At this point, many of those young people are turning away from organized religions. Historically, about 5 percent of people identified as having no religion at all. “Among young people, that figure is now 30 percent,” according to [Robert] Putnam’s research [including in American Grace]. “It’s a huge increase.”
Many of those young people say they believe in god, they simply don’t belong to an organized religion. And, since the “habits you form early tend to stick with you,” Putnam says, “That rapid increase in the number of young Americans who are dissatisfied with religion portends a drop in American religiosity over the years ahead.”
According to Putnam, a growing number of young people today are saying, “Look, if religion is just about conservative politics and homophobia and so on, I’m out of here. That’s not for me.”
—Public Radio International, “The Future of Religion in America,” first published October 19, 2010 at this link from PRI.
First Things First—
The Free Marketplace, Media, Megachurches, Globalization, and Religion’s Future
Welcome to Lesson 5! For this lesson, we will be reading about the concepts of the free marketplace of ideas, media and religion, megachurches, globalization, and the future of religion, among others. This should be exciting—there’s a lot of interesting material here as we move into religion and its role in the modern era. The media in particular is a lifelong area of interest for me, as I’m sure many of you will shortly be able to tell. Ever since I first read about the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, I have been interested in exploring how media can broadcast messages to areas as wide as an entire country and why these messages can sometimes be highly convincing. So here’s one of my many opportunities to do exactly that.
One advisory note before we begin— in much of what we cover here, we will be focusing a great deal on the North American Judeo-Christian tradition. The US is the focus of our class, as defined in the ASU course catalog; moreover, given the historical and demographic prevalence of this tradition in this country, this should not be too surprising. However, in the 21st century it is abundantly true the doors have been opening to more globalized religious groups and identities, as well as a general shift away from organized religion in general. So I most certainly encourage any of you who would like to explore how these concepts apply to other religious traditions and identities to take up the challenge. Please, examine these concepts in the other contexts that interest you! This could make a fascinating Assignment 7 for anyone who wants to take that on, and I’d definitely consider including insights from such a project in future supplementary material in Lesson 6!
So given that note and encouragement, here we go:
Required Readings (copies also attached on Canvas):
Globalization and Future of Religion: Pew Research Center Presentation: Peter Berger, “Religion in a Globalizing World,” 2007 (first half required, remainder optional).
The Megachurch: Scott Thumma, 2015. “Learning from Megachurches.” Interview in Reflections: A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from the Yale Divinity School.
Future of Religion in America: Hout et. al., 2012. “More Americans Have No Religious Preference.” Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, University of Cal-Berkeley.
Optional Readings and Resources:
Religion and Media: This essay from Richard Fox of the University of Chicago.
The Megachurch: Scott Thumma, 1996. “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomenon.”.
Religion and Music/Megachurch: Advertising and the megachurch from the Wharton School.
Religion and Music/Megachurch: An interesting honors thesis on megachurch music.
Future of Religion in America: Wuthnow, 1988, Two Civil Religions; Berger on Religion and Modernity, 2013.
The Free Marketplace of Ideas
To introduce this lesson, we need to start by considering at length the idea of the American religious context as something of a Free Marketplace of Ideas. As mentioned in Lesson 3, this concept is interconnected with the idea of religious pluralism, which has been a staple of religious culture in the US even from colonial days. Although we’ve made it to this point without really examining the pluralistic marketplace in depth, it is a profound idea with deep historical roots. This philosophical concept was critical in the formation of America as well as in the political reformulation of a number of other European societies. Think in terms of an open-air marketplace where consumers are free to wander from vendor to vendor, seeking the best deals on the goods in the marketplace and ultimately buying from the seller who offers the best value for the price the consumer is willing to pay. Rather fittingly, this was not a concept developed or advocated by only one single philosopher, but rather stemmed from the general notion that all ideas needed to be weighed and considered on their own merits. Those who participated in the marketplace could be trusted to know what was best for them and act in their own best interests. Accordingly, like a marketplace, the ideas that were best and true would be accepted and practiced; those that were inferior and false would be rejected and abandoned.
One prominent proponent of the Free Marketplace of Ideas was poet John Milton, best known today for his epic Paradise Lost. Two decades before he produced that masterpiece, however, his impassioned defense of freedom of speech, Areopagitica, resounded before Parliament in 1644. The ideals of Milton’s free-speech advocacy obviously weren’t accepted as completely then as they would later be in America—but those words and ideas resonated and endured, and were put in place almost a century and a half later. The ideal of the truth having a virtue of its own that made it powerful had a long precedent in English and European intellectual history. What was good and true would endure; what was false would ultimately fail. The notion had come largely from the Scholastics, the church-educated philosophers of medieval times, and hearkened back at least to the words of Jesus Christ in the New Testament long before them: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32.)
Consequently, if the truth could in fact make people free in any way, knowing the truth and allowing it to emerge was essential to liberty itself. In a truly free environment, in the Western context, one must be able to speak the truth and act upon it. The truth also had a power of its own to make itself known to those who were searching for it—even in a crowded pluralistic marketplace filled with all sorts of other goods of varying quality ranging from superior to inferior, buyers and sellers, and various distractions.
