September 16, 2015

"Nones," Affiliation, and Prayer

Elizabeth DrescherElizabeth Drescher, Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion & Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University, has spent the past several years learning about so-called “Nones”—the religiously unaffiliated who answer “none” when asked with what religion they identify. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, Drescher discusses how her interest in this topic developed, the meaning of religious classifications, and the impact of new and social media on how people pray.


Onnesha Roychoudhuri: What first drew you to studying “Nones” as a religious classification?

Elizabeth Drescher: I was working at a seminary when the 2008 Pew Religious Landscape and the American Religious Identification survey came out. It marked the first big jump in the number of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated. Seminaries were really struggling at that time, as they are now. We were looking at the question of what it meant to prepare people for religious leadership in the current age. I wanted to understand who these folks were and what their relationship to traditional religion was. I wanted to understand how they were developing spiritual lives in relation to and beyond those traditions. So I started there, and I continued to have an interest in what that might mean. Also, I live in northern California. It’s a pretty Catholic culture in many ways, but it’s also really religiously diverse. There are a lot of religiously unaffiliated people.

OR: What are the parameters of the “None” classification? Do many “Nones” consider themselves believers in God?

ED: The data tells us that the majority of the religiously unaffiliated believe in God, a higher power, or something like that. Saying that you’re religiously unaffiliated is saying that you don’t primarily engage or practice that belief in the context of an institutional religious group. But it isn’t to say that you don’t believe in anything.

However, one of the things that the religiously unaffiliated really stress is that our conventional fixation on propositional belief, and those questions that fill our theologies and philosophies—”Is there or isn’t there a God? How does that God work in the world?”—aren’t necessarily the most important measures of how spiritual or religious people are.

For many of the unaffiliated I spoke with, their distance from or indifference to institutional religions didn’t have a whole lot to do with complex doctrinal or theological issues. It had to do with different experiences of the spiritual in their lives that weren’t central to institutional religious practices as they had experienced them.

OR: But it also sounds that you’ve found in your research that many “Nones” are apprehensive to even identify as spiritual.

ED: There’s certainly a range. A sizable percentage of folks from the 2012 “Nones on the Rise” study did identify as spiritual. But many of the unaffiliated—and I think all of the new data from Pew isn’t out, but I suspect that we’ll see this—are religiously indifferent. They are neither religious nor spiritual, and they really don’t want to have their lives defined in that language.

Certainly, the language of the spiritual is often demeaned in the culture—especially the “spiritual but not religious” moniker. I think Lillian Daniel’s work on this is pretty typical. There was a viral essay she wrote for the Huffington Post that she later turned into a book, entitled, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” She went on about people who are spiritual as being vapid, narcissistic, and shallow. But what I’ve found is that people have complex ways of understanding what they see as the work of the human spirit, the divine spirit, a natural spirit in the context of everyday life. It wasn’t necessarily systematized in conventional ways, but certainly created a richness in their lives.

OR: I’m curious about all the terminology floating around here. Already, we’ve used the terms “unaffiliated,” and then “Nones.” How much of a role does the categorization and terminology play in the visibility of different ways of practicing spirituality or faith? For instance, I think in the Pew report there was a troubling grouping of different categories.

ED: At one point they lumped together atheists and agnostics, and that creates weird data. You see a certain percentage of people in the atheist/agnostic category who pray, and people think, Well what are you praying to if you don’t believe in God? But, of course, agnostics don’t necessarily not believe in God; they just don’t know that the answer is settled.

The names are really important. When I started doing this research, I had “Nones” as this long hyphenated construction: “Nones—people-who-answer- ‘None’-when-asked-with-what-religion-they-identify-or-affiliate.” Because people didn’t know what that terminology meant. After the “Nones on the Rise” report, which got so much media attention, people suddenly did know. After 2012, people would self-identify to me as “Nones.”

