Practitioners and their Communities
Series: Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies
- ISBN: 9781350182509
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: May 2021
Individualized Religion: Practitioners and their Communities, an enlightening ethnographic study by Claire Wanless, offers an important qualification to secularization theory by looking at individualized religious practice “as an entity in its own right” (21). Her study takes place in Hebden Bridge, a valley town in northern England that is known for its left-libertarianism and its local culture of alternative religious practice. The main argument of the book is that individualized religious practice “has available to it forms of association that can enable it to have both social and religious significance” (8). In other words, individualized religious practice does not inherently lead to the social atomization and social insignificance of religious practice, as secularization theories often claim. The book aims to provide nuance to the secularization debate “by proposing new ways of theorizing individualized religion, [and] new ways of thinking about the relationship between individualized religious practitioners and the communities” (10). This is done successfully.
The book comprises seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 explore existing theoretical frameworks, and chapters 3 and 4 discuss the social history and the individualized religious landscape of Hebden Bridge. Then, in chapters 5, 6, and 7, several new theoretical frames are built from the findings of the first four chapters. In particular, Wanless discusses secularization theory as voiced by Steve Bruce. According to Bruce, individualized religion is inherently both religiously and socially insignificant. Bruce provides four reasons for this claim. He asserts that individualized religion suffers from both a (1) lack of commitment and a (2) lack of consensus, since there is no external power that can coerce people into consensus and commitment. There is also a (3) lack of cohesion in individualized religions, since each possess their own eclectic character. Finally, individualized religion has (4) no impetus to evangelize, since without objective religious truths, people don’t feel the need to preach them. Individualized religion is also often described as consumer religion (for example by Craig Martin, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King). In the postmodern world people privately consume religion, just like any other product or service under capitalist consumerism. Individualized religion is thus not a real religion, but another form of capitalist consumerism.
Wanless offers an oppossing view. In line with Matt Dawson, she argues for an “embedded individualization” (35), suggesting that individualized religious practice can be socially embedded, and can therefore be socially and religiously significant. Wanless argues that individualized religious practice can be socially and religiously significant not in spite of, but precisely because of, its individualized character. In individualized religious practice, the individual and their personal experiences are the primary unit of consideration, meaning that the self is privileged above others and their opinions. Nevertheless, religious cohesion, collaboration, and information-flow still happen when we view each other as independent (but equal) peers. In Hebden Bridge there is a wide network of religious and cultural groups that are characterized by their fuzzy boundaries and nonexclusivity. People move freely through these groups, creating a social and religious flow. Mutuality and subjectivity, not hierarchy and objectivity, create social and religious significance. Wanless fleshes out a new theoretical framework by looking at two aspects of individualized religion: notions of the self (chapter 5) and practice groups (chapter 6).
In her participants, Wanless encountered three different notions of the self which are important for their self-understanding. These are: (1) rational agency self, an active self that makes decisions and choices; (2) experiencing self, a self that is affected and transformed by its encounters; and (3) authentic self, “something relatively unchanging and fundamental to who they are” (112). Even though these notions of the self are conflicting, they are all utilized by the participants. In doing so, they can make sense of themselves as agents of their own journey, affected and transformed through what they encounter, but still striving towards their inner authentic being. I find these different notions of the self to be somewhat artificial. The participants do not distinguish between these notions and Wanless’ occasional links to Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, a theory on the entanglement and the agency of humans and things, are weak and underdeveloped. Besides, to understand the social embeddedness of the individual, these notions don’t provide an answer. What is more important is the idea of the journey. In seeing people as being on a mutual spiritual journey, wherein we learn from encounters with one another, the pathway to social significance is opened. Even though Wanless describes the importance of the journey, her strong focus on notions of the self is somewhat redundant.
The participants also understood themselves as active agents on a spiritual journey, experimenting and learning through different practice communities, which is the focus of chapter 6. In line with Etienne Wenger, communities of practice are communities “of mutual engagements, whose actions are the subject of negotiation among its members” (44). These practice communities have vague boundaries and circle around “centres of religious gravity” (76). In these communities, “ideals of subjectivity, self-authority, together with those of connectivity, empathy and mutuality” (157) are held in high esteem. By learning through practice communities, the participants do not necessarily learn some objective truth that is advocated in those communities. Instead, they learn more about themselves through these social practices so long as those practices are meaningful for the participants themselves. The self is at the forefront, even though it is socially embedded.
Wanless uses the community of Hebden Bridge, a socially strong and small community that is known for its alternative religious circles, as a heuristic tool. This is the strength and the weakness of the book. It helps us to gain insights into socially embedded individualized religion, but it is also not representative of other communities. The author’s aim to provide nuance to conceptions of social and religious significance in individualized religion is well achieved, but the question remains as to what extent this small alternative community can provide a viable framework for other individualized religious practitioners. Wanless’ theorizations depend largely on an active religious participant group. In contrast to several institutionalized religious practitioners, individualized religious practitioners can be highly active. The active drive to experiment and learn is what makes individualized religions vibrant, interesting, a potential challenge to secularization theories. But it is not hard to imagine that in different circumstances, individualized religion can look very different, maybe much more atomized and focused on consuming.
Gert Jonathan Naberman is a graduate student at Utrecht University, Netherlands.Gert Jonathan NabermanDate Of Review:May 11, 2022