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4.2: Some Nontraditional Ways of Being Religious in North America

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    One of the principal theses of this book is that there are certain generic patterns of human religiousness that are universal human possibilities, dormant potentials answering to existential needs of human beings that require only the right circumstances to emerge. Being to a large degree independent of the specific symbol system within which they occur, the tendency of people inclined to one of the ways is to make use of whatever symbol system is at hand that for them articulates and makes accessible ultimate reality in order to draw near to and come into right relationship with that ultimate reality. In a modern, largely secularized, pluralistic culture such as that found in the United States-especially with the encouragement American culture gives to individual experimentation and expression in independence of institutional constraints-it should not be surprising to find these generic patterns of religious life cropping up in contexts wholly outside conventional religious life. The fact that some symbol systems happen to be not in any conventional sense religious and perhaps even atheistic and antireligious (i.e., opposed to traditional religions) is no particular barrier to their functioning in a religious manner (in the sense assumed by this book), so long as people take them to represent how things ultimately areo.

    What follows is not intended to be a survey or even a representative sampling of all that might be called nontraditional religious phenomena. There are good surveys available that attempt just that.4 Instead, as the preceding section sought simply to illustrate ways of being religious in the context of American Christianity, this section will cite and briefly discuss examples of nontraditional religious phenomena for each of the different ways. They are drawn from two areas: American civil religion and secular American culture (both popular and elite).

    For the last several decades, scholars in the study of religion have come to identify something they call "civil religion" in America, alongside and largely independent of conventional religious institutions and practice. 5 It does not identify itself as a religion, nor is it regarded by the public as a religion. Civil religion consists of the set of symbols, sacred stories, rituals, expectations of conduct, and theologyo (actually, competing theologieso) by means of which the people of the United States maintain their national and civic identity and collectively renew their vision of what their collective life is ultimatelyo all about. Within the range of activities that American civil religion includes, three ways of being religious are clearly manifest: sacred rite, right action, and reasoned inquiry. The way of sacred rite is manifest in the rituals associated with national holidays such as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln; in pilgrimage to national shrines (among them, the National Archives Building to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Nation's Capitol, the Presidential Memorials, the War Memorials, Mt. Vernon, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and major battlefields in America's wars); and in the elaborate ceremonies at presidential inaugurals and presidential funerals, and so forth. The point of such ritual activity is to return sacramentally to those sacred times and places in which the archetypal, identity-bestowing patterns of American life were originally given or were made specially evident. The way of right action is manifest in the urgent sense of calling many feel to transcend private interests and contribute to the realization of an ultimate public good by becoming involved in public-spirited, local, regional, and national civic activities; in the political process of electing public leaders and establishing political policy; in contributing to civic deliberation and debate of public issues; in political lobbying; in assuming public office through election or appointment; and in serving the country in the armed forces. The way of reasoned inquiry is manifest in efforts among political theorists, members of the judicial system (especially as it relates to constitutional law), political advisors, and political analysts to discern what is ultimately wise and just and appropriate to maintain America upon its allotted course and fulfill its destiny-for example, in reconciling liberty and justice in human rights controversies. 6

    Ways of being religious can be detected as well in other places within secular American culture, both elite culture and popular culture. 7

    For some persons the arts-especially drama, dance, classical music, and opera, but sometimes literary and visual arts as well-put them in touch with the deepest truths and, at times, convey a sublimity beyond articulation. For such serious, passionate participants in the arts, participation is as much an experience of sacred, sacramental rite as any conventionally religious ritual. This can be as true for the serious viewer/listener/reader as for the serious performer, composer, or writer. It is, of course, not always true for any one person, at any given time, in any circumstance, at any performance, or with any composition. But often it is. This kind of secular religious experience through the arts first came into its own in Western culture during the Renaissance, with the idea that through the liberal arts we connect with the grandeur and pathos of human existence, and it has remained for many an option ever since. In a diminished mode (and doubtless to the consternation of most who identify with elite culture), much the same can be said at a level of unsophisticated, popular culture for avid watchers of popular films, followers of television serials, and participants in rock concerts.