The unaffiliated have tended to be described by the dominant religiously-affiliated cohort as “un” sorts of things: “un-churched,” “un-religious,” “un-saved” or with fairly pejorative language, like “heathens” or “pagans.” Even “atheist” has a strong negative connotation, although that’s changing. “Agnostic” is a little softer. Depending on your denominational background, “humanist” can be more neutral or it can be very negative. So I think for many of the unaffiliated, having this category of “None” allows them to be strategic in how they identify, but it also allows them to say, “I’m not a heathen or an ‘un-churched,’ I’m not nothing. But I’m not what you define.”

OR: It sounds like the term “None” is starting to carve out its own affirmative space. But I when I read the Pew report, I noticed that they were cautious about using the term. They specified that they were putting “Nones” in quotes, as a nod to the fact that the term is considered diminishing by some. What are your thoughts on the use of the term?

ED: For some people, “None” has an empty sound to it, and they want to be more specific. When I was interviewing people for the New Directions in the Study of Prayer project, and for my wider research on the Choosing Our Religion book, I asked them how they identified. I would say, “If someone asked you what your religion is, what would you say? How would you describe yourself?” People had all sorts of ways of describing and labeling themselves, and refusing labels. Sometimes that would change repeatedly in the course of an interview.

One of the things that was pretty consistent was that people would amend the label that they used, often with the space holder, “whatever.” So they might say, “Well, I’m more of an agnostic or whatever.” Some people read that “whatever” in a kind of valley-girl, vapid way. But linguists talk about those kinds of words as space-holders that allow people to negotiate meanings together. Essentially, they’re saying: “There’s not really a word in the language for who I’m being and who I’m becoming, but I’m going to continue to talk about it with you, and maybe together we’ll come up with some kind of understanding.” “Whatever” doesn’t always mean, “it doesn’t matter.”

People have been testing “None” out now for a couple years. For some, it really works well and feels more authentic than something like “spiritual but not religious.” The label will probably change, too. That’s a big part of the process of religious change we’re seeing right now. Just like fixed doctrinal propositional beliefs are no longer the center of people’s religious experience. Even for people who remain affiliated, the language of, “I am a Presbyterian,” or, “I am a Buddhist,” as a fixed feature of identity is less and less the norm.

OR: I know there are a lot of different theories as to why there’s been a rise in “Nones” and an increasing aversion to wholeheartedly embracing one label. What’s your perspective on what might be behind this rise?

ED: There’s no one particular cause. At a really basic level, people live much longer lives than they ever have. As institutional religion was developing, most people died by the time they were 50. They didn’t have a lot of exposure to other religious traditions, and lives were short and brutal. Doing a lot of religious and spiritual exploration was a luxury that most people didn’t have. If you happened to live in a part of the world where everybody was Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, that’s what you practiced. Now, many of us can expect to live past a hundred, and we have much easier lives—even if they’re complex in different ways. Our lifespans allow for a more expansive exploration of religion and spirituality.

New media technologies have given us access to more information and authority over it. And the ability to shape expressions of our identity in online spaces has influenced our offline activity. We have this expectation that everything is revisable in a certain sense. There are very few people with exclusive authority over knowledge, information, and wisdom now. And in a globally connected world, we’re just exposed to lots of different religious traditions and non-religious practices. It’s just not possible, as Charles Taylor tells us, for people—even if they believe in a very devout sense in one particular religious tradition—to really think that other reasonable people don’t believe different things.

People are also frustrated by the politicization of religion, or the religionization of politics, and have stepped away from certain versions of fundamentalist religion and culture. So all of those things have come together to create this period in which people are holding religious identity more loosely and exploring it in more complex ways in their lives.

I think that the conversation itself—about religious affiliation and “Nones”—produces some “Nones.” There are people who might not have been particularly active participants in the religious traditions that they identified with, but maybe still would have said, “I’m a Lutheran,” or “I’m a Hindu.” And when the conversation about “Nones” in the media invites them to think about that, they start identifying as “Nones.”

OR: Your research relies heavily on interviews with “Nones.” Can you talk a little bit about your experience conducting these? Did you discover any common threads in terms of how “Nones” describe prayer, or what constitutes prayer for “Nones”?