Hence, at least in theory, the motivated consumers who were acting completely without compulsion would actively seek out the best products in the free marketplace; that which was inferior would draw little attention. Vendors, also acting fully without compulsion, would theoretically in turn produce the best goods to meet the need for the best products. This ideal, which predated Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (including his well-known “invisible hand” mechanism) and our modern capitalistic system, nonetheless furnished part of the inspiration for both.
So the value of freedom in speech and thought long predated Milton’s eloquence, and it likewise awaited nearly a century and a half afterwards before being realized in legal form. These ideals of freedom in speech, religion, and the press, long held in European society in some form despite their inconsistent-to-nonexistent application in various contexts, were not fully put into practice until they were written into the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights in 1787. Nor is it in any way an accident that the freedom of ideas and speech were written into the same Amendment as the freedom of religion. Remember, many of the early settlers of colonial America sought freedom from religious persecution, and this was a natural fit for corresponding freedoms of speech and assembly. Religion was a key focus of the freedom of speech, as well as a core preoccupation of the Founding Fathers, and religion and speech had a great deal of common ground in early America. Indeed, a fair amount of the speech in colonial America involved religion and various religious concerns—as well as political discourse. Moreover, religious (and political!) concerns were frequently discussed in groups, so it was likewise important to protect the freedom to gather to discuss these concerns. In particular, the nation’s founders wanted to allow a wide variety of religious beliefs and freedoms, AND also avoid establishing a state-sanctioned religion.
So as we consider this metaphor of the Free Marketplace, not only is it a marketplace of ideas, but it is also one of religion. Rather than having a government tell the people what to believe, the founders preferred a pluralistic religious model in America from the outset. Under a state-sanctioned religion, particularly the Church of England or the Catholic Church from whence the Anglicans came, European history had endured centuries of religious oppression, power centered in a particular church that could and did wield its power in highly authoritarian and inhumane ways, colluded with political leaders to maintain that power (the “divine right of kings,” etc.) and justify oppression against the people; an overview of several key issues is here.
Some of the abuses of state-sponsored religion—most notably a series of Inquisitions over several centuries, which required secular authorities to enact ecclesiastical judgments—were very much in the Founders’ minds. The experience of Henry VIII breaking with the Catholic Church in the 1530s and seizing power over the Church of England could not have been far from their minds, either—not to mention the struggles with the Puritan sect during the British Reformation, wars with Catholic loyalists, and the woefully incomplete and inconsistent practice of the Toleration Act of 1689. (See here for more information.) One commentator also argues that the key function of the First Amendment was not necessarily to guarantee the people’s freedom of religion, but most directly to protect religion from government influence. In any case, while it’s doubtful that the Founding Fathers fully envisioned a number of the accompanying problems—failures to grant the very rights the Constitution guaranteed, discrimination, persecution, and outright religion-related violence among them—they still clearly preferred the pluralism-of-belief scenario to state-established religion. They had been down that road as well as learned from those who’d traveled it even more extensively.
So the Free Marketplace of Ideas was established by default as the preferred model for American religion. No single religion would be preferred. Various religions would be allowed to exist and compete for believers. People would be able to choose for themselves what they wanted to believe. The most successful and plausible of these religions would succeed, especially over time; those that didn’t resonate or endure would fail. Remember also our question from earlier in the course about Rational Choice Theory and choosing religious belief. As many astute students have pointed out, Rational Choice doesn’t at all determine religion of origin, or the system of belief that an individual inherits. But as mentioned in previous lessons, Rational Choice seems a reasonable explanation for the conscious aspects of religious conversion, or when an individual decides to change religious beliefs. Ordinarily, though, individuals are frequently socialized into their religions of origin.
Moreover, as time has gone on, the growing influence of consumer culture in our society has permeated the religious world. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and presumably even in the early part of the 20th, our economy was predicated on investments and savings. But in the wake of the Great Depression—during which many people lost both their investments and savings—and particularly after World War II, the economic basis of our society began to shift. As the quality of American life improved and as products became more readily available, our economy gradually shifted away from savings and investments to expenditures and consumption. In short—saving and wisely investing money didn’t matter to American companies nearly as much as spending it! The growth of media and advertising played no small role in this process, of course.
So as Americans became more socialized in the post-war culture of consumerism, thanks in great measure to the rise of media and advertising, the consumer mentality also spread to the realm of religion. Going to church was less about finding The Truth and worshiping God and more about finding whatever worked for the believer and worshiping whatever the believer already believed. As the practice of consumerism set in, finding a church became much less a believer’s quest for The Truth and much more of a shopping trip for what fit best. As post-war consumers became more socialized into consumerism, largely through a process of social construction and much of it through broadcast media, religious choice also became more or less a rational economic decision.
