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Make-your-own religion

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | December 22, 2011

In their best-selling 1980s book on the tensions between community and individualism in America, Habits of the Heart, my Berkeley colleagues Robert Bellah and Ann Swidler, along with three other coauthors, described the version of religion that a woman whom they called Sheila had described to them. She believed in a faith of loving and being gentle with oneself; she labeled this theology “Sheilism” – “just my own little voice.” The authors of Habits saw her declaration as an expression of a growing tendency in America toward isolation and self-absorption raised here to an ethical principle.  (The term “Sheilaism” is now so well-known it has its own Wikipedia entry.)

woman meditating


There were and are other signs of a make-your-own religious boom. Outside of the standard religious structures, we see the excavation of old, pagan traditions like Wicca and the construction of hybrid, New Age faiths and Eastern blends with practices such as yoga and Kabalistc mysticism. Inside standard religious structures, variants such as independent churches, new liturgies and rituals, and even re-defined theologies have emerged. Some religious leaders describe all this as “cafeteria-style” faith: take what you like and disregard the rest. (And there is a Wikipedia entry for “Cafeteria Christianity,” too.)

Such religious inventions may well have burgeoned in recent decades, especially since the 1960s. Getting good numbers to test that assumption would be difficult, especially when so many “new religious movements” are informal and some even hostile to becoming formal institutions. But one thing is clear: This is not new.

Old-time religions

The 19th and 20th century witnessed the creation of many American-born religious movements that remain with us such as Scientology, Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Reconstructionist Judaism, and yet earlier, Christian Science, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Disciples of Christ, and Seventh-Day Adventism.  Yet, many more, whether invented here or imported, have come and gone – or come and stayed under the radar.

During the early 19th century, in particular, America was Awash in a Sea of Faith, as an important book by Jon Butler is titled (subtitled, Christianizing the American People), by which he means that America was flooded by all sorts of religious campaigns and frenzies. Some, like the Mormons and the Baptists, developed into major and lasting institutions; many more flared up and burned out. Many “faiths” of the day were roughly Christian; others were magical, quasi-pagan, or cult-like folk beliefs. It would take until late in the century before most Americans were conventionally “churched” in the way we take for granted today, a convention that really did not solidify until the 1950s.

Even Sheilaism, a self-defined individual faith, is not new. For example, in the early 19th century, a Mrs. Lucy Mack Smith of New Hampshire decided, as others like her occasionally did, to follow her own reading of the Bible rather than her church’s interpretations. Eventually, she persuaded a minister to baptize her as, in effect, a Christian of her own individual denomination. Her son Joseph later founded the Mormon faith.

“No religion” faith

prayer meeting, 1850s

1850s Prayer Meeting (Lib. of Cong.)

In 2002, Michael Hout and I published a study that drew remarkably widespread attention and replication. We tracked the increasing percentage of American survey respondents who, since about 1990, chose the last option in this question: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In 2010, 18% picked that option, up from 7% c. 1990. Recently, Robert Putnam and David Campbell expanded on these findings and arguments in American Grace.

Critically, the increase in the “no religion” answers is only weakly tied to atheism. In the 2008-10 General Social Surveys, for example, 66% of those who chose the “no religion” option nonetheless said that they believed in a higher power or God; 20% of them said that they had “no doubt” of God’s existence. And 54% of them said that they probably or definitely believed in “life after death.” (Rather than being a thought-out rejection of theism, the increase in “no religion” answers is largely a rejection of organized religion and a reaction against its growing identification with the political right.)

I suspect is that many, perhaps most, of these “no religion” Americans are really “new sort of religion” Americans, seeking a way of keeping faith in something beyond the corporeal despite their skepticism toward organized religion. This may lead them to join others in new “spiritual” practices or even to a Sheilaism of some kind. In these ways, they’d be true to a long American faith tradition.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Make-your-own religion

  1. I truly love the Book of Mormon It has really changed my life, and in conjunction with the Bible, has brought me closer to Christ than any other book.
    On an unrelated note, I don’t think we should brand anyone with the label “cult”, no matter how strange their practices seem to us.

  2. Most of the world has not taken the time to learn or understand the true and core beliefs of our religion. We are not a clut by any means. To many will quickly and to easily make judgments and statements that are simply not true.

    Joseph Smith has said: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that he died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” Like all Christians, Mormons consider the Bible to be a sacred record.

    I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. As it states in the New Testament”…I am not ashamed; but as we spake all things to you in truth…”

  3. @Claude Fischer. Well done. What some call Sheilaism, I call Intellectual Idolatry. You can make an idol out of wood or metal by using your hands. People also make a idols in their minds. The God of the Bible has specific attributes and judgments that some people don’t like, so they make up their own gods to suit themselves: intellectual idolatry. Charles Taze Russell didn’t like the idea of punishment after death, so he formed a god that wouldn’t send people to hell. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are still forming that god. You might call theirs a plastic intellectual idol because they keep changing their beliefs. Honest people who want to have a relationship with the true Creator, must go by a standard greater than their own wishful thinking. My book, Rescuing Slaves of the Watchtower, goes into detail.

  4. Jehovah’s Witnesses and freedom of speech.

    They will extol and preach *God’s Kingdom* and this sounds attractive,what they obfuscate from you is their Watchtower society version that….. Jesus has already had his second coming in 1914 and is working *invisibly* exclusively through them. They have won 37 of their 46 US Supreme court cases assuring us all of freedom of speech and assembly and equal protection under the law.

    The sad irony is that the Watchtower Society *daily* abuses the human rights of thousands of its members. It denies current members the right of free speech by forbidding them to speak to former members, even close family members. And it denies former members their right of freedom of worship by refusing to allow them to leave the religion with dignity, should they come to disagree with Watchtower’s practices or doctrines.

    The religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is an oppressive cult that controls every aspect of its members’ lives.

    Danny Haszard

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