    Secular activists of one sort or another often go at their work with a seriousness and passion that reflects a kind of religious idealism that often goes unavowed, though sometimes it may be. They thus express a secular version of the way of right action. Social organizers, leaders in the Labor Movement, civil rights leaders, feminist spokespersons, radical environmentalists, and so forth, all pursue their visions of what is ultimately right andjusto no less passionately than religious activists, with no less of a sense that this cause is cosmically imperativeo, and with no less a sense of ultimacy than Martin Luther had in declaring, "Here I stand. I can do no other!" For them, to work at their cause is to be lifted out of mundane, ordinary life and to be connected with what at some deep level they are convinced is of ultimate valueo. At times, even an ordinary, lower-middleclass, apparently wholly secularized couple who give their all to living honestly, morally, and cleanly, putting their very best into their jobs, raising good and healthy children, volunteering time in civic projects for the local community, and so forth, can experience a sense of direct participation in what is ultimately supposed to beo and connecting in some hard-to-articulate sense with ultimate valueo.

    Adulation of television stars, movie stars, and vocal music stars can at times take on the dimensions of the way of devotion. Witness the intensity and "purity" of the devotion focused on Elvis Presley in his lifetime and afterward. The way of devotion can as well show up in the form of passionate romantic love as presented in what for lovers are the sacred stories of Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and Tony and Maria-reflected ad infinitum in films, novels, soap operas, and supermarket romances. In classical romantic love-which is to be clearly distinguished from erotica of all sorts-the beloved functions as a kind of angel, bestowing the grace to transcend ordinary mortal existence and experience that to lovers is a kind of divine union of souls.

    Much in the recent growth of interest in alternative medicine and healing practices is suggestive of the way of shamanic mediation: a conviction that somehow sickness involves being out of touch with the encompassing spiritual context of lifeo (especially that of nature conceived as having a spiritual dimension), the belief that healing involves tapping a reservoir of cosmic energyo beyond oneself, the use of the active imagination (and dreams) in visualizing wholeness and well-being, and having other persons "channel healing energy" to the patient. Not a little of what is going into the general mix known as "alternative medicine" comes directly or indirectly from traditional shamanic healers in indigenous tribal cultures. There are even persons offering and receiving training in shamanic practice outside any conventional religious context (outside even native religious traditions and sometimes opposed by native traditions from which practices and symbols have been "borrowed"). A kind of vision quest among certain users of psychotropic drugs seems to involve aspects of shamanic mediation. Quite apart from these examples, elements of shamanic mediation appear to be involved in the kind of altered states of consciousness sought by some participants in jazz and rock music.8

    Suggestions of the kind of meditative and ascetic practices--even life as a hermit-associated with the way of mystical quest show up from time to time in what is called by some scholars American "nature religion."9 For example, the diaries of persons such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Loren Eiseley manifest persons in quest of a transcendent or spiritual dimension of nature, beyond our ordinary awareness and understanding, a dimension of meaning beyond and other than that of the human. Meditation and yoga practices, as almost everyone knows, have sprung up all over the country--often wholly unconnected with any conventional religious trappings, whether Eastern or Western. By themselves these practices do not constitute the mystical quest as such, but here and there one can find persons pursuing them in serious search of what is ultimately realo.

    Finally, secular participants in the way of reasoned inquiry are not so hard to find, for whom pursuit of the ultimate truth about thingso is a controlling passion. The most serious scientists and philosophers of our culture appear at times to have something religious about them. Many have been consciously aware of it. But even intellectuals who have been avowedly atheistic-for example, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche-did the work they did in the conviction that they were bringing to light the ultimate truth of thingo and the deepest wisdom0 -however disillusioning (especially disillusioning to conventional religious ideas) that that trutho was conceived to be. For some scientists, modern science functions as "a kind of religion," and the same has always been true of philbsophy for some philosophers (as they have conceived it). 10 The same, surely, is true (in however diminished a mode) for amateur scientists and philosophers of our day, who in turn devour semipopular accounts of scientific discovery and/or philosophical insight in pursuit of ultimate wisdomo

    So, even outside of conventional religious life, the ways of being religious can be found, functioning in the lives of people in a manner quite analogous to the way they function in the lives of conventionally religious people.

    This page titled 4.2: Some Nontraditional Ways of Being Religious in North America is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.