Religion and Media
At this point, when considering socialization—remember, the “superpower” of media—we can further illustrate social construction of reality through the various forms of public communication over the centuries. Through the information and entertainment (often one and the same) provided over the airwaves and on the Internet, the media host our national discourse and (as previously mentioned) help socialize us as consumers. Likewise, media substantially influence politics—conservative talk radio, Fox News (and its deliberately liberal counterpart, MSNBC), alternative news outlets such as the Drudge Report and Huffington Post, innumerable politically oriented blogs, and other outlets adding to the overall political consciousness. (Here’s a handy resource for checking media bias, BTW…) Even beyond that, the emergence of highly skewed political propaganda (whether Occupy Democrats and the like on the left or Breitbart et. al. on the right) and outright “fake news” that played a role in the 2016 election is a troubling development for all of us who are concerned about misinformation. In any case, media of all kinds have recently helped reinforce a growing dynamic in our country today—the liberal v. conservative tension as a competitive zero-sum game (i.e., with winners and losers) rather than a cooperative social experiment that is only won when society as a whole benefits.
The media are not only key players in the social construction of our intersubjective political reality, and its corresponding place in terms of Bellah’s “civil religion” (which appears to be splitting into sectarian divisions), but they play a key role in the social construction of our intersubjective religious reality as well. An interesting and ironic point deserves to be underscored here: Religion and media are sometimes viewed as opposed. However, aside from some producers of popular culture that seem skeptical about (if not hostile to) religious messages, religion and media are actually quite highly integrated. Religion actually uses mass media extensively and has done so for centuries. We’ll take a look into at least two ways in which this is true of religion and media, though other applications are also possible.
Consider, for the first instance, that our modern plurality of religion in America stems largely from a media event—the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press about 1450, which allowed for the mass printing and distribution of the Bible throughout Europe and the world. Religion depends extensively on the printed word, which has been true for the past several centuries. The Bible, in fact, is Exhibit A on that point. We are talking about, hands down, the best-selling and most-published book of all time. Nothing else comes close. Then again, no other book has been both so long in print and so consistently in demand for what is approaching the past six centuries! The advent of the printing press and publication of Gutenberg’s original Latin version of the Bible in 1455 (see here for context) struck a substantial blow to the ruling religious authorities, particularly in the Catholic Church. They had established religious traditions, rituals, and a body of belief over several centuries. Publication of the Bible threatened all that, since individuals would be able to read what was widely considered “the Word of God” for themselves and decide what it meant. This would in effect open up the free marketplace of ideas, at least in terms of religion! The priests would lose their near-exclusive position as interpreters and proclaimers of the Bible!
Remember our discussion of heretics from our first session? The heretics—those who disagreed with the church’s established interpretation of the scriptures, though their alternate readings varied widely—taught others according to their beliefs. The advent of Protestantism in the early Renaissance era produced this mass wave of heresy, with dissidents such as Jan Hus, John Calvin, English Bible translator William Tynsdale, scientist Galileo Galilei, and others) emerging over the next couple of centuries, perhaps most influentially resulting in two movements. First, a series of questions, objections, and published critical writings from disenchanted priest Martin Luther eventually produced Luther’s excommunication in 1521 and subsequent foundation of the Lutheran branch of Protestantism. A little more than a decade later, in 1534, England’s King Henry VIII also publicly split with the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the king had earlier denounced Luther and defended Catholicism, and executed thousands of heretics. Still, he became bitter when the pope refused to grant him a divorce so that he could marry (as he believed) a woman capable of bearing him a son as an heir to the throne. This split produced the Anglican Church, with King Henry VIII at its head.
So heresy in a sense was linked to the spread of religious pluralism, both in terms of promoting dissent and establishing alternative church organizations. Yet other dissenters arose as the Bible became more available to ordinary people. Religious and secular authorities alike, who had vested interests in preserving the church’s power, battled the spread of Bible publication to no avail. Printed media helped substantially diminish the church’s political influence and produced religious variety as people interpreted the Bible for themselves. So in a sense, Bible publication helped socialize people away from the church as much as it helped socialize existing believers. The free marketplace of ideas was a wonderful but at times a rather confusing place.
Yet the Bible is merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As various churches formed, demand for print media likewise arose. Churches printed literature such as Biblical commentaries, pamphlets, hymnbooks, and other books that helped reinforce various principles and teachings. These printed texts functioned to support the socialization of the churches’ various memberships. As the authorities of the various organizations got together to agree on what their churches taught (social construction alert!), that finalized information was then sent out to the members through print media as well as word of mouth. Very similar processes, of course, occur in settings outside the Christian world. Printed texts help define the core beliefs and church teachings for the membership, and members who want to learn more about the church’s beliefs usually turn to the church’s produced media.
Even more, as time has gone on and media have evolved, the religious use of media has evolved as well. As broadcast technology emerged, religion stood ready to make use of it. The longest-running continuous radio network program of all time, in fact, is the weekly Sunday morning “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” (recently shorted to “Tabernacle Choir”) broadcast now known as Music and the Spoken Word. This first aired in 1929 and is still produced each week for radio and television. In the world of traditional Christianity, radio and television also produced religious “stars” of a sort. For instance, C.S. Lewis—today best known for the Chronicles of Narnia books—can thank radio for his rise to fame in England during World War II. Before then, he was known chiefly in academic circles for his secular scholarship and ventures into Christian philosophy. However, his BBC radio program gave him greater exposure and allowed him to publicly promote the ideas that later became his more theologically oriented Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. Further inspired in part by his good friend (and staunch Catholic) J.R.R. Tolkien’s highly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy in the late 1930s, Lewis then blended themes from folklore, Greco-Roman and some Norse mythology, and Christianity in his best-selling Narnia series, published during the 1950s. Lewis is well-known today thanks in part to his intellect, but also because he skillfully used media—especially radio and book publishing—to make a name for himself.
