The Louisville Institute

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Dr. Nancy Tatom Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Boston University’s School of Theology and Chair of the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life (Oxford University Press, 2013) was funded by the Templeton Foundation and supported by a Louisville Institute Sabbatical Grant for Researchers.

Nancy Ammerman

LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?

NTA: If the social world is not utterly secularized, how should we understand the relationship between all the ordinary, mundane facets of everyday life and the presence (or absence) of religious and spiritual realities?

LI: Describe what you mean by “sacred consciousness.” How does this phenomenon challenge secularization and rational choice theories?

NTA: Secularization theories largely assumed that people would develop empirical explanations for everything important, and any sense of a reality beyond the explainable, visible world would disappear. Rational choice theories noted that there were likely to still be things we couldn’t explain or rewards we couldn’t get, so we’d need supernatural forces to give us those rewards. Choosing to believe in a power that would give you an otherwise non-available reward was “rational.” What many social scientists have begun to think about, in contrast, is how we live with multiple kinds of explanations, what I call multiple narratives. What is happening to us at any given time is part of an “ordinary” story that we could put on our calendar or send to a lab, but it may also be part of a “non-ordinary” story about our spiritual or religious lives. Being aware of those multiple layers of reality is what I mean by sacred consciousness.

LI: Describe how you conducted this study.

NTA: In some ways, our methods themselves were part of the excitement of doing this project. We wanted people to tell us stories about their everyday lives, rather than answering theoretical or theological questions. If and when religious traditions and spiritual experiences were part of their lives, we wanted to hear about that in context. We started with an oral religious life history interview that was structured around lots of “tell me about a time when…” kinds of questions. Then we gave people disposable cameras and told them to take pictures of the important places in their everyday lives. When the pictures were developed we went back and asked them to tell us stories about the things that happen in those places. And finally, we left digital recorders with them and asked them to record “oral diaries.” They did about a week at a time twice over about a six-month period. The result was an incredibly rich look into their lives, often intersecting with really significant triumphs and tragedies. As time went on, they felt really comfortable with the researcher who was working with them and told us more and more intimate stories that would not have come out in a single one-hour interview with multiple-choice answers!

With this level of engagement with each of our study participants, we couldn’t afford a huge sample, so we had to be very strategic in selecting the 95 we included. We worked really hard to have a group that would represent most of the American religious landscape in terms of age, gender, religious tradition (or lack thereof) and level of involvement. We included conservative and liberal white Protestants, African American Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Neopagans, plus “nones.” We knew we would be missing the newer immigrant religious groups, but we were surprised when we realized that our final group overrepresented well-educated and well-off people. The relative absence of poor and working class people is an unfortunate lacuna.

Cover of Sacred Stories by Nancy Ammerman

LI: What surprised you and your research team? What discoveries were unexpected?

NTA: There were two important surprises. One has to do with that social class skew in the sample. Secularization theories would predict that better educated people would be more likely to live in a “disenchanted” secular world. That we found so many of them with such an active sense of the sacred permeating the worlds of work and public life was pretty interesting.

The other important surprise was the very strong link between organized religious participation and the presence of a sacred consciousness in everyday life. People who see their lives in spiritual terms are extremely likely to be regular participants in some sort of organized religious community. And it’s not just being there that makes the difference. It’s being involved in activities where they can talk about their lives. That is, the everyday world is brought into the religious community, and a sacred consciousness about that world is then carried back out. Those spiritual conversations can take place in all kinds of places – among what I came to call “spiritual tribes” – but organized religious communities were the most common places to find them.

LI: What insights does your book offers pastoral leaders – especially findings that challenge conventional wisdom?

NTA: First, provide every opportunity you can for people to gather and talk about life, and don’t be shy about asking them to talk about the presence of God.

Most of the people who have rejected religious involvement have done so for relational reasons more than doctrinal ones. At some critical moment, the church failed them.

But there are also people who went to college, heard that religious belief was archaic, and had no plausible counter-model of thinking, caring, believing people to help them develop an alternative view.

If someone tells you they are pursuing their own individual spiritual path, take it with a grain of salt and ask them who’s helping them. If they don’t have a community, it’s pretty likely that their path is more wishful thinking than reality.

LI: How does your research shed light on persons who identify as SBNR?

NTA: The claim to be “spiritual but not religious” has everything to do with the negative image of “religion” and very little to do with what people are actually doing. Liberal, conservative, and secular people alike think that being “religious” is rigid, empty, and divisive, while American culture has identified spirituality as healthy and uplifting. Our research team encouraged a very broad range of conversation about what people understood by spirituality and what they were doing that they considered to be spiritual. And the bottom line was that even with that really big net, the people who were most serious about pursuing spirituality were people with a religious community. Even the most “new age” guy in our study was pursuing his quest by going to lectures and workshops.

LI: How would you advise a pastor who’s worried that parishioner involvement in practices such as yoga or Buddhist meditation will dilute their faith?

NTA: Many of the Catholics and liberal Protestants in our study had a pretty broad range of spiritual practices, often encouraged by their congregations, in fact. Leaders with a strongly conservative theology will not want to see this sort of experimentation, unless the practices are reinterpreted within a Christian framework. In more liberal traditions, the stance can be more inclusive, perhaps inviting the practitioners of yoga or meditation to talk with others in the congregation about what they learn about God through their practice.

LI: In the final chapter you advocate “a sociology of religion in everyday life.” What are implications of this approach for your academic field?

NTA: I had the privilege of delivering a keynote lecture to the Association for the Sociology of Religion last year, and I poked a bit of fun at all of us by asking why it’s so hard for sociologists to “find Waldo” in the social world we are observing. Partly people are still blinded by thinking the “Waldo” of religion should have disappeared by now or expecting to find religion only in irrelevant “private” life or boxed into religious institutions. When we imagine that a sacred consciousness might be shaping life in the everyday world, we realize that we can’t explain political or economic life or health care or any other part of the social world without taking that into account.