A man in North Carolina spent each month of last year trying out a new religion. Laughable religious tourism? Not so, says Peter Berger: “his story is emblematic of American religious pluralism and instructive for understanding the latter.” Berger continues:
In the pluralistic situation every religious institution, whether it likes this or not, becomes a voluntary association. Max Weber, one of the fathers of the sociology of religion, distinguished between two institutional forms of religionthe church, into which one is born, and the sect, which one joins as an adult. The historian Richard Niebuhr suggested that American history has created (presumably inadvertently) a third form of religious institutionthe denomination, which in many ways looks like a church, but which one nevertheless freely joins and belongs to, and which is in competition with other religious bodies. On the level of consciousness, religion loses its taken-for-granted quality, instead becomes a matter of individual decision. The peculiarly American term religious preference nicely catches both levels. Put differently, the challenge of secularity, where it exists (it does in some places, notably in Europe), is that there is an absence of gods; the challenge of plurality is that there are too many gods.
When there is a combination of religious plurality with a political system which guarantees freedom of religion, what comes about is, precisely, Niebuhrs denominationalism. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of such a development. Its emergence in many parts of the world today has usually little to do with American influences, but is the result of the above-mentioned combination of a social and a political fact. Andrew Bowen has, in exemplary fashion, re-enacted this historical drama.
In the pluralistic situation every religion becomes a denominationeven Judaism, which is both a religion and a people, into which, by definition, one is born. In America Judaism has been born again (I choose the phrase deliberately) in at least three denominations. [ . . . ]
A colleague of mine has been teaching a college course titled Introduction to Hinduism. She thought that the students would be Americans of any background interested in Indian religion. To her surprise most of the students were of Indian ethnic background, mostly very ignorant of Hinduism. When asked why they had registered for the course, several of them said that they wanted to find out who they are. Logically, this sentence does not make sense: If one is something, one need not find out what the something is; if one has to engage in a project of finding out, then, almost by definition, one is not that something. But sociologically, the sentence is remarkably descriptive: These young Americans want to have information that will help them to decide whether and how they want to be Hindus.