Radio and television also popularized many other preachers and religious-themed public speakers, including Billy Graham (and later his son Franklin), Norman Vincent Peale, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and a host of others who have sent out various religious themes and communications over the airwaves. These in-the-spotlight figures introduced the term “televangelist” into our modern lexicon. Today, pastors such as Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, and Joyce Meyer write and/or make TV appearances to spread the word. Dr. James Dobson’s highly conservative Focus on the Family organization, among many others, also frequently uses print and broadcast media to spread its religious and political messages. The same was true of many other religious organizations. In the 1990s, the then-new Fox television network took notice of the market for religious, conservative believers and rather controversially established the Fox News cable network in 1996. Allegations of bias and untruthfulness aside (not to mention questions of subsequent bias and untruthfulness at the other political extreme at MSNBC), the very presence of Fox News itself attests to the endurance of conservative politics and religious belief in contemporary North American society.
Interestingly, as electronic and particularly social media arose, users began to have more control over what information they found and used. People were exposed to increasingly more of the discourse, religious and otherwise, which allowed not only for the greater exchange of opinion but for more change in opinion. Social media exposed people to new ways of looking at issues and allowed for a great deal of discussion and self-questioning. As mentioned in Lesson 3, but doubtless echoed in many, many IRL (“in real life”) cases, a case in point of this was Megan Phelps-Roper, who after a great deal of discussion and further IRL education over Twitter defected from the Westboro Baptists. Her experience, as reflected in her TED talk linked above, is highly instructive of both social media use and the real-life application of tolerance alike, so I highly recommend it to all of you. It’s well worth the less-than-20-minutes it will take to watch and understand.
Not only did the proverbial floodgates open for everyday media users in the 21st century, but religions began to find ways to use the Internet, chat technology, video replay and live streams, and social media. Many of the previously mentioned pastors and religious groups have integrated the Internet and social media into their communications strategies. Religion may not exactly be everywhere on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and so forth, but strategies for getting the “Good News” out to the believers are in place and being carried out in all of these arenas.
For instance, in the context of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many top leaders hold social media accounts, from which messages are posted every so often. The posts often feature scriptural messages, quotations from past speeches, inspirational video clips, and the like. Of course, it’s usually the case that trusted church employees acting under the leaders’ direction manage these accounts—nobody truly reasonable believes that the top leaders in any church organization spend enough time on Facebook to create such attractive memes —but these are nonetheless means to communicate key messages to members via social media. (Much the same is true in other religious contexts. Unlike Donald Trump—the pope likely doesn’t spend much personal time on Twitter, for instance—designated employees often manage social media presence.) Similarly, Brigham Young University’s BYUtv cable and Internet channel gets a fair amount of financial backing from its sponsoring church. The reach of BYUtv is rivalled only in university circles by the University of Texas’ Longhorn Network, though the latter is primarily a sports outlet while BYUtv’s programming is much more comprehensive. The church also owns a publishing firm, Deseret Book, which also sells church music and other recorded media as well as computer software and assorted knick-knacks. And of course, Music and the Spoken Word continues its weekly broadcast.
Speaking of music, we may well have actually neglected—until now—religion’s most prevalent historical use of media in any form. That is our second case of how media has served a religious purpose for centuries. When we consider how integrated religion and media truly are and have been throughout history, we can’t help but conclude that nowhere is this assimilation more evident than in the historical use of religious music in a wide variety of beliefs and cultural settings. If the Biblical Book of Psalms can be considered as a historical record, religious music far predates even Western print media. We also know, though there’s not really enough room to explore, that devotional music is far from the exclusive property of Judaism and Christianity. It is used in various forms in Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other religious traditions, and has been for much longer than Christianity has existed. As mentioned in the last lesson, music can be an intensely powerful socializing agent, and that is part of how religious believers in a wide variety of religious contexts have long been socialized into their religions. Hymns and other worship music teach religious values in a way that virtually no other media can; the sound and rhythm make the music memorable and reinforce the messages being taught. So music plays a key role in the socialization function of religion—as it has for centuries and even millennia!
We won’t discuss this in as much length as we possibly could—I could write a book about this, and as a matter of fact, I did write a master’s thesis on it —but let’s take a quick look at two pieces of music in the Christian religious context for their capacity to socialize. Understand that there’s even more to music in the religious context than capacity to socialize alone; there’s also a link to spiritual experience that can be analyzed via phenomenology, among other dimensions. We could also discuss the use of what are called today “Negro spirituals” as a secret code of sorts during the pre-Civil War abolition movement, most notably as a signal to slaves who were seeking escape that the Underground Railroad was in the area. But we’re trying to keep this section simple—and short.
