Findings & Footnotes

As the journal Religion (January 2020) turns fifty, it has seized the opportunity to welcome several articles dealing with “futures.” The issue mixes prospective observations about the future of the study of religion and its various subfields along with more general views on the future shape of religion in the contemporary world. Contributors all agree that the discipline has already changed over the years, such as by questioning Western biases (Adriaan van Klinken, Univeesity of Leeds, UK). The discipline is also facing challenges in those countries where the interest of the state for the humanities has eroded, with consequences for funding and possibly an increasing need to look for external funding (Olav Hammer, University of Southern Denmark). Adam Amnczyk and Halina Grzymała-Moszczyńska (Jesuit University Ignatium, Krakow, Poland) emphasize the ever-growing role of migration for putting religions in direct touch with each other. Ann Taves (University of California at Santa Barbara) sees the growth in research on nonreligion and secularity as long overdue. This leads her to plead for drawing full consequences and, instead of an “indefensible” attempt to incorporate it into religious studies, to locate religious studies as a subfield of worldview studies—something that might also help scholars to escape from the challenge of defining religion and then excluding what does not fit our definition.

Stephen C. Berkwitz and J. Dané Stoneburner Wallace (Missouri State University) call for the future study of religion to discard a vocabulary linked to the history of religions borrowed from “alleged perspectives of the practitioner” and bring it back “into ordinary, mundane spheres of human behavior.”  The emphasis on affinities with other spheres of human thought and practice will give greater recognition and vitality to the study of religion, according to the authors. Abby Day (University of London, UK) concurs by encouraging scholars to define religion more in terms of lived and everyday experiences and to unravel its complexities (for instance, people not conventionally religious experiencing “a sensuous, social supernatural”). While the discipline is grounded in comparison, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus warns that “the comparative approach is at present more of an ideal than a program that has been fully realized.” And Wouter Hanegraaff (University of Amsterdam) suggests that, after all we have learnt from deconstructing, time has come for the discipline to reconstruct the study of religion in order to avoid becoming irrelevant and defunded, since it should not “imply the end of any notion of religion.” Scholars of religion need to have a story to tell about the “human importance” of religion. For more information on this issue, visit: Religion –

The rapidly expanding field of secular studies and the way it is becoming a major subfield in the sociology of religion is explored by Stephen Bullivant in the journal Social Compass (online in February). Bullivant notes that as recently as 2008, the number of books, articles and other scholarly material on atheism, secularity, and non-religion was meager and pursued by lone scholars without much support. By 2014, a bibliography cited 150 nonreligion related publications in that year—and the rate of publishing has since increased. The author sees much of the impetus for research on atheism and nonreligion as being the new atheism phenomenon of the early 2000s as well as the rise of the non-affiliated (“nones”) during this time.

The way in which the non-religious began to see themselves as a minority and embrace identity politics was another factor that drew scholars to this field. Bullivant finds a substantial number of scholars studying atheism and other forms of non-religion coming from that perspective themselves; just as a group of French Catholic sociologists formed their own school of “religious sociology” in the last century, he wonders if they are creating a similar kind of “sociologie non-religieuse.” Bullivant concludes that it may be too soon to know if the sociology of non-religion will become an institutionalized subfield of the sociology of religion in the way that the study of new religious movements has, though the panoply of journals (already two of them), conferences, associations, and funding opportunities suggest such a prospect. For more information on this article, visit:

Veteran sociologist David Martin’s final book before his death last year, Christianity and `the World’ (Cascade Books, $21.60), upsets the usual story of secularization through a unique “lens of English poetry.” Martin’s historical scope is broad, ranging from 800 AD to the present, as he surveys the major poets and looks at how their writings show an oscillation between “this worldly,” secular themes and a serious engagement with Christianity. These alternating periods of adapting secular and Christian elements and subjects do not follow a one-directional secularization narrative of a high Christian literary tradition in England falling prey to modernization and irrelevance. Where one might expect a steady Christian influence in poetry in earlier periods, Martin finds “other elements quite distinct from Christianity but partially fused with it, such as the pagan honor code, Renaissance humanism, and Enlightenment rationality.”

While the Protestant Reformation did unintentionally led to the desacralization of nature and a rejection of extra-biblical miracles and mystical ecstasy, there was also a “staggered” movement between Christian and secular themes seen in poetry of the last quarter of the 18th century. This period embraced secular elements in contrast to the more religious poetry of the 17th and 19th centuries (and then revived during the wars of the mid-20th century). That there is a “surprisingly resilient Christian trajectory up to the present” can be found in the contemporary poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Motion, Michael Symmons Roberts, and Simon Jarvis, who, if not practicing Christians (usually of the Anglican and Catholic persuasions) take Christianity seriously in their work. But even more broadly, Martin argues that the nature of poetry is in some ways is similar to liturgy and prophecy, especially as it draws on the Bible and Prayer Book in its call for protest and solidarity and communion.

Back Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, $29.95), by Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory, represents the fourth and final longitudinal study of the National Study of Youth, following the beliefs of practices of a subset of Millennials from their teens to their mid- to late-twenties. As might be expected, the rise the non-affiliated is given center stage in this book due to the high rate of “nones” in this generation. Indeed, many of the young adults who we meet in Denton and Flory’s book tended to have some contact with religious institutions in their teen years (especially in church attendance) only to discard such ties, if not necessarily their beliefs, in their twenties. Through quantitative and qualitative research (in-depth interviews), the authors confirm that “emerging adulthood” is an increasingly transitional period (in education, career plans, family formation), making it difficult to forecast patterns of religiosity. But the researchers do not find much outright opposition to organized religion as much as disinterest. Even the common label of “spiritual but not religious” was not a popular self-identifier among these young adults. The slippage in religious indicators overtime was not across the board; more conservative Protestants, Latter-Day Saints, Africa Americans, and Jews showed greater commitment over time, while Catholics had the highest rate of disengagement on several measures.

Most notable is that the other categories of engagement and disengagement (as outlined in the study’s previous books)– from “disaffiliated,” to “marginal” to even (to some extent) “committed”– are marked by a tendency to take religion on their own terms with little real importance. This stance is marked by a low level of knowledge and articulation about their beliefs, a low priority given to greater or future involvement (and thus learning about their faiths), and a taken-for-granted quality that requires little need to think about their beliefs. A “do it yourself” religious or spiritual outlook has emerged that is marked by a general belief in “karma,” or that everything happens for a reason; the belief that “everybody goes to heaven;” that religion is easy; the importance of the golden rule; that morals are self-evident; and a belief in “no regrets” as one goes through life (“it’s all good”). These elements create what has been called (by the original authors of this study) “moralistic therapeutic deism 2.0,” with the main difference for these twenty-somethings being that God is even more remote and reduced from their teenage years, only to be called upon when needed. The book concludes that the general stability of trends from their youth while showing gradual religious decline may make the return of this segment of young adults to organized religion unlikely.