ED: I traveled around and interviewed over 100 people across the country about their spiritual lives. There was a lot of variety. When I surveyed people about their spiritual lives, prayer was the only traditional religious practice that came up as spiritually meaningful, consistently across the board—both among the affiliated and the unaffiliated. But people think of prayer in lots of different ways.

The traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of prayer is that it’s either a petition to a supernatural being, or a way of engaging the presence of that being. So it’s either about making a request and hoping for some kind of change to happen, or developing a relationship, and often expecting some kind of change to happen on the basis of that relationship.

That conception of prayer didn’t come up much with the “Nones” I talked to. More often, I saw prayer functioning as a practice that created a continuity between their religiously-affiliated past and their unaffiliated present. It allowed them to be in certain social relationships—with people in their families, among coworkers and friends who were praying people. For example, one woman I interviewed is an atheist who works as an executive in a social services agency in Chicago. She said that in the course of her work, there are many religious groups and lots of praying. So her feeling is that, Sure, I’ll bust out a prayer, that’s not a big deal. I don’t have to believe in your God to stand with you. She didn’t think the words meant anything in terms of getting a supernatural being to affect lives, but they meant something in terms of her relationships. It’s this idea of praying with people in a Durkheimian sense of creating social cohesion. I’ll pray with you because it brings us together.

This woman also said that when she’s gathering with family and friends, they’ll often start with a prayer as a way of acknowledging the significance of the gathering and the people who are there. For some people there, that has religious meaning, and for others, it doesn’t. I saw that a lot with people I interviewed: prayer serving to continue connections, to move the story forward.

It also came up that prayer held a space in which people could express the paradox of hope and anxiety—often in circumstances where people were praying for somebody. People explained to me that saying you’re praying for somebody is different than saying that you’re thinking about them. When I explored that in greater depth, what I heard was that, when someone is struggling in our lives, we have what I think of as a contingent vulnerability—this sense that your sense of security, safety, and health is connected to mine, at least emotionally. So the idea is, I don’t feel secure and healthy and safe until you are. Prayer is way of narrating that contingent vulnerability and articulating this sense that, I both hope you’ll be better, and I’m worried that you won’t be.

There aren’t many words in our language that really hold that paradox. Saying, “I’ll meditate for you,” or “I’ll think about you” doesn’t say, “I’m implicated in your wellness and security.” Whereas saying, “I’m praying for you” does, even if it doesn’t relate to a supernatural being or force.

OR: What you’re describing sounds like a practice of deep empathy.

ED: Absolutely. People told me that the most spiritually meaningful practices in their life were those that related to family, friends, their pets, and sharing and preparing food. It’s what I think of as the “four F’s” of contemporary spirituality: family, friends, Fido, and food. It’s not necessarily about developing personal virtues that allow you to be a good person in the world; it’s about nurturing relationships, starting with those in the family, relationships with friends, with nature, and so on.

Empathy is really critical in those kinds of relationships of care, where care is the central ethical value. And in that context, prayer is a technology of empathy. It’s a way of articulating and ritualizing empathy. But it also goes beyond that. If empathy is, in a classic dictionary definition, “the ability to understand the feelings of another deeply,” what I’ve been calling “contingent vulnerability” evokes an even deeper compassion, a sense of a profoundly personal implication in the wellbeing of another.

OR: You had mentioned that, for some “Nones,” praying is a way of connecting to their religious pasts. Are there a lot of “Nones” who have a past that includes identifying with a more conventionally delineated religion?

ED: The majority of the unaffiliated come from religious backgrounds—mostly Christian backgrounds. And they emerged from that background in different ways. Sometimes it was problematic, but not always. Some people felt like they took all kinds of beautiful things from the tradition, but that it didn’t really work for them anymore.

One woman I interviewed identifies as variously a “None,” “spiritual but not religious,” and has a pagan-wiccan practice. But she really likes the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and thinks it’s a beautiful tradition. It’s really common for people to carry artifacts from their tradition into their lives as unaffiliated people.