So we will simply consider these two selections of religious music for their meaning to traditional believers. The first is from the traditional Christian hymn tradition, “Amazing Grace.” This song—in the link above, as performed several years ago by the amazing all-female group Celtic Woman and thereafter posted on YouTube—was written in the late 18th century—many sources say about 1772—by John Newton, a slave trader in his youth who gradually transformed from a self-described “wretch” to an abolitionist Christian minister. The story sometimes goes that he wrote the hymn soon after miraculously surviving a storm at sea and immediately renouncing slavery, but this is a mere legend. According to this nicely researched biographical sketch of Newton, the storm at sea was one of several very real brushes with death as a young man. Several such experiences over the course of his life gradually convinced him God was sparing him for reasons that only became clear later on. So he apparently wrote the hymn in his later 40s, looking back on and regretting the more sordid aspects of his earlier life—and only then did he also begin to speak against the very slave trade that had made up such a large part of his living in his youth. The grace in Newton’s life was seemingly a long work in progress.
The second song is Britt Nicole’s “Gold,” from more contemporary Christian rock, which currently airs on several Christian radio networks. According to her own website, she was inspired to write this song after hearing accounts of others being bullied, struggling with feelings of low self-confidence, worrying about being socially accepted, and so forth. In her song, she wanted to underscore the value of self-worth and promote individual empowerment in a way that also subtly expressed the love of God. This would give her listeners hope for themselves and presumably confidence that God saw high potential and value in them that they didn’t even see in themselves—and perhaps nobody else was seeing, either. The music video that accompanies the link echoes that theme, though not in an explicitly religious way. The lack of emphasis on overt religiosity in the video, and faintly in the song as well, contrasts with “Amazing Grace” in terms of the modern flavor of religion as well. A “none” might (or might not) appreciate older hymns for their historical value, but less explicitly religious songs like “Gold” are more likely to be relatable to younger Christian audiences—especially when integrated with modern worship services. In fact, somewhat similar themes emerge in many other current Christian pop pieces, notably Lauren Daigle’s “You Say.” Themes of self-worth and inner value feel good—and they also sell well.
Still, each of these pieces of music has a religious core. Both speak to the believer about core needs of soteriology that the Christian religious tradition promises to satisfy—the need to be found and safe, the need to feel loved and valued, the need to feel connected to the Divine in some way, the need to be forgiven for flaws and imperfections, etc.—and locates the satisfaction of that need in the Christian religious tradition. Furthermore, there is a promise in both pieces of music that the soul of the believer has innate value that is well worth redeeming despite any other sins, flaws, or problems. But this isn’t all: Not only is the promise given, but each song gives assurance (“Grace” explicitly, “Gold” implicitly) that the promised redemption will happen. In fact, both songs imply even further soteriological reassurance to the Christian believer: Ultimate Redemption already has happened for those who believe in it. This fait accompli guarantee declares immediate and freely bestowed access to salvation, not a future consideration that must be striven for and earned.
Also notably, the traditional hymn, though written in first person, has a group flavor echoing a classical Christian theme: We are all rescued sinners, saved from damnation because of the goodness and power (“grace”) of God, who saves those who try to live better lives despite their sins. It has a profoundly devotional quality for the believer, so that merely singing it is a form of religious expression. Britt Nicole, on the other hand, appeals directly to individual self-worth, which is a more modern construct in our highly individualistic North American cultural context. Still, as taught in most forms of Christianity, the promise—and value taught the believer via each song—is that Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer, and the means by which the believer is redeemed. So the Christian believer is socialized by music, which here teaches that sinners are still worth more than gold, and can be saved by grace, among many other values that are taught. Similar processes occur in many other religious traditions as well—an excellent idea for anyone who wishes to explore this topic further in a global context. Media and religion are highly interdependent—not only in the use of music over millennia, but as discussed in the previous pages, also many other forms of media.
Megachurches, Globalization, and the Future of Religion
When considering media and religion, as well as the future of religion overall, it’s also useful to examine a uniquely modern development in the North American religious context—the “megachurch.” So let’s just make a handful of notes about that. First, what exactly do we mean when we start talking about a “megachurch”? (For any of you who have looked more into the American Grace text, you’ll know that Putnam and Campbell pay a LOT of attention to that phenomenon.) In popular usage, the term “megachurch” is tossed around so much, it’s come to mean more or less “any hugely ginormous church building.” Careful, careful, careful… it’s not the size of the building alone that matters. Some past students in this class have mistakenly identified various large, spacious, and high-capacity religious structures as so-called megachurches, ranging from the historic Hagia Sophia cathedral/museum in Istanbul—which is 270 feet by 240 feet, with the top of the dome 180 feet above the floor—to the more modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center in Salt Lake City, which seats about 21,000. But neither cathedrals nor arena-sized church auditoriums per se are megachurches just because of their physical dimensions or seating capacity! Several other factors are also important. Let’s truly understand what a megachurch really is, as used in the sociology of religion. So, to start off with, according to the Hartford Seminary:
The term megachurch is the name given to a cluster of very large, Protestant congregations that share several distinctive characteristics. These churches generally have:
2000 or more persons in attendance at weekly worship
A charismatic, authoritative senior minister
A very active 7 day a week congregational community
A multitude of social and outreach ministries,
and a complex differentiated organizational structure
(See the following link for more discussion of megachurches if you wish.)
