On April 13, 2012 Religion News Service carried a story about Andrew Bowen, a 29-year old resident of Lumberton, North Carolina. Throughout the year 2011 he practiced a different religion each month—Hindu in January, Baha’i in February, Zoroastrian in March, and so on. Bowen had what he called a teenage experience of “Christian fundamentalism”. Married with two children, he and his wife lost a third child—an event which plunged him into a crisis of faith. The story does not explain how he hit on the idea of this very original interfaith experiment. Each month he would spend the first two weeks reading up on the designated faith, then turning for the next two weeks to whatever rituals or other practices went with the faith. In each case he chose a “mentor” to initiate him into the scheduled religion. Since Lumberton had limited facilities for a hands-on curriculum in comparative religion, Bowen had to go far afield in his search for instructors (the one for Zoroastrianism lived in Chicago). Following the curriculum turned out to be a full-time job, since it involved intense changes in lifestyle in addition to all the reading. The story was illustrated by photos showing Bowen with a turban and what looks like a sword (the Sikh month?), sporting a Wiccan symbol, and sitting in a yoga position. He stopped working for the year and the family was supported by his wife Heather, who is a nurse (and a Baptist). At first she was not thrilled by her husband’s idiosyncratic experiment, but she says that she came to respect and even benefit from it. Heather’s least thrilling month was November, when Bowen lived as a Jain monk, meditating wrapped in his grandmother’s sheets and carrying a broom to whisk away tiny creatures that might be inadvertently swallowed (following the Jain version of a “culture of life”); worst of all, he did not bathe for the month.
Bowen did not actually convert to any of the faiths he serially tried out, although he continues with some of the practices (he meditates daily and occasionally attends Catholic services). What he claims to have achieved is a measure of peace and a renewed respect for human diversity.
Scholars of religion might want to look down on this do-it-yourself exercise in ecumenicity, calling it superficial or misleading. I think that such an attitude would be a mistake. Bowen’s experiment was a genuine quest for truth after a profound personal crisis. It merits respect. Of course one month of even intense immersion is not enough for an adequate grasp of major religious traditions, some of which embody many centuries of human experience and thought. But one should not underestimate the gain from even short-term theological tourism. I spent considerably less than a month on my one visit to Nepal, but I did acquire a sense of its distinctive synthesis of Hinduism and Buddhism. Beyond respecting Bowen, his story is emblematic of American religious pluralism and instructive for understanding the latter.
I have long ago come to the conclusion that the empirical evidence has falsified so-called secularization theory—the notion that modernity necessarily brings about a decline in religion. Secularization theory should be replaced by a theory of plurality—a situation in which many religions co-exist and interact with each other. Readers of this blog have not promised to become familiar with everything I have ever written about religion (which would fall under the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment). All the same, I cannot here develop the proposed pluralization theory. Except to simply state its two principal components, one on the level of religious institutions, the other on the level of individual consciousness. On the level of institutions: In the pluralistic situation every religious institution, which it likes this or not, becomes a voluntary association. Max Weber, one of the fathers of the sociology of religion, distinguished between two institutional forms of religion—the “church”, into which one is born, and the “sect”, which one joins as an adult. The historian Richard Niebuhr suggested that American history has created (presumably inadvertently) a third form of religious institution—the “denomination”, which in many ways looks like a “church”, but which one nevertheless freely joins and belongs to, and which is in competition with other religious bodies. On the level of consciousness, religion loses its taken-for-granted quality, instead becomes a matter of individual decision. The peculiarly American term “religious preference” nicely catches both levels. Put differently, the challenge of secularity, where it exists (it does in some places, notably in Europe), is that there is an absence of gods; the challenge of plurality is that there are too many gods.
When there is a combination of religious plurality with a political system which guarantees freedom of religion, what comes about is, precisely, Niebuhr’s denominationalism. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of such a development. Its emergence in many parts of the world today has usually little to do with American influences, but is the result of the above-mentioned combination of a social and a political fact. Andrew Bowen has, in exemplary fashion, re-enacted this historical drama.
In the pluralistic situation every religion becomes a denomination—even Judaism, which is both a religion and a people, into which, by definition, one is born. In America Judaism has been born again (I choose the phrase deliberately) in at least three denominations.
Last year I happened to come on a Hindu temple in central Texas. It is a large, unmistakably Indian building, plucked down in the heart of the Bible Belt. In India most temples are dedicated to one or two gods, depending on the location. This is not practical in America, where immigrants come from different parts of India. The Texas temple has a large space where everyone can join in common worship (on important holidays hundreds of people come from all over the Southwest). But then there are eight or nine small chapels, where people can connect with the god or goddess of their preference—denominationalism objectified in architecture. A colleague of mine has been teaching a college course titled “Introduction to Hinduism”. She thought that the students would be Americans of any background interested in Indian religion. To her surprise most of the students were of Indian ethnic background, mostly very ignorant of Hinduism. When asked why they had registered for the course, several of them said that they wanted to find out who they are. Logically, this sentence does not make sense: If one is something, one need not find out what the something is; if one has to engage in a project of finding out, then, almost by definition, one is not that something. But sociologically, the sentence is remarkably descriptive: These young Americans want to have information that will help them to decide whether and how they want to be Hindus.