News Release: Faculty Experts, Religion and Ethics, Research

Jun. 12,  2009

Americans Finding Religion in Unlikely Places, Says New Book

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Religion and ritual in America are coming from some unlikely places, according to a new book by Emory University's Gary Laderman. In "Sacred Matters," Laderman argues that far from being on the decline, religion in the United States is everywhere, but there are "many more holy possibilities" than the so-called "great religions of the Book"—Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

"Religion in America is a robust, dynamic, shape-shifting force, free-floating and unhinged from conventional anchors," says Laderman, a professor of American religious history and cultures. He argues that Americans more than ever are finding religious experiences not just in age-old traditions, but "in the cultural sea of rock stars and casinos, virtual memorials and Prozac."

Gary Laderman on Big Think Video: Gary Laderman discusses the need for religion and Western society's obsession with longevity on BigThink.com.

What inspired Laderman's wide-open view of the sacred was 15 years experience teaching undergraduates. When he'd ask them to give their definition of religion, "it became clear that it's impossible to come to a definition that everyone is going to agree on."

Instead, Laderman decided to come at religion from a different set of qualities, "looking at people's behaviors and how they use language to find other kinds of spiritual and sacred perspectives."  

The book's subtitle gives some ideas about where Laderman found religious activity: celebrity worship, sexual ecstasies and the living dead are listed among today's "signs of religious life in the United States."

The book's chapters read like a mixture of "false gods" railed against by organized religion (film, music, sports, celebrity) and some of life's most enduring concerns: death, sexuality, violence, science and medicine. For each of these arenas, Laderman says, there are participants whose behaviors and language indicate a quest for the spiritual and the sacred.   

"I stay away from giving a substantive definition of the sacred," says Laderman. "I know it's real. And I know it can be found in different societies and different cultures."

He does find certain markers that indicate the sacred. What all these markers have in common is going beyond "just a purely material understanding of the cosmos, the 'something more' than just the material, the biological, which every culture provides."

Laderman's ultimate point is that there are no atheists. "We're all religious," he says. "It's just part of human makeup. There may be people who don't believe in a personal god or who don't subscribe to monotheism." But everyone has a value system, or an important community they identify with, or experiences that have felt transformative. "These are all signposts of the sacred."

Laderman also serves as editor of a new online religion magazine, ReligionDispatches.org. "Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States" is published by New Press.

Originally posted on June 11, 2009

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