Becoming Religious: Understanding Devotion to the Unseen

Becoming Religious: Understanding Devotion to the Unseen

Becoming Religious: Understanding Devotion to the Unseen

Becoming Religious: Understanding Devotion to the Unseen


Becoming Religious is a contemporary investigation of a classical question in the scientific study of religion -- why religion? Why do people devote themselves to unseen, mysterious powers and goals? An answer is proposed from the religious biographies of contemporary South Georgians from all walks of life. Relevant theories from across the subdisciplines of religious studies are marshaled to explain how personal religious commitment emerges and grows.


Like many academic studies of religion, this one has roots in the author’s personal spiritual experience. becoming religious originated in my own incapacity for faith and a fascination, thus inspired, with people who have it.

I grew up in a thoroughly secular family in the rural South. Like most natives, we attended Sunday School and worship services. However, inherited social habit, not spiritual commitment, motivated our church participation. Neither parent had the slightest grasp of, or interest in, Judeo-Christian teachings. Except in perfunctory blessings before meals, God was never mentioned in the household. in meeting the crises and everday demands of life, we looked to science for explanations and solutions, and to the arts for emotional sustenance. Achievers in these arenas, such as Einstein and Beethoven, were our heroes.

In a religious studies course in college, I listened seriously for the first time to religious descriptions of divine realities. For me, awakening to the possibility of the supernatural was like stepping into wonderland. I was enchanted. Eagerly, I tried to connect personally with the unseen worlds depicted by various traditions, a quest that ultimately failed. For better or worse, I remain among those James (1961:171) described as “anaesthetic on the religious side, deficient in that category of sensibility.”

Personal immunity to religion intensified my curiousity about those who had it. As the gods eluded me, I turned my attention to their readily accessible venders and clients. in 1975, I began voyeuristically attending church services and interviewing worshipers in my native county. Getting to know believers transformed curiosity into an obsession: I had to understand why people were staking their lives on cosmic forces that I, with the same human equipment, could not discern. Gambling scarce resources on what seemed to me heroic but improbable causes, they were walking enigmas, exciting and addictive to watch. I became a “religious peeping Tom,” seeking out individuals displaying religious commitment in order to gaze and probe.

In the meantime, graduate training in religious studies familiarized me with the range of scientific approaches to and theories of religion. I developed no enduring loyalty to any, except what might broadly be construed as an historical strategy: attempting to understand the present by scrutinizing the past. This was the nearest I had to a method, when, in 1982, after completing my Ph.D., I began a sustained endeavor to uncover how the religious people I had interviewed got that way.

Their own accounts of becoming religious seemed the obvious place to begin.

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