So when we’re talking about megachurches, we are discussing much more than just a building, and as in the Hartford definition, we need to consider the functions, attendance, staffing, and organization of the church we’re looking at. Those are the key defining qualities of what defines a megachurch from the sociological perspective. A cathedral will have few of these defining qualities, and some are no longer used for worship anyway, but more as living museums of religious history. Moreover, neither the Hagia Sophia nor the Conference Center hosts weekly worship, is used in the same “congregational community” sense as Protestant megachurches, and has any businesses or social/outreach ministries within its walls. Not only that, but the day a Starbucks comes to the Conference Center is quite possibly the day the world ends! (And for context, almost certainly any other franchise as well—the Conference Center interior just isn’t up for business lease.) So the building itself is the size of a megachurch, granted, but several of the other aspects of the definition are lacking. Scott Thumma points out that megachurches are usually integrated with in-house educational and outreach efforts, as they have learned to organize and socialize—and even develop service mission activities. Many also broadcast their services outwards to satellite campuses. Furthermore, many megachurches don’t stop there, since the possibility of literal economic investments and even product placement and advertising also looms large, as pointed out in the previously suggested Wharton School article.
American Grace has the Saddleback megachurch currently headed by Rick Warren fairly well covered, but just in case you missed out, here is the church’s home page. Also feel free to check out several of the other megachurches that are prime examples of popularity and ministry outreach: Lakewood Church in Houston, headed by Joel Osteen (also the author of several inspirational books), Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, formerly headed by Bill Hybels until his recent resignation, and also among the first organizations to launch the megachurch concept and succeed, Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, headed by Randy Frazee and Max Lucado (also a well-known author of several Christian children’s books), North Point Community Church near Atlanta, headed by Andy Stanley, and last but not least, right here in Arizona, Dream City (formerly Phoenix First Assembly), headed by Luke and Angel Barnett, located in North Phoenix off Highway 51 and Thunderbird Road. These are some of your largest and best-known American megachurches, a trend that will likely only continue to grow. So hopefully that helps clarify! Hopefully also you took careful note of the use of media within those megachurches. From modern Christian rock in their services to elaborately designed yet highly attractive Web pages, megachurches—as with many others in the modern era—effectively use the most modern media and communication methods to “preach the Word” and attract believers.
So far, so good. Let’s turn briefly to the subject of globalization. Hopefully that’s not too strange, given that I remarked at the outset of this lesson that we would be focusing largely on the North American Judeo-Christian tradition. And so we shall. But let’s settle something first: What do we mean by globalization? Here’s a brief discussion of the concept with links from Emory University that may help explain that. Think first of all of a particular group of people, who share common beliefs, a worldview, and a localized culture. But globalization takes that local orientation and stretches it across the globe. In short, globalization refers to the tendency—given the fact that we can now communicate almost instantaneously with much of the modern world—to form distinct large-scale commonalities between cultures, perhaps leading to (as some postulate) a common global culture. Religion, instead of being confined to the walls of one particular building, is traveling the world and reaching audiences that transcend time, place, and culture. This, in short, is globalization.
Yet this is also a bit of a controversial position to some people. Why? One reason is that the interlinkage of local cultures creating a new mass culture raises an interesting question: What happens to the local cultures? Is the best of them preserved in the global context? Or, given that power dynamics frequently determine what local-cultural elements are and aren’t preserved, does globalization actually result in the destruction of most local cultures and the preservation of the elements of an elite few? On the one hand, it is a regrettable loss to see the wisdom of any local culture evaporate. For instance, we no longer know what the ancestors of the Arizona-based Tohono O’Odham tribe could have told us about how they managed to thrive and prosper in the hot, arid southern Arizona climate. But on the other hand, globalization tends to undermine cultural power and superiority, which is precisely why nationalists and ultraconservatives oppose it. Since some applications of globalization undermine, say, the privileged position of Caucasian men and particularly the parallel localized culture and identity of superiority that some “white power” advocates have defined for themselves, an unfortunate yet predictable backlash against it is inevitable—as we saw in the 2016 election and will likely continue to see as time goes on.
How does globalization apply to the world of religion? The Hartford Seminary presents a few ideas at the link referenced. One of these possible influences involves the increasing secularization of modern society. Given power dynamics at work in globalization, and the long-feared prospect of secularized influence overwhelming religion and religious concerns, one possible implication—given the local-culture discussion referenced above—is that a sufficiently powerful trend towards global secularization could possibly marginalize local religious groups, if not eliminate them altogether. This in turn has been feared as the modern death knell of religion itself. In a similar vein, religious change has often been construed as destructive rather than innovative: In many conservative religious groups, to change is to destroy. Secularization has been feared, especially in highly conservative quarters, as moving away from God and the value of religion in public life.
