The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger comments on the project of Andrew Bowen, who in 2011 practiced a different religion each month—Hindu in January, Baha’i in February, Zoroastrian in March, etc. Religion today, he says, is no longer a matter of personal identity, history, or belief. Rather, it is a voluntary association:
In the pluralistic situation every religious institution, which it likes this or not, becomes a voluntary association. Max Weber, one of the fathers of the sociology of religion, distinguished between two institutional forms of religion—the “church”, into which one is born, and the “sect”, which one joins as an adult. The historian Richard Niebuhr suggested that American history has created (presumably inadvertently) a third form of religious institution—the “denomination”, which in many ways looks like a “church”, but which one nevertheless freely joins and belongs to, and which is in competition with other religious bodies. On the level of consciousness, religion loses its taken-for-granted quality, instead becomes a matter of individual decision. The peculiarly American term “religious preference” nicely catches both levels. Put differently, the challenge of secularity, where it exists (it does in some places, notably in Europe), is that there is an absence of gods; the challenge of plurality is that there are too many gods.
When there is a combination of religious plurality with a political system which guarantees freedom of religion, what comes about is, precisely, Niebuhr’s denominationalism. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of such a development. Its emergence in many parts of the world today has usually little to do with American influences, but is the result of the above-mentioned combination of a social and a political fact. Andrew Bowen has, in exemplary fashion, re-enacted this historical drama.
In the pluralistic situation every religion becomes a denomination—even Judaism, which is both a religion and a people, into which, by definition, one is born. In America Judaism has been born again (I choose the phrase deliberately) in at least three denominations.
HT: Matthew Schmitz