Another woman I interviewed had a really difficult relationship with her fairly conservative Evangelical tradition. She left it behind and then identified as a fairly hardcore atheist. I think she’s softened on that now, but she talked about prayer as “sneaking up on her.” She really didn’t want to be doing it, but she was in certain life circumstances and it was really the only language she could approach that experience with. But it was uncomfortable for her.

OR: One of the women you interviewed identifies as an atheist, but she starts every morning by praying. And for her, that means looking at photos of her children and grandchildren. And in that instance, it sounds like she’s incorporated that kind of prayer in her life and it’s sufficient. Whereas in some other contexts, it sounds like prayer is an act of yearning to feel connection that isn’t yet fulfilled.

ED: Yes. Judith set out these photos of her daughters and granddaughters every morning. It’s easy to see how that resonates with lots of traditional prayer practices—you know, the prayer cards, having the ritual of doing that every morning. But it’s also easy to see how that doesn’t have to involve an idea of God at all. Just seeing those images reinforces those relationships, deepens empathy, enriches a sense of caring, and creates a sense of fullness for her.

There were other people who talked to me who said, “You know, I wish that I did believe in a God that was going to do something, and when I sit and pray, maybe I’m connecting with something, but I’m not certain about that.” It was still important for them to do. One of the people I interviewed, a recent graduate from Santa Clara where I teach, is an atheist who prays. He says when he does it, he’s not really seeking anything in terms of a specific outcome; he’s just thinking about the people he cares about, the things he wants to explore in his life, his relationship to the world.

OR: You mentioned the impact that new media has had on the conception of “Nones” and prayer. How has the rise of the internet and social media opened up space for a more elastic definition of prayer and the practice of prayer?

ED: We see this on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, even Flickr. Every time there’s some kind of tragedy, we see the hashtag on Twitter: #prayforCharleston, #prayforBoston. You’re seeing people expressing this kind of paradoxical understanding of hope and anxiety that is most fully marked in the language we have available with the word “prayer.” It has both some bonding effect—because everybody’s looking at the hashtag—and we’re reflecting on whatever that regional or national experience was. For some, that will provoke what would be traditionally recognized as prayer. They’re going to invoke a deity, petition, use traditional language. For others, it’s going to provoke a kind of reflection that they may or may not consider to be prayer, but we might define as prayerful. It creates a great space.

We see the same thing on more visual sites, where people put up quotes and images that create a kind of digital stained glass window that looks a lot like traditional prayer stations. There’s iconography and short memorable passages that can be recited in patterned ways. People spend time scrolling through them. I have students who say that when they’re feeling down, they go onto Pinterest and scroll around and get some inspiration from people. That certainly changes how people actively experience what they would articulate as prayer or prayerfulness in their everyday lives.

So, they’re not seeing prayer in the more conventional liturgical structures that would be associated with institutional religions. And this isn’t just among the unaffiliated. When the affiliated are going into their churches, they’re also carrying these digitally integrated prayerful practices into those spaces.

OR: Can you give some examples of how these broader conceptions of prayer are evolving the way that people pray in churches?

ED: I think there are lots of churches where ministers are actively inviting people to both Tweet prayer requests or put them on a church Facebook page. So there’s a digitally integrated connectedness that expands beyond the local space into a more distributed network of care. I gave a talk with a colleague a while back, and as an experiment, we invited people in the group to ask for prayer requests. People were holding up their iPads and their iPhones calling out prayer requests from all around the country. It was quite a powerful moment.

Marcel Mauss has an understanding of prayer as increasingly moving people into greater and greater internalization so that, ultimately, we’ll become our own private religious spaces. In fact, social media has flipped that. We’re externalizing prayer quite a lot more,but it’s in much more nuanced ways than, say, a charismatic or street-corner prayer experience. Where we might have seen the evolution of religion becoming more market-based, free choice, individualized, privatized, and interiorized, it’s actually becoming more networked, relational, and social in really complex ways.

November 13, 2014

Losing My Religion? Journalists Spend a Weekend at an Ashram in India

In March 2014, I took my journalism class to India to cover the role of religion in the upcoming election. I’d done similar trips before to Israel and Ireland, but this time I wanted the students to have more than a fleeting encounter with the religion they were covering.

