Lived Religion and the Futures of Faith

Lived Religion and the Futures of Faith December 1, 2023

I recently posted on the sizable literature on the scientific explanations for religious behavior. As I noted there, “being human makes us naturally understand things in religious ways, even if we reject any formal or institutional religious affiliation. We are conditioned to look for things that we understand as holy, to project holiness onto particular people or places, to feel awe in their presence, to deny the reality of barriers separating life and death, and we will continue to do so even if all existing creeds have evaporated. … We need the holy, however we imagine it.”

But if religion as such is not going away, how far can we predict how things will change in what seems to be becoming a far more secular world? It is commonly remarked that institutional religion is in sharp decline around much of the world, and we will likely see the spread of a fairly thorough secularism, by no means only in the Judeo-Christian West. Buddhism is in steep decline in many of its traditional bastions, and even some Islamic nations are already showing the telltale signs of early secularization.

As the prophetic sign informs us in Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford, “Religion is in the Basement.”

Such a sea-change of itself means that researchers need to pay special attention to non-institutional forms of religiosity, rather than speaking of a simple decline or evaporation of spiritual impulses as such.

But even in such circumstances, the habits of lived religion do not go away, even if they become detached from contexts that are formally defined by the religious label. Some will survive in the setting of unofficial and even unapproved spirituality, while others will be absorbed into secular settings.

As such trend develop, the “lived religion” approach acquires special value, not least in challenging the very common label of behaviors as “spiritual but not religious.” From a lived religion perspective, the counter would be that such actions are indeed “religious,” and we must not accept the simple and revealing equation of “religious” with “churches,” or with “willing to accept institutional definitions.” Contrary to media mythologies, even the notorious Nones of whom we hear so much are those who refuse to accept a religious affiliation or nomenclature, rather than rejecting religion as such.

Nor are such common patterns extinct in a modern technological world. We think how people in many different societies spontaneously commemorate the places where notable tragedies have occurred, whether sensational acts such as school shootings or terrorist attacks, or more personal disasters such as traffic deaths. Whatever their cultural background, religious identification, or degree of belief in an afterlife or a spiritual dimension, survivors around the world tend to create very similar “shrines” where they leave mementos and gifts, and light candles. In recent American history, we think for instance at the very substantial spontaneous memorials that sprang up at the sites of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, or the crash site of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a few years afterwards. The Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC is a well-studied center of such ritualized veneration. At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of gravity, designers of public spaces despair of ever including bodies of water that ordinary people will not use to throw coins for good luck.

Even the most violent foes of religion freely appropriate forms and practices with strong implicit religious content. In China, the ultra-radical Maoist regime of the 1960s and 1970s was marked by extensive visual iconography of the great leader, Mao Zedong, which was scarcely distinguishable from older pieties. Mao’s followers also deployed his sacred writings in a little red book that acquired a central cultic quality very much akin to that of the Christian Bible. The ruling clan of North Korea looks just as much like a local pantheon, complete with miraculous tales and mythologies.

Even if religions may fail, ways of being religious will continue. Witness contemporary Europe. Since the 1960s, that continent led the way in worldwide secularization, and figures for formal adherence in several countries are now extremely low. Yet in that same period, the practice of pilgrimage has swelled enormously, and often in precisely those very secular nations. Christian pilgrimage sites flourish far more than in the times of explicit faith, and many new venues have emerged. The continent is now spanned by sprawling new or revived pilgrim ways that often reclaim the name of medieval routes. This major phenomenon is by no means explicitly religious, and the sizable literature on such activity rightly discusses it as a manifestation of leisure industries. At a trivial level, look at the recent vogue for camping overnight within the sacred precincts of old churches – “church camping,” or “Champing.” We have a natural affinity for places we believe to be sacred.

But the consequence is that Europe’s ancient Christian landscape is more in evidence now than it has been for centuries, and that is especially true in what were long the faithful Protestant core nations of northern and western nations.  With not the slightest compulsion, and in spite of a highly secular and anti-religious media, a great many secular Europeans are literally retracing the steps of ancient lived spiritual practice. We can debate the “real” spiritual substance of such behaviors, although in fairness, accounts of pilgrimage in the earlier ages of faith make clear the very mixed motives that drove earlier generations: think of the Canterbury Tales.

Inevitably in present circumstances, manifold expressions of religious practice – whatever their actual content – are inextricably bound up with popular culture. One star attraction in the new landscape of pilgrimage is Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, which entirely owes its enormous celebrity to its inclusion in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The Chapel currently receives 180,000 visitors annually.

Another central manifestation of modern popular culture is the whole genre of folk horror, which posits a whole range of haunted landscapes and sacred sites, to be treated with appropriate reverence and fear. Originating in Britain, both the genre and the accompanying mythology has subsequently spread worldwide, and its local manifestations fill appropriate gaps in the declining map of institutional religion. Again, we can ask how seriously consumers take the package, but it often sparks an interest in visiting old pagan sites, or at least places that can be understood in that way. A thriving British culture of weird walks incorporates ancient stone circles as well as Christian sites.

I would suggest that interest in such ancient practices and sites is inversely proportionate to the actual strength of formal religion in a given society, and that such forms will grow in the near future US as and when it secularizes.

In 1954, English poet Philip Larkin published his famous and even prophetic poem “Church Going,” which uses an old parish church to contemplate the future evaporation of religion in Western society. Even after formal institutional faith has gone, he suggests, and the church grounds are wholly abandoned, older forms of lived religious practice persist and revive:

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random.

Although he was making no claims to the status of a serious sociologist of religion, Larkin’s vision accurately includes some of the most stubborn elements of vernacular belief and practice, not least in the quest for healing.

Churches and whole faiths may change and fade. Religion is staying.



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