Nancy Tatom AMMERMAN. Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. Finding Religion in Everyday Life. Oxford University Press, 2014. 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-991736-5 also eBook. Reviewed by Christopher CARROLL Northwestern University Department of Sociology.
Ammerman’s study of everyday spirituality in the United States is methodologically and theoretically ambitious. She, like others study living or everyday religion (e.g., Robert Orsi, David Hall, Meredith McGuire, etc.), find the study of religion in the social sciences lacking in methodological and analytical rigor. More specifically, Ammerman frames her study against the secularization theorists and rational choice scholars, attempting to carve new methodological and theoretical ground in the sociology of religion that more accurately captures how religion and spirituality actually are practiced in the everyday lives of Americans. To this end she presents a remarkable multimethodological study based on intensive interviews, photo solicitation, and digital diaries with 95 mostly currently or formerly Jewish and Christian participants, as well as neo-Pagans. Predictably, given the magnitude of Ammerman’s undertaking, the book leaves several unanswered questions that will serve to motivate scholars studying religion who want to do away with the dichotomous and inadequate analytic concepts of yesteryear. This book will also interest people who want to move beyond the walls of religious institutions in their study of religion, yet still explore how religious institutions and everyday religion are mutually constitutive.
Ammerman’s empirical findings are an important addition to the growing body of literature challenging scholarly attempts to delineate religion from spirituality that have tended to align the former with traditional religious institutions and practices and the latter with individualized private spirituality. One of the major findings of the book is that religious institutions, particularly the relational communities (spiritual tribes) they support, continue to animate much of the spiritual practices and worldviews of people in their everyday, ordinary lives. Moreover, different religious traditions often shape spiritual practices and beliefs in different ways. For example, an extra-theistic based spirituality was more often articulated among Catholics and Jews than it was among Mormons and conservative Protestants. For this reviewer, what is most striking is not only the high correlation between participation in religious communities and spiritual activity outside the walls of religious institutions, but conversely how underdeveloped the “spiritual consciousness” is of those inactive in religious communities. This latter group quite often identified as “spiritual but not religious” is the very group that post-1960s cultural tropes around religion and spirituality implies ought to be the most spiritual. One interesting exception to this general trend is the ubiquity of spirituality during major life crises such as death and terminal illnesses. Apparently, foxhole atheism is quite rare when faced with one’s mortality or the death of a family member.
Ammerman further argues that the ability to see and practice the sacred in everyday life challenges Durkheim's postulate that the sacred is strictly set apart from the profane. Ammerman is in full agreement that religion (and spirituality) ultimately has to do with the sacred; however, her findings indicate that the sacred and the profane intermingle in some of the most ordinary places and events. Her participants — more often those that are religiously active and score higher on “spiritual salience” — find the sacred in everything from nature walks to eating dinner as a family. She finds that when people tell spiritual stories about seemingly secular, mundane events, they tend to draw on three spiritual discourses: extra-theistic, theistic, and ethical. A fourth discourse is more political than spiritual and attempts to link religion with irrationality and/or conservative politics, implied sometimes when people signify that they are “spiritual but not religious."
Another major finding was that social location — race, ethnicity, education, and income — does not play a major role in predicting spiritual consciousness. The biggest predictor, again, was one’s participation in religious communities and how important spirituality was to them (the two are highly correlated). Smartly, Ammerman does not limit institutional religious participation to attending worship services; she also includes participation in bible study, lectures, and charity functions held at these religious institutions. It is, in fact, the relationships in these religious communities which feed and reinforce people’s religious and spiritual sensibilities that matters most according to Ammerman. This is an important argument in that it goes beyond the claim that religious authority, doctrine, or sermons drive everyday spirituality. These things matter for sure, but Ammerman’s research points to the nexus between religious communities and individual spirituality as the real engine of everyday spirituality, largely found in relationships and conversations within the said religious communities.
Ammerman, however, does not stop at this claim that institutional religious activities and the level of spiritual salience for an individual drives how and when spirituality pops up in everyday life events. The particular context of the everyday event also shapes if and how spirituality plays a role. For example, Ammerman finds that people in certain occupations such as the medical and artistic fields are more likely to talk about their profession in spiritual terms than, say, a business person. People are also more likely to talk about their relationships (good and bad) with co-workers in spiritual terms rather than work itself. Moreover, certain events such as death provoke spiritual responses and practices, while other events such as one’s choice of neighborhood to live in or school do not.
The book certainly has room for improvement, although Ammerman is more than candid in the limitations of her research. Further research ought to diversify the social demographics of the sample. The sample was disproportionately middle- and upper-middle class and educated, and did not include Hispanics, Muslims, or Hindus. This severely limits the claims she can make about the impact of social demographics such as income, education, and race on everyday religious beliefs and practices. The fact that participants were recruited mainly from congregations and were told that this was a study of spirituality and prompted regularly to talk about spiritual or religious matters, also potentially skewed the results. However, these limitations provide numerous jumping off points for future research and pale in comparison to the major contributions of this book. The book would be appropriate to scholars and laypersons interested in everyday religion and spirituality, as well as professors teaching upper level courses on religion.I want to close this review with a question. Ammerman’s book ultimately suggests that without spiritual tribes and a religious sensibility forged by the interplay of individual agency and participation in the said spiritual tribe (typically religious communities of some sort, even if it be indirectly through one’s family), people would see and practice very little spirituality in everyday life. One wonders what will happen to this religious sensibility if the current trend of decreasing religious affiliation and attendance continues in the United States. In other words, what social institutions and forces will shape these people's spiritual sensibilities (or lack thereof) in the future?