During a 2012 trip to India, a previous class had visited one of Delhi’s Hanuman temples. Eyes popping at the sight of yonis and lingams, red gods and blue gods, heaps of orange flowers and piles of sugary candies, we found ourselves in a packed and narrow chamber. Twisting around waves of petitioners, we reached the priests presiding over golden idols and fire braziers. After the robed officiants placed garlands around our necks, we moved away, standing and watching until head splitting, chest heaving, body shredding gongs paralyzed us. In a state of synesthetic overload, we had no choice but simply to be.

On the most recent trip, I wanted my students to experience something like that before we started reporting. The best option, I decided, was a long weekend at an ashram, where students could meditate, practice yoga, and listen to spiritual masters. The key was to take them outside of their comfort zones and into silence and stillness, trusting they would experience something visceral and perhaps even essential. I chose Ananda and Osho because they were both Westerner-friendly and close to Mumbai, where we would do our reporting. So, after flying twenty-plus hours from Los Angeles to Bombay and driving another six hours to Pune, I’d dropped half of the students at the rural Ananda retreat and alighted at Osho, an in-town urban oasis, with the rest.

I gave clear instructions to both groups: try to stay off your screens and experience rather than observe (no taking notes). I also explained that they would be expected to write a first-person account of their visits, but that these could be anything from a chronicle of their spiritual journey to a review of the ashram’s food.

The twelve students, nine women and three men, ranged from seniors to graduate students. Several were committed Christians, some were lapsed Catholics, and a few considered themselves “nones.” All were enthused about spending time at Osho and Ananda and had visited meditation centers in Los Angeles to prepare for the retreat. But the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and the actual experience of the ashrams was not at all like the fantasy. Students found the blatant marketing and self-promotion at both sites problematic; moreover, several of the students at Osho were unsettled by “dynamic meditation” techniques that required dancing, deep breathing, shaking, screaming, and other physical manifestations.

Back in Los Angeles, many of the students wrote about their spiritual journeys at the ashram or, more accurately, the failure of those journeys to enlighten or even inspire. Still, most had thought-provoking experiences, and the collection of pieces shows a fascinating range of reactions to meditation.

All of the students have graduated since writing these pieces.

July 2, 2014

Embodiment in Orthodox Prayer and Spirituality

This article is an extension of Connective Implications of the Material Holy, our essay on Orthodox material and sensory cultures that was published here on Reverberations last fall. Eastern Orthodox worship, prayer, and devotional activities are composed of sensory and material cultures that are deployed and employed through kinetic, embodied gestures and rituals, both vernacular and institutional. In other words, prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church are embodied. We understand embodiment as physical acts of engaging with ritual, liturgical, or holy items located in both the parish and the private domus (home), but also in the kinetic contouring of the body in ways that are both restrictive (i.e. rigorous fasting) and communal (i.e. ritual forgiveness).

We employ the term embodiment in a phenomenological and, to a slightly lesser extent, theological sense. Embodiment draws together the sensorial and the physical, highlighting the body as the locus of experience, while also pointing to the inclusion of the person within a larger network or system. Focusing on lived religion requires, according to Robert Orsi, an emphasis on embodied praxis in a variety of environments. Embodiment is crucial for understanding the devotional activities of Orthodox Christians since each devotee is an actor in the socio-religious drama that unfolds in both liturgical and community spaces. Orthodoxy itself proclaims that it possesses a living tradition and theology, which is embodied in believers and manifested through their actions, especially through prayer and spirituality. Thus, examining the physical worship practices of Orthodox adherents allows for a deeper understanding of lived Orthodox theology and beliefs.


