Sociology of Religiosity Research Paper

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1. Introduction

Religiosity is a broad and sweeping concept that unites much of the subject matter in the psychology and sociology of religion; consequently, the idea includes much more than it excludes.

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1.1 Definition

In the most general sense, religiosity is a term that is used to refer to socially relevant manifestations of: (a) individual beliefs in a supernatural or transcendent reality; (b) relations of individuals to ‘high-intensity values’ (Roof 1979, p. 18); (c) ‘beliefs about the nature, meaning, and purpose of reality’ (Glock and Stark 1966, p. 3); and (d) all the behaviors that flow directly from them. Synonyms for the term in the literature of the social sciences include—among others—religiousness, religious affiliation, attachment, commitment, conviction, devotion, interest, and involvement.

2. Conceptualization And Measurement

2.1 Dimensions Of Religiosity

Beginning in the 1950s, social scientists of religion directed a great deal of attention to elaborating definitions of religiosity that extended understanding of the concept beyond a mere count of people in the pews of churches and synagogues. Advances accumulated quickly and, according to one review (Roof 1979, p. 17), the 1960s became ‘a pace-setting decade in this area.’ In particular, sociologists had set to work crafting indicators of religiosity that took account of more than one aspect of religious commitment. After mid-century, scholars encountered an empirical religion that was, more than anything else, multidimensional.

2.1.1 Associational vs. Communal Religion. Some of the most basic quantitative studies of the postwar religious scene in the United States were the work of Gerhard E. Lenski (see, e.g., Lenski 1953). Lenski’s major analysis of religious belief and behavior in Detroit, The Religious Factor (Lenski 1963 [1961]), gauged two fundamental types of religious involvement: associational (established through attendance at church services and meetings of church-related groups); and communal (the development of a religiously homogeneous circle of primary attachments). He additionally recognized two religious orientations among his respondents: one that stressed doctrinal orthodoxy, or right belief; and another, devotionalism, that located religiosity in personal contact with God (Lenski 1963, pp. 22–6; see also Burwell 1999b, Deconchy 1987, p. 35, Roof 1979, pp. 19, 20–1).

2.1.2 5-D And Its Critics. Also among the earliest examples of religiosity conceived theoretically and captured empirically in more than a single questionnaire item were the efforts of Charles Y. Glock and his colleagues to portray religion along up to five dimensions (Glock 1962, Glock and Stark 1966; see also Burwell 1999a, Deconchy 1987, pp. 33–43, Gorsuch 1984, pp. 232–34, Hilty et al. 1984,p. 252, Roof 1979, pp. 20–2). Initially, Glock proposed that there were at least four distinct ways in which a person could be religious. Religious commitment, he postulated, could take the form of religious emotion or ‘direct knowledge of ultimate reality’ (the experiential dimension); fidelity to a certain body of beliefs (the ideological dimension); participation in divine worship, prayer, and other ceremonies (the ritualistic dimension); and indications of the ‘secular effects’ of religion on the individual and society (the consequential dimension).

To this array he later added an intellectual dimension (Fukuyama 1961), because the believer would be expected to be ‘informed and knowledgeable about the basic tenets of his faith and its sacred scriptures.’ Although Glock admitted that this fifth dimension was ‘clearly related’ to religious ideology, he insisted that the two were separable, for religious belief demanded familiarity with something in which to believe (Glock 1962, p. S99). Indeed, each of the five dimensions represented to Glock a theoretically and empirically distinct aspect of religiosity; he explained at the outset that ‘being religious on one dimension does not necessarily imply religiosity on other dimensions’ (Glock 1962, p. S100).

Later studies referred to these constructs together as ‘Religiosity in 5-D’ (Faulkner and DeJong 1966, Roof 1979, pp. 22–9, Weigert and Thomas 1969). The results of several (see, inter alia, Hilty et al. 1984, King and Hunt 1990) offered new or augmented models for research, but the most prominent critics (Clayton and Gladden 1974), aided by large-scale surveys and data reduction through factor analysis, concluded that there was little empirical warrant for most of the presumed dimensions.

