Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

Bellarmine Forum 08 Buzz[This blog post originally appeared on the Religion in American History blog on 9/30/2014.]

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

Legal changes since the 1990s have also opened up opportunities for minority religions to assert their rights, and use the law to punish those who would challenge them. Perhaps readers are familiar with this video of David Suhor, an American pagan, opening the prayer at a Florida County Commissioners meeting earlier this year. Despite the fact that Commissioner Wilson Robertson walked out because he does not want a pagan or Satanist praying for him, the remainder of the Commissioners stood quietly while Suhor read the invocation of the watchtowers, a common part of pagan invocation ceremonies. This kind of activity would be summarily denied in the past. However Supreme Court decisions now force governments to be accommodating and inclusive. We also see the way the law is used to enforce this mandate because Suhor is threatening to sue the Escambia County School Board for not allowing him to pray at their meetings. The legal landscape has dramatically changed since the heyday of cult scares, and the law is much more supportive of new religious movements and is punitive against those who would defame or deny them a role in American communities. As a result, Americans are much more tolerant, accommodating, and fearful of a lawsuit. This, of course does not mean Christians are not complaining about some “fringe” religious movements, like the current controversy regarding the satanic statue in Oklahoma and Satanic children’s activity book in Florida. But even these have a significant legal component to them regarding inclusion and accommodation.

Lastly, I am sure I don’t have to remind the readers of this blog the attitudes the last two generations have had regarding membership of religious institutions. They generally don’t join groups, and when they do, the levels of commitment is much lower than previous generations. This is why since the 1990s we have seen the significant increase of the spiritual but not religious segment of American religious marketplace. Just as the pews remain empty in churches, millennials and Gen-Y’ers are not joining new religious movements. Like established religious traditions, religious institutions simply cannot attract the youth of America to attend, join and donate. This is particularly problematic for New Religious Movements because the youth is from where these movements attract the most members. Since they lack the human capital to make these movements function, there are fewer in number and often don’t last as long.

These three factors, I think, are more responsible for the lack of media attention for new religious movements, “i.e. “cults.” The changing religious marketplace, legal requirements for inclusion, including the threat of legal action, and the fact that the youth of America are resistant to joining any religious institution, established or fringe, equates to a very different, less Christian, but not necessarily less vital religious marketplace.

Satanism and Scholars of Religion Revisited

At the end of July I posted about the lack of scholarly study of institutional Satanism in America. The issues I wanted to highlight were the way theological commitments by participants in the field of Religious Studies generally made them either oppositional to Satanism, as a legitimate subject of inquiry, or to treat it differently, such as assuming they know about it when they would never make similar assumptions about other religious traditions. I also wanted to point out how journalists also treat Satanism differently, again assuming they know about the tradition and, therefore, have no need to consult experts in the field. The blog post received a fair number of views and received some comments that confirmed the perception. Since the post, I have continued to monitor the way Satanism has been reported by journalists and how scholars of religion have participated. An article posted last week opens opportunity to reexamine the discussion, because it both highlights the way my initial post was correct, and how, when a scholar of religion is consulted, things don’t always go as they hope.

Jex Blackmore - Satanic TempleThe article I want to focus on was written by Robert Allen, a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press. His article is called “It’s Satanist vs. Satanist in Detroit’s newest political tug-of-war” and in it he wanted to highlight the conflict between two satanic groups within the Detroit area. (Other versions of the article have been published in USA Today and other media outlets.) First, I want to point out a few of the things the essay does right. For the most part, Allen also treats the Satanist theology respectfully, just as one should of any religious tradition—although he does sensationalize to a degree. Moreover, he tries to tease out nuances that suggest the diversity in views found within the satanic religious movement. This is something lacking in most representation of Satanism, which usually portray it as monolithic and superficial. Finally, Allen made an effort to get input from religious studies specialists, particularly those local to him in Michigan. But it is here we see the first confirmation of the things I highlighted in my previous blog post. Allen writes:

Religion experts with several large universities in Michigan either didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Free Press or said that they weren’t familiar with Satanism.

