A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
Religious Identities and Religious Institutions
Nancy T. Ammerman

For modern social theory, as well as for many ordinary people, religious identities have been a problem.1 Just what does it really mean to claim a Jewish or Christian identity? To think of oneself as Presbyterian or Baptist? What do we know of that new church down the road that simply calls itself “Fellowship Church”? And do any of those things have anything to do with how we might expect someone to perform their duties as a citizen or a worker? As modern people have loosened their ties to the families and places that (perhaps) formerly enveloped them in a cocoon of faith (or at least surrounded them with a predictable round of religious activity), they can choose how and whether to be religious, including choosing how central religion will be in their lives. Religious practices and affiliations change over a complicated lifetime, and the array of religious groups in a voluntary society shifts in equally complex ways. If religious identity ever was a given, it certainly is no longer.

In his influential work on religion and personal autonomy, Philip Hammond posits that, given the mobility and complexity of the modern situation, individual religious identities are of various sorts – either ascribed (collectivity-based) or achieved (individual) and either primary (a core or “master” role) or secondary (Hammond 1988). In the premodern situation, religion was presumably collective and core.2 In the modern situation, taking up a collective, core religious identity is a matter of (exceptional) choice, not determinism.3 We neither all share one religious identity nor know quite what to make of the many identities with which we are surrounded.

While social theory has taught us that maintaining a religious identity is a problem in the “mainstream” of culture, at the margins, religious identities seem still to play a role. Indeed, much of recent research on religious identity has focused on the margins and the interstices, on the times and places where religious identities clash and/or must be remade. Lively work is now underway, for instance, on the struggle to

____________________
1
Classic theories predicting religion's demise include Marx (1878/1964) and Weber (1904–5/ 1958), with Berger (1967) providing the most elegant theoretical formulation and Lechner (1991) among the most cogent current defenders.
2
Mary Douglas (1983) debunks the notion that premodern people were thoroughly religious.
3
John Hewitt (1989) uses the example of the totally dedicated fundamentalist or orthodox person to illustrate the uncommon modern identity strategy of “exclusivity.”

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