Defining “religion” presents an enduring problem in American law. One doesn’t want to define it so narrowly that it would fail to protect many bona fide believers, nor so broadly that it would become meaningless. At some basic level, the legal definition of religion should track the understanding of religion in the wider culture. But what happens when the culture changes rapidly, and new conceptions of religion appear?
Here is an interesting-looking new book from Westminster John Knox Press, The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture. The authors, scholars at Vanderbilt and the University of Toronto, argue that Americans now draw religious meaning from a variety of non-traditionally religious sources in contemporary culture. Whether that fact should change the legal definition of religion is a different question, of course. But it’s worth looking at the evidence of cultural change.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
While a large percentage of Americans claim religious identity, the number of Americans attending traditional worship services has significantly declined in recent decades. Where, then, are Americans finding meaning in their lives, if not in the context of traditional religion? In this provocative study, the authors argue that the objects of our attention have become our god and fulfilling our desires has become our religion. They examine the religious dimensions of six specific aspects of American culture—body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology—that function as “altars” where Americans gather to worship and produce meaning for their lives. The Altars Where We Worship shows how these secular altars provide resources for understanding the self, others, and the world itself. “For better or worse,” the authors write, “we are faced with the reality that human experiences before these altars contain religious characteristics in common with experiences before more traditional altars.” Readers will come away with a clearer understanding of what religion is after exploring the thoroughly religious aspects of popular culture in the United States.