Allen reached out for comment from specialists in religion and these scholars either ignored him or deferred because they did not know enough about Satanism. Allen eventually did get in touch with a religious studies scholar who is knowledgeable about Satanism, Jesper Aagaard Petersen. Petersen is an Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology and one of the leading experts in the world regarding the history of Satanism and contemporary satanic groups. As I pointed out in the previous blog post, the overwhelming majority of the world’s leading experts on Satanism are in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Thus, this is where Allen went for comment, and Allen was right to contact Petersen. However, isn’t it a problem that a local newspaper has to contact a scholar in Norway to discuss an issue in Detroit? Are there really so few scholars of religion in America that one must cross the Atlantic for authoritative statements? It seems so.

The problem with Petersen being the go-to scholar on Satanism is his distance from the local dynamics—in this case Detroit. For all Petersen’s strengths, and he has many, he is still very distant from the conflict between the Satanists in question. This is reflected in the very general statements he makes about Satanism and the Satanic Temple represented in the article. We should also note that on his Facebook page Petersen stated that he was disappointed with the way his comments were “cherry picked.” But how could they be otherwise when he is on another continent? Local scholars in the Detroit area, preferably, or at least religious scholars in the same country should have been able to answer Allen’s questions. But, as Allen found, American scholars don’t want to engage Satanism. This hurts the field of religious studies, highlighting its biases, and the public because they don’t have specialists to present factual information and history relevant to the local context.

GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfileDoes the article have problems? Absolutely. Despite his attempt to highlight differences in satanic interpretation, Allen still appeals to sensationalism, discussing blood rites and animal sacrifice. Allen significantly edits Petersen’s comments, an issue many scholars of religion have reported when corresponding with journalists. Allen also fails to compare the similarity of interpretive disputes in Satanism with those in Christianity. It is as if he is surprised to find Satanists in disagreement. Despite these faults, Allen’s essay is useful to see how journalistic representation of Satanism can be different than the usual coverage, and highlight how far it has to go to be on par with the reporting of other religious traditions. Perhaps with the continued presence of Satanism in the headlines, emerging scholars of religion will choose to investigate the tradition. This would help elevate the problem in a few years.

satanicfemHowever, in the meantime, perhaps the scholars of religion in Michigan and elsewhere in America should begin to read about Satanism to become more informed. Scholars of religion outside of America have produced a great deal of important scholarship about Satanism. For instance, Per Faxneld, a scholar in Sweden, has just completed his dissertation on satanic feminism entitled, “Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture” and Philip C. Almond, a scholar in Australia, has a new biography appearing this month called, The Devil: A New Biography (Cornell University Press). In the former, Satan is understood as a liberatory figure for women, and in the later, the devil is found to have shifted from the center of Christian consciousness to the margins over the last 250 years. Then there is the recent Oxford published collection of essays, The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity (2012), I mentioned in the previous blog post on Satanism, and numerous essays in a variety of academic journals. The scholarship is out there if scholars of religion would just take the time and look. In general, scholars of religion in America have yet to do so.

Reflections on the 2014 International Theosophical History Conference

ITHC2This weekend (September 20-21, 2014) was the International Theosophical History Conference, hosted by The Theosophical Society in England, London. The program can be seen here. Overall I thought the conference was a success.

I was the third speaker to present. My paper was entitled, “A Necessary Evil: Theosophy’s Ambivalence towards the Human Body.” It can be read here. I think applying the methodology of the body and embodiment to Theosophy is relatively new and so the approach brought a different set of questions and perspectives to the subject. This included the materiality of the body, how the body operates as a central metaphor in the doctrine of theosophy and the body’s needs and desires, especially sexual desires, can be a challenge for Theosophists which, in turn, required bodily control. The frank discussion of sex was certainly not something that is usual at these conferences. My paper was called controversial and provocative by participants. Nevertheless, the majority of the people with whom I spoke afterwards were supportive, one saying that there is a great need of more of these kinds of discussions.

