Findings & Footnotes November 2017

  • British sociologist Grace Davie presents an extended essay on local and global developments in British religion in the online report Religion in Public Life: Leveling the Ground. Presented as a series of lectures at the University of Birmingham and published by the think tank Theos, the 100-page report starts with her region of Exeter and the Southwest of England and the diminishing role of the churches in rural areas. While religious vitality was once more associated with the countryside than the city, Davies show how this has reversed in the case to such cities as London and their flourishing religious environments (from megachurches catering to immigrants to the renewal of cathedral life). Davie still holds to her theory of churches serving as public utilities (providing services in times of national crises), but she also sees British religion as a marketplace where the monopoly of the Church of England has lost its hold among the public. Other sections include a preview of the International Panel on Social Progress, an initiative that brings together more than 200 experts to weigh in a wide range of issues including religion, and a brief and critical discussion about Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The report can be downloaded at:

  • The story that sociologist Prema Kurien tells about the changes that Indian Christians experience in migrating to the U.S. in her new book Ethnic Church Meets Megachurch (NYU Press, $35) is both familiar yet unique. Like other ethnographies of immigrant and ethnic religions, the book shows how the Christians in the Mar Thoma Church based in Kerala, India have both resisted and adapted to American religious structures and practices even as these adaptations reach back to their homeland. Yet Kurien notes the singularity of the Mar Thoma Church and its role among Indian immigrants; it’s distinctive blending of Eastern and Western Christian influences and its Episcopal structure created a unique identity that has discouraged schisms between the first and second generations.

    The second-generation Mar Thoma members have been heavily influenced by non-denominational evangelical these modernizing changes. She traces this dynamic to the influence (financial and otherwise) that first generation of immigrants still hold in the transnational church body. Kurien also looks at the rise of new charismatic church networks, several formed in the U.S. and how that adds to the way globalization moves in many directions.

  • The new book Faithful Measures (NYU Press, $35), edited by Roger Finke and Christopher D. Bader, may be focused on new methods for studying religion, but non-specialists may also find the contributions’ examination of the way new technology and measurements can shed light on new dimensions of religious belief and practice. The Introduction provides a succinct history of measurement of religiosity and how single method approaches have yielded to the use of multi-methods (combining qualitative and quantitative techniques) and new instruments, such as complex indexes and scales. Still, these instruments have been criticized for not covering the complexity of often diffuse beliefs and increasingly non-institutionalized practices and being too obtrusive to explain the behaviors and diversity of religious belief. The editor’s note that unobtrusive quasi-experiments are still more the exception than the rule in the social scientific study of religion as compared to the dominance of surveys.

    While the contributors find that new methods face institutional resistance and high costs, such new and promising areas as “big data” and other technology that catches individual behavior and attitudes without self-reporting will necessarily change the field. Noteworthy chapters include William Sims Bainbridge’s study of how the unobtrusive nature of Internet research, such as genealogy and Google Book sites that produces innovative insights on the organizational history of communal religious groups, such as the Oneida community. Additional chapters go deeper into how big data research sites like Google Books and Amazon, is particularly suitable in understanding how non-institutional spirituality, such as the varieties of belief in the paranormal, can be charted by studying book purchasing networks. A chapter by Christopher Scheitle looks at how ordinary sources of content, such as congregational web sites and databases of patents and trademarks, can be turned into useful data. A contribution by sociologist Bradley Wright and colleagues explore the use of cell phones apps that measure and record emotional states while subjects go about everyday spiritual and religious practices.

  • Far from being confined to promoters of a racial ideology, Asatru (Norse/Germanic Paganism) has become a diversified subculture, writes Stefanie von Schnurbein (Humboldt University, Berlin) in her book Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism (Haymarket Books, $19.60). The book had originally been published by Brill in 2016 and is now available to a wider audience thanks to a paperback edition. It offers what is currently the most comprehensive international overview of Asatru. According to Schnurbein’s observations, the number of Asatruers around the world “probably does not surpass 20,000.” Schnurbein, a long-time academic observer of the scene of Germanic Neopaganism, was quite critical of the racist connections she observed. However, according to her, significant changes have taken place in the 1990s and even more so in the 2000s, with parts of the Norse Pagan community taking critical distance from the racist and right-wing elements of its legacy [see a recent report in the Atlantic magazine for a more critical view of Germanic Neopaganism, including talk about creating a new Germanic Pagan theology at

    Today, three main factions can be identified. The first one is a racial-religious current, basing its religion on the biological concept of race and advocating race purity. The second one is “ethnicist,” with an emphasis on cultural essentialism—seen as immutable and homogeneous—but without conceptualizing the heritage in exclusively biological terms. The third one is “a-racist (but not engaging actively against racism), refusing to conflate biological heritage and religion, and “generally inclusive of individuals of all background.” This 400-page long book traces the roots of modern Asatru in the search for a national ideology of European romanticism, and subsequently the search for a German religion by rejecting central components of Christianity. The encounter with modern occultism also gave roots to a racial version known as Ariosophy. Those groups failed to receive much recognition from the National Socialist regime, but their race-based views and legacies suffered from the general discrediting of such views after WW II. While there were limited attempts at a revival, it was only in the 1970s that such groups started to attract again a younger membership, helped by the more general interest for alternative religious paths and the growth in popularity of other modern expressions of Paganism.

    There were also efforts from the early 1970s in Iceland by people who apparently had no rightist political backgrounds and developed Asatru on different basis. In Sweden, Schnurbein shows interactions during the same period with life reform movements as well as with neo-Shamanic networks. The Internet has facilitated a rapid internationalization of the movement. But it had already started earlier, as evidenced by the creation of groups in the USA (e.g. the Asatru Free Assembly). The developments from the 1990s onward are marked by a quest for respectability by large segments of German Neopaganism, even if it is difficult to uphold a strict demarcation between a-racist and other varieties, Schnurbein stresses.The book offers chapters on the beliefs and practices of Asatru as well as on the debates regarding the “hot questions” and the issues of gender and sexuality. There is also an interesting chapter on the relations between Germanic Neopaganism and academia, and the use of scholarly resources, as well as another chapter for attempting to apply the concept of “art-religion” (aesthetic dimensions). While Schnurbein acknowledges the real transformations in Asatru (as well as the fact that her own publications have contributed to critical self-reflections in some segments of the community), she concludes that the discourse on Germanic myth “has always been dependent on the idea of national, racial, or ethnic essences.” She deems it impossible to get completely rid of “essentialist operations.” For those reasons, “an elective affinity between this discourse on Nordic myth and right-wing thought is always immanent.”