The Religious Life Stories Project

By Suzanne Degnats

We do ourselves and religious study generally a disservice when we assume stereotypical unities that do not exist, and at the same time overlook phenomenological unities that do. Narratives are windows into the real worlds in which people live, allowing us to get a bit closer to the operative religious means by which they live.              -Wade Clark Roof, 1992 Religious Research Association Presidential Address

Over the past year, Dr. Kathryn McClymond, Dr. David Bell and graduate
student Suzanne Degnats from the Religious Studies department at Georgia State
University have been engaged in a project that records, transcribes, and analyzes
individual religious narratives. The pilot study consisted of a group of interviews that
form the basis of a much larger project. The long-term goal is to generate a collection of
interviews to be made available to scholars of religion. The stories collected to date
suggest that individuals experience their religion not primarily in terms of traditional
religious categories (Hindu, Muslim, Christian), but in terms of their own personal
dispositions or priorities (e.g., family, economic success, adventure, aesthetics.) This
insight has implications for, and understanding of, American pluralism. Our initial
research suggests that religious diversity can no longer be adequately understood as the
interaction between distinct religious communities. Rather, contemporary religious
pluralism exists within an individual’s life experiences, and how s/he sees her/himself in
relation to her/his doctrinal religion.

Current interview-based research on American religious diversity tends to be
conducted in one of two ways. First, there has been a long-term effort to identify different
religious communities in the U.S. and to document each community’s history,
demographic information, activities, facilities, and interaction with local neighbors.
Diana Eck (Harvard University) is best known for this kind of research in the Pluralism
. Currently, the term “pluralism” is used most commonly when referring to the presence of diverse religious cultures in America, with the recognition that these religious cultures are aware of and interact with one another in specific geographic settings. Eck’s Pluralism Project documents the presence and activity of specific religious communities (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist) across America, with an emphasis on urban settings; however, individual religious life stories and diverse, evolving spiritual identities are not addressed in any significant way. While this long term research effort has provided invaluable information about religious communities and their interactions with one another, it does not enhance understanding of the complexity of the individual’s religious life.

In a second popular approach, scholars have developed in-depth case studies of
individuals from distinct religious communities (e.g., Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama
Lola; Robert Orsi). These studies usually involve one-on-one conversations, interviews,
observation, and interactions with individuals, conducted over long periods of time.
While the resulting anthropological scholarship has provided information about the
variety of individual religiosity within the context of religious communities and practices,
the emphasis is still on the religion itself.

By contrast, the Religious Life Stories Project focuses on the individual and how s/he fits religion into her/his life narrative, and conversely, how her/his life narrative fits into religion. Over the past year, the team has conducted twenty-four ninety minute
interviews with Hindus, Christians, and Muslims in the greater Atlanta area. The loosely
structured interviews were designed to allow the individuals to tell their personal
religious life stories from childhood through adulthood in a format that allows for much
individual freedom of expression and reflection. Upon completion, all of the interviews
are transcribed. All members of the research team read and analyze the interviews using
qualitative analysis and narrative theory methodology, and then come together weekly to
discuss their findings. Some examples of this methodology include word counts, language tense and usage analysis, determination of narrative conflict, and experience-centered research methodology. Additionally, we have found distinct identifying indicators which convey the dominant themes of the narrative. These include the subject the interviewee discusses at the beginning and end of the interview and analysis of their “soliloquy,” a point in the interview where the subject speaks at length, uninterrupted, on a particular experience or issue of importance in their life. The theorists we have used come from the academic disciplines of religious studies, sociology, narratology, psychology and the cognitive sciences, and include Wade Clark Roof, Dan McAdams, Vilma Hanninin, among others.

The narratives have provided rich, divergent, historical and unique representations of individual religiosity. One of the interesting things that we have found is that the individual narratives are often incongruent with the expected traditional meta-narratives regarding established doctrinal practice, meaning, and beliefs of their respective religions. In fact, much of what the individuals choose to discuss under the auspices of their ‘religious life story’ would not, in a traditional sense, be considered ‘religious’. As our attempt is to analyze these narratives holistically, paying attention to all that the subjects express, these lines of discussion became of great interest to us. So for each interview, we have identified the narrative “dispositions,” those elements which the individual refers and returns to again and again, which give a continuity, congruence, and coherence to their story.

Building on this analysis, we are proposing a taxonomy of these dispositions which more accurately and descriptively expresses the religious identity of the individual as presented in the language of their own narratives. These dispositions include familial religiosity, outsider religiosity, contributive religiosity, obedient religiosity, embodied religiosity, excursion religiosity, and aesthetic religiosity. We feel that these classifications more accurately reflect the elements predominantly presented in individuals’ religious life narratives, and provide the congruence and cohesion in individual religious life stories much more than the traditional categories of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. These dispositions weave throughout the stories, weave amongst themselves, and weave within the traditional religious elements to form a narrative tapestry unique to that individual.

Furthermore, these dispositions cross the lines of the traditional faiths, giving a basis for comparative studies. We believe that having this language to describe how people express their religious histories will add to and help clarify our academic and societal understanding of the relationship of the individual to his doctrinal religion, and further expand our understanding of religious pluralism.

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