Other speakers presented very interesting topics. Some worth highlighting include Erin Prophet’s presentation on collective karma and apocalypticism. It discussed the idea of avertive apocalypticism, one in which humans have the ability to intervene and avert the apocalypse. Prophet did not invent the term, but it application to TS influenced groups arising in the latter half of the 20th century seems quite fitting. She also introduced me to a number of important influences and facts I was completely unaware of, including certain aspects of Edgar Cayce’s work, George Adamski’s co-author, and Frederick Oliver’s A Dweller on Two Planets. After her presentation, I felt that there was some much more work for me to do to catch up on some of these things. For me, this indicates a lecture was very productive and informative.

Tim Rudboeg, from Denmark, discussed the concept of “Universal Brotherhood” in the TS, and earlier conceptions of universal brotherhood found in a variety of religious traditions over time. One of the most important points I think Rudboeg highlighted was that the rhetoric of Universal Brotherhood only became significant when the TS founders began to communicate with potential partners in India. Universal Brotherhood became a useful position to bridge the cultural and religious differences that might separate the two groups. Moreover, it allowed the TS to recognize the Indians as equals. This was important because Indians were generally regarded as inferior to their colonial rulers. Being recognized as equal made Indians more receptive to the TS leadership and helped open doors and opportunities when they arrived in India.

Boaz Huss presented a very interesting case study of an orthodox Jewish community in Bosra, Iraq that was forced to separate and form its own synagogue and cemetery because of its interest in Theosophy. Eventually the community reunited, but it demonstrates how Theosophy and its claims can be seen as incompatible with a variety of spiritual traditions to which the TS think it is compatible. I also found it fascinating that such a movement could have been possible in the first place.

Barry Loft’s and Geraldine Beskin’s paper on the Theosophical connections to John Yarker’s Oriental order of Sikha and the Sat Bhai. Yarker’s archive is split between the Warburg Institute in London and Baskin, who cares for the parts Yarker did not deposit in the Warburg. The Sat Bahai order a great example of how eastern ideas were adopted, adapted and incorporated in western systems. At one point, Blavatsky was made a member of the Sat Bhai and even revised the order’s rituals for Yarker. A really interesting summary which promises more great things in the future. One of those great things include a biography of Yarker Loft if writing.

Kevin Tingay used a British taxonomy to summarize ways to organize the various organizations and movements within the larger Theosophical Movement, Chuang Chienhui looked at how Osvald Sirén and his Theosophy were influential on interpretations of Chinese art. Erica Georgiades presented (in absentia) a theory about who Agardi Metrovich really was. I will not spoil her claim by putting it here. Readers will have to wait until she publishes her essay. That said, I was convinced. Yuri Stoyanov was scheduled to present on the TS and Neo-Gnosticicsm, but was held up in Japan by a pilot strike. Geraldine Baskin saved the day by volunteering to present on Manly P. Hall. It was a great presentation and everyone walked away from it with a better appreciation of Hall’s contribution to modern spirituality, especially in America.

Yoshinaga Shin’ichi presented on the Theosophical influences on and the network within Japan, and Barry Thompson discussed continuities and differences between Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. The conference was closed out by Massimo Introvigne discussing Theosophical influences on Scandinavian visual artists. He presented a number of artists that were new to me and the visuals were great. His lecture replaced a discussion panel that had been previously planned. After there was a public lecture planned by Leslie Price, but I had plans that prevented me from participating. Nevertheless, it was a great conference and demonstrates there is a large variety of scholars across the world interested in the history and influence of Theosophy.

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Photo (left to right): me, Massimo Introvigne, Boaz Huss and Marco Pasi