the sociology of religion to both policy-making and inspiring empathy for those we (along with our students and the general public) might think of as ‘other’ or foreign.

I do not have a lot to offer by way of critical comments about Davie’s history of the discipline. I agree with her assessment that more consideration is warranted of the fluid nature of the field as it flows from the social location of its various schools of thought. I too am interested in thinking about the ways that new technologies, online religions, and artificial intelligence offer innovative frameworks for thinking about religious practices—both for adherents of religious traditions and for scholars who study them. I find Davie’s assumptions concerning the category of religion to be too concrete for my own use (both in terms of how I conceptualize it as a scholar, but also in how I see religious adherents making use of it); since this topic has been covered extensively as of late on the Religious Studies Project blog, I will set it aside and instead speak to what I see as the primary intention of this podcast: to offer a comprehensive framework for moving forward by considering the past, current, and future routes available to sociologists of religion.

In a comparable reflection on his career teaching about religion in public institutions, Jonathan Z. Smith describes a conversation he had with a senior colleague at an early juncture in his career. In that conversation, his would-be mentor remarked that the study of religion would survive as long as it continued to tether itself to theological studies. Smith imagines a Purusha-like sacrifice whereby the field is somehow partitioned up and sacrificially offered in a way that serves the almighty, eternal aims of divinity education (Smith 1995). While Davie’s description of the sociology of religion—both its origins and its future—does not prescriptively suppose that the field ought to uncritically follow the beck and call of transcendent forces, a similar logic is at work both in the way she relates the history of the field within the United Kingdom and her own illustrious career at its helm. In a tone that is slightly wistful, Davie relates that the sociology of religion has shifted its allegiances from departments of sociology to religious studies (and into anthropology departments) which she sees as an indicator that sociology does not take religion seriously. In many ways, this shift she describes resonates with the shift Smith and others observe concerning the transition from theological studies to the study of religion.

My allusion to Purusha is not intended to suggest a disagreement with Davie’s assessment of the field but rather to call for a critical inquiry into the work we do under the broad banner of sociology of religion. Purusha, of course, is the primordial man of the Rig Veda whose ceremonial sacrifice generates the caste system—one of countless instances in which we see the introduction of a religious narrative to buttress political hierarchies and social inequalities. In other words, it stands as a story recounted in such a way that makes the social system it speaks to appear inevitable (cf. Martin 2016). I wonder if I detect something similar in Davie’s description of the field and its usefulness. In her analysis of the four key historical figures within the sociology of religion—Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel—one can almost detect an arbitrary division of the body, brain, heart, and feet akin to the Purusha narrative. I cannot help but think that the field’s continued reliance on these classical thinkers (with the addition of other standbys such as Berger and Luckmann, Stark and Finke, and various scholars associated with the Secularization Thesis) works to limit the possibilities for analysis to those concerns raised by such figures even in the midst of increased calls for non-Western scholarly interlocutors and more diverse research sites.

An additional parceling of roles is revealed in her treatment of the current tenure of the sociology of religion. Davie makes the important point that the field is dependent on its own social locations. While it emerged in concert with modern European thought, the industrial revolution, urbanization, and shifting patterns of human migration, the discipline is one that attends to the particularities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of its home base. In this vein, Davie almost seems to suggest that the British, Nordic, French, and American varieties of sociology of religion should be treated as separate species that exist as they do as much because of their theoretical foci as the content of religious activities therein—while not explicitly stated as such or presumably her intention, an overly defensive reading (from an American perspective) of Davie’s description of sociology of religion in the United States might conclude that she thinks Donald Trump is a direct consequence of Rational Choice Theory.

Trump is low-hanging fruit but Davie’s evocation of his role within the evangelical corpus speaks to our need for a more critical approach within the sociology of religion, specifically one that seeks to broaden our understanding of how religious adherents negotiate competing claims to their social identities. As a strategist (if we care to call him such), Trump is not employing the same tactics that brought Bush, Reagan, and even Clinton to power. He is not attempting to ‘win’ the evangelical vote based on appealing to their religious sensitivities or by speaking their language (cf. Lincoln 2003). Instead, a more interesting analysis might be undertaken that considers the ways that Trump is working to garner a conservative Protestant base that supports him despite his lack of religious fluency, moral virtue, or cultural resonance with the everyday lives of American evangelicals. In other words, evangelicals are not stupid; they know that Trump is not one of them. If he mobilizes their vote, it will reveal less about the religious beliefs of Americans or the political imagination of conservative Protestants, but rather will speak to the economic, foreign, and social policies that, at least for this election cycle, are perceived as trumping religious proclivities. As with Purusha, evangelical ‘belief in’ or ‘support for’ Trump is only interesting so far as we can locate its social consequences, many of which may prove to be unintended. In this context, the role of scholars of religion is, in part, to delve into and bring to light those instances where religious beliefs, traditions, and identities are incoherent, inconsistent, and contradictory.

Davie’s evocation of the perceived allegiances between conservative Protestantism and American political networks reminds us that the history of the sociology of religion in the United States has taken a markedly different path than its British counterpart. Whereas, as Davie notes, SOCREL has flourished in the British Sociological Association and now stands as its second largest unit, American academic societies have not always been as welcoming towards sociologists of religion, many of whom were themselves religiously-minded and fearful of the Marxist and atheist factions within the American Sociological Association (ASA). While the ASA has been in existence since 1961, it was not until 1994 that the sociology of religion section was established. Instead, a network of alternative associations were established in the mid-twentieth century which were sympathetic to Catholic and Protestant sociologists. The effects of such bifurcation has been, in many instances (although certainly not all) an emphasis on scholarship that provides a service to religion and lacks an explicit critique (Stark and Finke 2000: 15-16; cf. Blasi 2014). More recently, the Sociology of Religion group of the American Academy of Religion (founded in 2008 by Titus Hjelm, a UK-based sociologist and Ipsita Chatterjea, who was at the time a graduate student at Vanderbilt University; it is now chaired by Warren Goldstein and myself) was established as response to a perceived need for engagement with critical and analytical approaches drawn from sociology as a whole. Perhaps as a consequence of its home in the American Academy of Religion, the Sociology of Religion group has not served as a platform for Rational Choice Theory but rather has sought to carve out a space for interdisciplinary conversations devoted to empirically-grounded, theoretically-rich scholarship that employs a critical lens in its consideration of both the categories associated with religions and the means through which religious adherents represent themselves and their perceptions of the world and the understudied occasions where such concerns fall apart.

The possibilities for future directions in the sociology of religion are open, and I concur with Davie that the discipline’s future will likely be shaped as much by the tools it employs in its analysis as it is by its content. No more so perhaps than any other field of study, but hopefully with an increased awareness of the ways in which we as scholars arrange the data. Davie’s thorough outline of the field alongside the forthcoming podcasts from this series are a promising step towards its development.

References

Blasi AJ (2014). Sociology of Religion in America: A History of a Secular Fascination with Religion. Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Lincoln, B (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, C (2016). Religion as Ideology: Recycled Culture vs. World Religions. In Cotter C and Robertson D (eds) After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. New York: Routledge, pp.63-74.

Smith, JZ (1995). Afterward: Religious Studies: Whither (wither) and Why? Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 7(4): 407-414.

Stark, R and Finke R (2000). Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

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

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.

References

DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at www.iwm.at. [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.

 

 

[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.