April 4, 2014

Sweating Our Prayers in Dance Church

As I walk up from the Oakland subway station on a Sunday morning, rain is falling in a slow drizzle and the downtown street is deserted. Around the corner, I spot the “Tropicana Ballroom” sign on a 1920s building that is my destination. I pay $15 at the entrance and walk up the red-carpeted stairs to a ballroom where art deco wall sconces softly glow onto an 8000-square-foot floor full of dancers warming up. On the far side of the dance floor, beneath floor-to-ceiling windows, an altar has been laid with candles, a vase of gladiolas, a statue of Shiva, and Osho Zen Tarot cards. A young woman sits cross-legged in meditation in front of the altar; the man next to her is kneeling and praying; and two hundred other dancers—ranging in age from infants wearing padded ear coverings to men and women in their 70s—are preparing to “sweat their prayers” on the dance floor.


January 16, 2014

Is Yoga Not Even a Hundred Years Old: Part II

[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]

Yoga garnered a significant amount of journalistic attention in 2013, but often not for spiritual reasons. A recent study has revealed that 15 million Americans now practice Yoga (mostly college educated women) and that almost half of them earn at least $75,000 annually. If you are looking to make money off of spirituality, Yoga perhaps now offers the best chance. Last year $27 billion dollars were spent in the U.S. alone on Yoga products. Yoga has truly become America’s next great prosperity gospel.

But let’s put to one side the lively debate in the Yoga community over whether the art form has been compromised by its new wealthy enthusiasts. The far more interesting question concerns how Yoga evolved from an ancient Indian spiritual discipline into a modern American exercise trend.

A number of scholars have embraced the task of explaining the reception of Yoga in “the West.” One of their aims is to challenge the idea that a “more authentic” form of Yoga has ever really been practiced in either Europe or the United States. They instead argue that Yoga was fundamentally transformed in India via the colonial encounter and thus remains caught up in European encroachments.


November 19, 2013

Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics (1966)

A self-conscious addition to the postwar surge in self-help discourse, Psycho-Cybernetics was published in 1960. Claiming to have sold over one million copies by the mid-1960s, Maxwell Maltz’s therapeutic program promised to “eradicate ‘emotional scars’ just as a plastic surgeon removes outer scars.” As cybernetics made its way into the laboratories, manufacturing centers, and imaginations of the populace, Maltz’s was a necessary update as Americans became more comfortable with their cyborg future.

The vinyl affect of Psycho-Cybernetics is palpable, as the program is peppered with common sense encomiums, references to Napoleon and Dugald Stewart, and the revelation that your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and an imaginary one.

So put your headphones on and give a listen to this heady treatise. Move beyond the merely human, past the “hypnotized” state of the masses. Receive instruction to take charge of your interactions with the representations of self that you have already generated. This is who you are, in charge and on top—the executive warding over the vast machinery of you. This is the imagination at work—you are not a machine but rather the engineer who, by way of one’s study course in psycho-cybernetics, has learned to manipulate the self from a distance, to massage one’s interactions with others, to write the code for complete happiness, sanity, and success.

Let your creative-success mechanism take over. Transcend space and time. Transgress the limitations of death.

October 16, 2013

Is Yoga Not Even a Hundred Years Old?

[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]

In 2009, the noted Dutch anthropologist (and New Directions in the Study of Prayer Advisory Committee member) Peter van der Veer published, in the journal Social Research, an article devoted to explaining the origins of modern spirituality. Committed to Talal Asad’s call for an “anthropology of secularism” and riding on the coattails of Charles Taylor’s Secular Age, van der Veer argued that modern spirituality first emerged in the West during the second half of the nineteenth-century, as an alternative to traditional religion fueled by the “secularization of the western mind.”  In search of alternatives to institutionalized Christianity, the nineteenth-century witnessed the rise of various movements—Transcendentalism, Christian Science, Theosophy—hoping to discover a universal spirituality agreeable to the modern intellectual palate.

The desire to look beyond the conventional in pursuit of the spiritual, according to van der Veer, was enabled by western imperialism, which paved the way for Euro-American encounters with Indian and Chinese spiritualities. These were eventually reimagined and transformed to go beyond the dogmatism of Christianity. Engendered by the interaction between metropole and colony, the oppressed and the oppressor both played a part in the creation of a new spirituality—thus van der Veer’s startling conclusion that modern spirituality is incomprehensible apart from the expansion of European power. This, like much of the recent literature devoted to the anthropological turn to the secular, also suggests that contemporary notions of spirituality and religion are rooted in the not-so-distant past.

