Lately, I have been fascinated by the idea of a popular piety. My engagements with religion tend to be extremely intellectual, and I privilege that kind of religiousity. But it occurs to me that complex theology is neither the most common nor the most important thing that religion does. The extraordinary accomplishment of the world’s great religions is that they give all sorts of people from various intellectual, social, and economic backgrounds a set of tools that help them live well. This is ultimately the test of any given religious practice; do its adherents find that the doctrines, rituals, and traditions meaningfully improve their lives.
Contemporary liberal Christianity – my own religious background – seems to be having a hard time meeting this test. It has become hard for lots of people to see the “value-added” of going to church. Hockey practice, yoga, and dining with friends crowd church out.
Obviously there is a temporal element to this – there are only so many hours in a day, so things have to get dropped. But I think church is also getting crowded out in a spiritual or ethical sense. These other activities – like team sports or yoga – are providing a lot of the meaning-making, community-building, transcendence-inducing functions that religion typically provide. Because of its religious history, Yoga is a clear example of this, but I think many “scenes” and political and social movements play this role as well. Everything from the rave scene to feminism to being a liberal arts student provide people with sets of practices, beliefs, and rituals that help them navigate the world.
So something that I am interested in doing – and that I hope to do on this blog – is examine some of these practices as popular pieties. In the back of my mind will always be the question – is there something missing here? These practices mimic the functions of religion, but are there some things that only a religion can do?