2.2 Meaning Systems And The Religious Imagination

Considering the manifold difficulties and relatively modest benefit in measuring religiosity as socially normative behavior within the confines of churches, sociologists—including Charles Glock himself—in the 1970s and 1980s devoted themselves to fashioning research techniques that would incorporate the broader connotations of the concept. A salient example of this approach is the innovative study by Robert Wuthnow (1976) on the meaning systems to which individuals routinely resort to lend structure and order to their experiences. Using data from the San Francisco Bay area, Wuthnow’s survey could discern four different ways of making sense of causation in life (see Deconchy 1987, p. 39, Roof 1979, pp. 33–5). Respondents who attributed events to the intervention of divine agents (God or the devil) in human affairs were classified as ratifying theism. In contrast, those who believed that persons created the conditions of their own lives were said to back individualism. Believers in the explanatory power of social science traced the origins of personal situations to their surroundings in society, while people whose meanings came from mysticism relied on direct experience of the sacred and its mediation through nature, the creative arts, and fantasy.

A somewhat different stream of research has employed sets of interview questions to derive scales that purport to measure the symbolic and narrative basis of religion—what Andrew M. Greeley has termed ‘the religious imagination.’ Although formal theology is organized into series of logical statements, Greeley contends that personal religiosity predates and often overpowers tame instruction in dogma and doctrine because it is rooted in an imaginative appreciation of stories that renew hope in human actors. Religion is thus primarily composed of ‘images that are prior to and perhaps more powerful than propositions’ (Greeley 1981, p. 1).

To reach this imaginative capacity scientifically, Greeley and his collaborators have devised combinations of survey items that summarize varying images of God (see also Vergote et al. 1969), chart the perceived ‘warmth’ of different religious images, probe perceptions of religious figures like Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and describe the degree to which respondents regard heaven as a pleasurable place and the relationship between the divine and the human as ‘grace-filled’ (Greeley 1981, pp. 23–9).

2.3 Civil And Public Religiosity

Another aspect of religiosity that is sometimes overlooked because it lies just outside the institutional boundaries of formal faith is what Robert N. Bellah (1967) has termed civil religion (see also Deconchy 1987, pp. 38–9, Roof 1979, pp. 29–31). Civil religion may be defined as a religious perspective that places the past, present, and future of the nation against the backdrop of transcendent values. Commenting on the United States, Bellah (1967, pp. 3–4) maintains that the components of civil religion in America ‘provide a religious dimension for the whole fabric of American life, including the political sphere.’ A special category of symbols and rituals that pertain to the identity and purpose of Americans thereby attains a sacred status in collective life.

In such a perspective nations not only have histories, they have destinies. Although a patriotic citizen may also be civilly religious, belief in the civil religion is different from simple patriotism. Despite, too, the frequent mixture of politics and piety (Glock and Stark 1966, pp. 82–6), civil religion is usually more than the casual consecration of secular aims. In the eyes of an adherent to the civil religion, a nation’s official philosophies, public policies, and international statecraft all invite the intervention of Providence—at the same time that their consequences promise to come under divine judgment. A kind of religious significance thus permeates the entirety of the public realm yet is dependent on no single church or denomination for its vitality.

2.4 Types Of Religious Orientations

2.4.1 Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religion. To a larger extent than sociologists, psychologists of religion have concentrated on the questions of how and why people hold the religious beliefs that they do. Central in this tradition of inquiry has been Gordon W. Allport’s distinction between Intrinsic (I) and Extrinsic (E) religious orientations (Allport and Ross 1967; see also Batson and Ventis 1982, pp. 140–9, Deconchy 1987, pp. 37, 40, Hunt and King 1971, Roof 1979, p. 20). ‘No approach to religiousness has had greater impact on the empirical psychology of religion,’ one scholar observes; Allport’s scale to measure religious orientations, furthermore, is ‘one of the most frequently used measures of religiousness’ (Donahue 1985, p. 400). Another pair of commentators (Kirkpatrick and Hood 1990, p. 442) concurs that the I E comparison ‘currently represents the backbone of empirical research in the psychology of religion.’

As the labels imply, intrinsically religious persons are those for whom religion is an end and not a means. Religion is ‘their master motive’ that provides the guide to understanding all of life. In contrast, extrinsically religious persons engage in religion with the hope for something else, such as peace, protection, or status in the community. For them, a religious faith ‘is lightly held or else selectively shaped to fit more primary needs’ (Allport and Ross 1967, p. 434). Extrinsic religion, notes one psychologist (Donahue 1985, p. 400), ‘is the religion of comfort and social convention, a self-serving instrumental approach.’