A recent Der Spiegel piece by Manfred Dworschak, entitled “Salvation Without a Savior” (Erlösung ohne Erlöser), nicely illustrates how van der Veer has recently applied these insights to the history of yoga in North America and Europe. The first half of the article centers on the significance of Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.


June 17, 2013

Restraint and Outpour: Emotions Across Genres of Prayer

When distinguishing religious from secular activity, contemporary Russian Orthodox believers often draw a contrast between the spiritual and the sensuous. Coming from Byzantine monastic writings that were popularized by nineteenth-century Russian clerics, this contrast refers to two different modes of human existence. Prayer and participation in liturgy are intended to develop the spiritual potential of the human being, moving beyond mere emotion or esthetic enjoyment. Key characteristics that make churches a spiritual space removed from secular sensuality are iconographic styles that depict saints as timeless, serene beings of no particular age, existing in eternity rather than historical time; and liturgical chants that are performed a cappella, in rhythms that are often governed by the words that are sung. The canonical texts of services and hymns to saints also often shy away from the more gory details of their lives and sufferings, to focus on them as spiritual exemplars. But especially when it comes to more popular and lay-oriented forms of praise and prayer, the elements of a liturgical setting can pull in different emotional directions.

An example of this are the icon and liturgical texts addressed to the martyr Tatiana (d. ca. 225). The Roman deaconess became patron saint of Russian students by the historical accident that the mother of one of the founders of Moscow University was named Tatiana. In the neo-Byzantine style popular in contemporary Russia, icons of Saint Tatiana (here from a university chapel in Ioshkar-Ola, Volga region) depict her as an unblemished maiden, the cross in her hand the only hint at her sufferings as a martyr.

The troparion verse that is sung as part of the service on Tatiana’s feast day (January 12/25) also spiritualizes her martyrdom. An episode where she was thrown into a lion’s pit becomes a struggle against the “beasts of the mind”:

Following after the Purest Lamb and Shepherd, speaking lamb Tatiana, you were not afraid of the beasts of the mind, but arming yourself with the sign of the cross, conquered them completely, and entered into the Heavenly Kingdom, from whence remember us too, wise martyr of Christ. 

But when students attend the service centering around the akathist hymn dedicated to Saint Tatiana offered at many university chapels on a weekday evening, they find a more complex mix of spirituality and emotion. Often coming to pray for successful exams, they face the same imperturbable portrait of the saint and hear the priest and choir take turns in even-tempered chanting. But if they attend to the words recited by the priest and the refrains sung by the choir, they must imagine episodes of martyrdom in all their physical brutality:

Ikos 10:

You were strong as a wall and a diamond, when you were brought to be devoured by beasts, and they did not devour you;

But when they tried to take away the lion it suddenly became enraged and devoured the dignitary Eumenius, showing the power of Christianity. For this reason we pronounce with awe:

Rejoice, who calmed the beasts;

Rejoice, who tamed them through prayer.

Rejoice, who was tortured for Eumenius’s death;

Rejoice, who was hung upon the tree.

Rejoice, who was torn by iron nails;

Rejoice, who was falsely accused of sorcery.

Rejoice, who delivers us from false accusations;

Rejoice, who protects us from evil sorcery.

Rejoice, oh fragrant flower of virginity, glorious martyr Tatiana.

In such paraliturgical texts written mainly by laypeople, sensual and physical drama returns to the prayerful imagination of the faithful, albeit restrained by the tones of the recitation, the archaisms of the Old Slavonic text, and the stylized lines of the icon. Somewhere in between is the prayer request of a student or parent hoping for good marks, left free to see her own tribulations either in a more spiritual or more emotional light.