Yet, as we’ve also read throughout our course, religion fills a singular function in human society, persists in group dynamics and via socialization, is interlinked with our political system, makes use of various media to help perpetuate itself, and so forth. Many experts also see less power in the push towards secularization than they had previously estimated; in other words, global society may not be quite as secular as many observers feared in the past. In line with that, the Hartford Seminary article presents another possibility: Religion, having a fair amount of endurance and power of its own, could actually play a fairly significant role in globalization. The author in the closing lines actually suggests that the sociology of religion could help interpret and shape the process of globalization. Given this latter perspective, there has been a tendency among religious sociologists to move away from the fatalistic and fear-based view of religion as doomed to the understanding that religion—presumably in an evolved form—not only can persist in a largely secular global culture but could play a major role in shaping it.
So which perspective on globalization and religion is the more realistic? This is hard to say and really quite a complicated issue. On the one hand, belief in some degree of Objective Truth doesn’t and shouldn’t change, no matter what all the world’s religious experts, committees, and believers decide. Remember from Lesson 2: Those brick walls still exist, whether or not anyone perceives or believes in them. As some religious views would hold, God has not changed His mind, so we essentially change ours at our own risk.
On the other hand, if we know that religion is much more hardy and enduring than we have previously understood, perhaps we have feared too much. If we also know that our own understanding of a particular issue or set of issues is intersubjective and has improved over time, why should we not adapt our own religious beliefs in accord with what we have learned that we didn’t know before? And arguably the most complex of all, which of our beliefs are Objective and should not change under any circumstances, and which are intersubjective and probably should be changed as we learn better? (Yes, Berger would probably dispute this conclusion in The Sacred Canopy, but his Heretical Imperative admitted the existence of an Objective Reality, so this issue is rather complicated, even for Mr. Berger.) Yet, how do we know which beliefs and principles are Objective and should stay permanent, and which are intersubjective and socially constructed, and therefore should be adapted and changed as we learn more? In any case, this is not a question we will settle today, and probably not even within the time frame of our class. It may take months, years, and decades of observation and experience to find the answers. But asking the questions about our own assumptions to begin with is well worth it.
In this context, turning to the future of religion, several observations from the readings appear particularly striking. First, we’ve known for quite some time that fewer believers are choosing “organized religion,” at least as we in America have usually known it, and that many of the traditional Christian denominations are in decline in terms of membership. This anti-organized-religion trend is particularly pronounced among younger Americans. In line with the destruction-of-religion hypothesis, this has led to many fears of America becoming a secularized nation that has turned away from religion altogether. However, as even Peter Berger in the required reading has admitted (all the more striking because he was formerly a secularization proponent), many experts now dispute the secularization thesis in terms of global culture. (See, for instance, this 2006 Baylor University study.)
Keep in mind, though: Few experts dispute that Europe as a whole is highly secularized, and many others admit some evidence of a drift towards secularization in North America. As Berger suggests, our cultural elites, such as many academics, are indeed secularized, though the vast majority of the American population still claims to be religious. (Berger does not explicitly extend this argument to the producers of our entertainment, information, and modern cultural material, but since he doesn’t, I will. The North American cultural worlds of news and entertainment production are quite possibly even more secularized than academia!) But what is true of America’s secular cultural elite is not necessarily true of its population, most of which still largely claims religious and spiritual values and beliefs. Moreover, it is clearly fallacious to extend the hypothesis of secularization to the world at large, where the staying power of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism in most other areas is obvious. The presumption of universal secularization appears to be precisely that—merely presumption.
So despite the clear challenges that organized religion faces in the American cultural context, individualized belief and spiritual interests are both far from dead. Believers may not necessarily be affiliating with an established organization, or they may be moving between organizations or exploring their beliefs on their own, or they may be practicing their religious beliefs in ways that are not institutionally recognized. Yet the evidence suggests that despite the rise of the “nones”—a heterogenous category that may well include everyone who rejects religious labels from atheists to non-denominational Christians—the vast majority of Americans still value spirituality to some extent. It also suggests that as religion becomes more individualized, our current religious culture will also see more pluralism and diversity. “Spiritual but not religious” may be something of a cliché, but whatever it is, it’s still in play in our modern religious world. Currently, most sociologists of religion have come to agree that religion in America may be undergoing change, including an expansion of different types of worship and a reluctance to affiliate with any particular organization. This is evident in Berger’s observations, Hout’s remarks on the “Nones,” and the conclusions in American Grace. However, most observers agree that this change is not the death of religious belief, but the transformation of religious behavior.
Second, and stemming from that, is the persistent observation that those who claim no religious affiliation at all, or “nones,” is gradually rising in America. Some early observers of this trend, as well as a few who hold a vested interest in believers joining their ranks, voiced fears that the “nones” were exclusively secularists, if not atheists. This, of course, has been an overly simplistic reading of the evidence. The “nones” are simply a variety of individuals identifying with several groups (as mentioned above) who consciously choose not to affiliate themselves with a particular organized religious group or label for various reasons of their own.
Some are still religious and/or hold strong spiritual beliefs; they simply wish to avoid what they see as the strictures of organized religion. Some, as in the quote at the top of the lesson, don’t like the overt mix of religion and politics, or are uncomfortable with the conservative (or, arguably less often, liberal) stance taken on various moral matters. Others are in transition or seeking, but may opt to choose an affiliation at a later point. Some are only nominally religious, but identify much more strongly with their country, in what has been described as the “blood and soil” sector of society. Yet others are secularists and truly don’t believe in religion any longer. So a combination of factors is occurring simultaneously. A Pew Forum analysis of the “rise of the nones” makes the point that several explanations are possible, perhaps several or all at the exact same time.