An enormous amount of research on the I and E scales has been conducted in nearly 50 years. Perhaps the most famous set of these studies has linked the Extrinsic religious orientation to expressions of prejudice. But one of the main complaints about the formulation reverts back to its first appearance—as a more value-laden contrast by Allport (1950) between ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ religious faith. The implication is that Intrinsic religiosity is somehow genuine and ‘pure’—unencumbered by ulterior motives, while the Extrinsic brand is phony, selfish, and manipulative. In the descriptions of I and E, the Intrinsic believer is clearly preferred to the Extrinsic; as Michael J. Donahue (1985, p. 416) concedes, the E scale ‘does a good job of measuring the sort of religion that gives religion a bad name.’ James E. Dittes (1971, p. 375) is much more harsh: to him, I and E struggle beneath a ‘heavy contraband load of value judgment that simply will not be sloughed off.’

Add to this problem of bias the repeated statistical finding that I and E are not two poles of the same continuum, but rather two variables with only a limited correlation (Allport and Ross 1967, p. 437, Donahue 1985, pp. 401–4, Kirkpatrick and Hood 1990, pp. 448–50, 454). For these and other reasons, I and E may survive in the scientific study of religion solely in an amended shape.

2.4.2 The ‘Quest’ Variable. Dissatisfied with the dual categories of Intrinsic and Extrinsic religiosity, psychologist C. Daniel Batson has developed a third type of religious orientation that he dubbed Quest (Batson and Ventis 1982, pp. 149–68; see also Deconchy 1987, p. 40, Donahue 1985, pp. 411–14, Gorsuch 1984, pp. 234–5, Kirkpatrick and Hood 1990, p. 447). A person who conceives of religion as a quest is one who actually welcomes ‘a readiness to doubt and to be self-critical’ and who acknowledges the ‘incompleteness and tentativeness’ of religious faith at any moment (Batson and Ventis 1982, p. 149).

2.4.3 Other Varieties Of Religious Experience. One of the oldest traditions in the social sciences of religion attempts to study, with precision and objectivity, experiences of the sacred. The subjective nature and ordinarily fleeting passage of religious experiences, however, makes this goal extremely difficult to achieve. Yet the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James tried, and his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (James 1902), is the product.

In spite of this distinguished start, studies of mystical and ecstatic experiences have not yet culminated in a secure body of knowledge. It is nevertheless possible to specify several recurring features of religious experiences, as distilled from numerous cases. People who have experienced a mystical episode remember feeling as if it occurred outside the physical constraints of space and time. In this special state, they recall a spirit of peace and even elation enveloping them. Further, they report receiving personal illumination or enlightenment of unquestioned authority, while still assimilating seemingly contradictory or paradoxical perceptions. They apprehend a sacred presence, and commonly recount a sensation that all of reality was merging into oneness. In the single greatest barrier to researchers, though, mystics also contend, after their re-entry into normal consciousness, that the essence of their experience was indescribable (see Stace 1960, Stark 1965).

3. A New Religiosity?

Many of the ideas and approaches that social science devised in the last half-century to handle religiosity are slowly falling into disuse today, as both conceptions of religion in social science and evidence of its effects are changing.

More and more, scholars in disciplines such as psychology and sociology (e.g., Roozen et al. 1993, pp. 45–8) are describing a contemporary style of religious belief and practice that is at heart individualistic. Although people in plural societies have always had available to themselves a range of religious choices, seldom in the past have these decisions been so free of influence from social factors in one’s background like family, ethnicity, or language. Rather, the assumption of a religious affiliation in the current circumstance is increasingly voluntary; it amounts to an expression of identity, and often a private or highly personal one at that.

Thus recent years have seen an abundance of religious pursuits, especially among the so-called ‘baby boom’ generation (cohorts born between 1946 and 1965), that have an eclectic quality. Popular varieties of faith combine elements of meditative practices, environmental activism, ‘New Age’ consciousness, and self-awareness with a therapeutic flavor. In the twenty-first century, many who no longer consider themselves conventionally religious nevertheless claim to possess a deep ‘spirituality.’

4. Conclusion

Current research and theorizing in the scientific study of religion seeks to depart from older approaches to religiosity that anchored the topic in categorical contrasts, whether bipolar or multidimensional. Instead, sociologists and psychologists are busy tailoring strategies and tools for research on a concept of religion that is personal more than institutional, amorphous and fluid rather than historical and orthodox, and not static but changing.

In an age when religiosity assumes both a ubiquity in common concerns over truth and authenticity, and an idiosyncracy in multiplying paths of personal development, flexible ideas and methods of interpretation are definitely needed. Yet, now as before, the challenge for social scientists is to pursue analyses of the sacred into the meanings with which humans endow it and through the actions that proceed from these commitments.


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