June 4, 2013

The Ivory Tower in Cyberspace

When I went back to graduate school in my 40s, I took with me years of having produced films, network TV programs, and a mass-market book. I thought the theological faculty would be impressed. They were not, except for my advisor who saw the potential for mass-media religious education. My qualifications and publishing record was enough to get me into a Master of Arts program at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, but I quickly discovered that academia and mass-media didn’t relate very well with each other.

Also against me was that I was “a believer.” I soon learned that the worship department stood on its own; it didn’t interface much with the academic lines. I found that odd. I still don’t understand why departments of religion and divinity schools separate faith and analytics. Is faith and worship too soft? Certainly a subject for some research.

Then again, everyone I knew at the time warned me not to go to graduate school to study theology. As a matter of fact, the founder of a major mass-market spirituality magazine told me bluntly, “don’t study religion or you’ll lose your faith!” I actually had the opposite experience.  Studying ancient writings in asceticism, and in doctrine, and mystical practices served to increase my faith. Now, I’m able to add what I learned in historical-critical context.


March 19, 2013

Nones at Prayer

A new report from Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley confirms the uptick in religiously unaffiliated Americans—those who answer “none” when asked questions like, “What is your religious preference?” or “Of what religious group are you a member?”—that was marked by the “Nones on the Rise” report released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in late 2013. Drawing upon data from the General Social Survey (GSS), researchers Michael Hout, Claude S. Fischer, and Mark A. Chaves, showed the percentage of Nones in the U.S. population at twenty percent at the end of 2012, just slightly higher than the 19.6 percent reported in the Pew survey. Together, the two reports strongly challenge data released earlier this year by Gallup, which showed Nones at 17.8 percent of the population and suggested a plateauing in their growth.

As in the previous survey, the GSS data shows that, while engagement with institutional religions has been on a steep decline in recent decades, belief in God or a Higher Power (“Universal Spirit,” in the Pew survey) remains robust, and growth among Atheists has been minimal. America remains a nation of believers, though it’s less and less clear exactly what that means on a number of levels. Publically, in terms of national or cultural identity, for example, the idea of the United States as “a Christian nation,” however much this might be contested at one time or another, has of course had important practical implications for how we understand ourselves in relation to one another in local communities and in relation to other nations in the world. These various self-understandings, in turn, have much to do with what we understand as culturally appropriate ethical, moral, and civic action.

In terms of personal approaches to existential meaning-making, self-realization or self-fulfillment, and self-transcendence, the clear shift away from affiliation with institutional expressions of religion certainly says something about new configurations of personal and social self-identity and the life practices that support this. It is worth noting that the terms “religious affiliation” and “religious identity,” which are routinely conflated in the work of Hout, Fischer, and Chavez as well as in that of many other commentators on Nones, are not equivalent. A Roman Catholic who no longer belongs to or attends church, for instance, may answer the question, “What is your religious preference?” with “none.” But she might also answer the question, “With what religion or religious tradition do you most identify?” with “Catholic,” perhaps adding that she’s a “lapsed,” “former,” “cultural,” or “ethnic” Catholic.


March 6, 2013

Prayer, Imagination, and the Voice of God—in Global Perspective

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?

Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.


March 2, 2013

The Higher Power

“Prayer” is not a good word among many adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I learned this at the first meeting of survivors I attended in the Chicago area last winter. These survivors have largely broken with the church. They associate “prayer” with the authority of the church and with the church’s determination, as they see it, to deny their experience. “Prayer,” when it is attached to the idea of “healing,” is especially toxic because it appears to insist on closure. “Pray to be healed” sounds like a command. “What’s a better word than prayer?” I asked.  The word this group agreed on was “spirituality.” Here’s where I had to confront and rethink some old assumptions about praying and about religion. I had been certain for a long time that “spirituality” is an empty category, signifying nothing. But if spirituality is nothing, then it makes no sense to think of prayer as a “spiritual” practice, which is precisely how these survivors were thinking of it. And if prayer is relational, as I believe it is—taking place within webs of relationships that extend between heaven and earth, living and dead—then what does it mean to pray to the pallid abstractions, who have no personality or substance, that float through the realms of the “spiritual?”