Reflection 1/22

Chaves’ American Religion provides an introductory examination of the shifts in religious life in the United States since 1972. He contextualizes the narrative of “religion is dying!” by reminding us that we are still by far the most religious Western country. Rather than bemoaning the decreasing influence of religion in U.S. society, or conversely arguing for its skyrocketing numbers, Chaves neither overstates and understates changes. For the most part, he says, there is continuity in American religion, but overall, the number of people who identify with and practice official religion has decreased since 1972. Declining church attendance also comes with a decrease of belief in an inerrant Bible, declining confidence in the superiority of their own religion, and a lowered correlation between organized religiosity and spirituality. In the wake of this phenomenon, the number of “nones,” those who do not identify with any religion at all, has increased dramatically. These “nones” often consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”
In chapter 4, McGuire differentiates between official and nonofficial religion. Official religion proclaims a set doctrine, which in turn prescribes ethics, norms and regulations for the faithful. Organized religion uses cultic expression, which standardizes devotional practices, and they organize into institutional forms, which include professional clergy. Individuals are judged by their conformity to official religion. By contrast, nonofficial religion takes place outside of the bounds of official religious institutions, though their adherents may overlap. It may include superstitious practices related to organized religion (eg. sacramentals) or not. Most Protestant Christians find their roots in popular or cultic religious expression, especially evangelicals. Today, nonofficial religion spreads by radio, television, and other media. These two kinds of religion are not mutually exclusive, and in both historical and modern contexts, believers have practiced both forms at one time, using nonofficial religion to supplement official religion and vice versa.