It is in this context that New Religious Movements, or NRMs, emerge. To established religious groups, new thoughts and approaches are highly threatening in terms of both membership and the churches’ bottom line. Churches have a tough time staying in business when upstarts come along and begin to beat them at their own game. So it’s useful to remember that on one hand, this “threat” may in a fair number of cases be only in terms of a menace to the established group’s ideology—or its bottom line!—rather than a true psychological or social danger. So some established religious groups refer to the upstart NRMs by nasty names such as “cults” and so forth, and warn their members to stay away from them. To be sure, some “cults” really do deserve criticism, especially when they defraud—or even worse, dehumanize—those who join them. As some of you will read in the Lesson 6 module on socio-historical dynamics—AKA “The Good, Bad, and Ugly”—some notorious “cults” have been directly responsible for human-rights abuses and fatalities. The Jim Jones People’s Temple mass suicide in 1978 may be the most infamous of these, in which Jones ordered more than 900 believers to drank cyanide-laced punch when it appeared authorities would attempt to close down the cult. Some NRMs have a most definite dark side, and suicide by order of the cult leader is just about as dark as it gets.
On the other hand, one group’s threat may well be another’s innovation. Keep in mind that while all cults are NRMs, not all NRMs are necessarily cults. In fact, carefully consider the origins of every religion on Earth. Notice anything interesting? Virtually all religions can be traced back to groups that were once considered “cults.” Consider the Rastafarians among the Black population of the Caribbean and Africa, which emerged in Jamaica after spiritual leader Marcus Garvey (of New York) taught that the crowning of an African king would launch the resurgence of Africa, especially as a homeland for the descendants of those who had been forcibly taken from their countries during several centuries of slave trading. When this event happened in the 1930 coronation of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari), fulfilling a prophecy in the eyes of group believers, the movement began in earnest. Borrowing elements from Christianity, mysticism, and African tribal religions alike, and often spreading to the beat of reggae music, Rastafarianism and the signature dreadlocks hairstyle have by now become a well-known element of African-Caribbean culture. However, this NRM is also popularly called a cult by many outside the religious tradition. In any case, the “cult” designation is too narrow and pejorative to describe many NRMs. (Interestingly and ironically as well, some NRMs such as the “New Age” movement feature very old religious traditional elements such as mysticism and nature worship, though that may be another story for the Lesson 6 Religious Experiences module.) In any case, take a look through this piece from the Hartford Institute on New Religious Movements for an extended discussion of NRMs, along with resources, links, and information.
As for what this ultimately means in terms of America’s religious future, it would be a mistake to claim sociologists have any sort of crystal ball. Just ask Peter Berger, who recently and insightfully re-evaluated the part of Sacred Canopy he advanced in the ’60s that discussed the inevitability of secularization. This is nonetheless the mark of a scholar dedicated to “revealing what’s hidden” rather than preserving his own research agenda and reputation as an “always-right” analyst. Robert Wuthnow also made some highly pertinent observations way back in 1988. Those who checked out that optional reading will see that he correctly forecast the political split between conservatives and liberals, one that has only become wider and deeper nearly 30 years after he first reported his observations. In some ways, Wuthnow’s conclusions seem even more valid than they were nearly three decades ago. This is particularly true of the divisiveness he observed and analyzed then, which thanks to talk radio and other public dynamics has only escalated since then. No matter what else the future holds for religion in America, it seems likely to involve a war of words and a fair amount of ideological conflict. Meanwhile, count longtime Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward among the skeptics, as he sees the “nones” trend in terms of a decline and believes the American religious world has largely stagnated.
Also importantly, any and all forecasting has to advance a substantial disclaimer: Unforeseen dramatic catastrophic events such as 9/11—and on a smaller scale, the Las Vegas, Aurora, Newtown (Sandy Hook), and Orlando shootings as well as the Boston Marathon bombings and Paris attacks—have the capacity to create a proverbial “whole new ball game” in terms of America’s collective religious psyche. Time will also tell what effect the gay marriage fracas and June 2015 Supreme Court ruling will have on religion and its future, as well as the sharp rise in anti-Islam rhetoric after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. But based on the observable trends, it seems likely that even though more Americans are turning away from organized religion, for various reasons, it is far too soon to declare spirituality, if not religion as a whole, dead on arrival in America. American secularization has a foothold in some influential segments of society, of course, but it doesn’t currently appear that this is spreading to the public at large, as many of the fearful observers have warned about in the past. We will also likely see more innovation and more pluralism in religious terms as religion becomes more individualized. So while various established churches will probably continue to decline, with an accompanying affect on the associated cultural commonalities and dynamics, it seems clear that religion and spirituality will continue to persist in American religious life for the time being.
That’s it for Lesson 5! I look forward to reading your Assignment 5, and please feel free to contact me with any questions you have!