Studying Lived Religion: Contexts and Practices

book cover

Reviewed by Katie Alexander, Graduate Student, Sociology

Studying Lived Religion, by Nancy T. Ammerman, Boston University Professor Emerita of Sociology of Religion, argues that scholars and theologians should approach the study of religion in ways that emphasize how ordinary people experience and participate in religion in their everyday lives. Ammerman challenges previously dominant ways of studying religion through a focus on official institutions, religious elites, and sacred texts.

For Ammerman, to study religion is to study forms of social practice with a uniquely spiritual dimension. In order to study religion, Ammerman tasks social scientist to look for the various ways that “more-than-ordinary” realities are experienced and references in social practices.

This definition of the spiritual dimension of religion broadens what people might typically consider “religion.” She also encourages scholars to take people at their word when they describe something as religious. Taking people at their word for what religion is creates challenges for scholars by, perhaps, making lived religious practice too individualized. However, Ammerman’s book emphasizes that social nature of religious practice meaning that religion is a group identity based on patterned, shared knowledge, which aids scholars in recognizing the patterns to lived religion.

The rest of the book is structured around the multidimensionality of religious social practice. Ammerman explains that not only is religious practice spiritual, but religion is also experienced in and through the human body, situated in material surroundings, involves emotions and aesthetics, shapes moral values, and employs narratives and communication patterns.

Ammerman repeatedly uses music as an example of the multidimensionality of religious social practices. Through listening to, listening, or playing music, religious practitioners engage the senses, participate in narratives, and feel emotions that are constructed by religious communities to be spiritual. This exemplifies how religion is social: rituals are surrounded by social supports. There are experts, such as worship leaders and choirs, who guide and shape how practitioners have spiritual experiences through religious rituals.

Throughout the book, Ammerman emphasizes that each dimension of lived religion practice must be understood within its social context to fully grasp what a practice means for its practitioners. In her interview with the Boniuk Institute “Reading Religion” Salon, Ammerman shared that she hoped readers would learn to pay attention to the social context before dismissing a particular social practice as non-religious simply because it does not conform of their preconceived definition of religion. In particular, she explained how following the January 6th Insurrection she saw others dismiss the religious symbolism, narratives, and imagery present as “not religion.” She hopes her book will give more people a framework to understand how religion shows up in public settings, such as during the Insurrection, and more commonplace religious social practices, such as worship services.

Ammerman shared with the Boniuk Institute that she also hopes her book would have an impact on those who are unsatisfied with the dominant approaches to studying religion by providing them with a framework that emphasizes the social nature of religion and the practices of ordinary people. By allowing readers to understand religion in a more expansive manner, studying “lived” religion also elevates the religious practices of minoritized groups and pays particular attention to how religion interacts with inequality and power by defining group identity and boundaries, Studying Lived Religion also helps readers appreciate the rich plurality and diversity of religion in the world while also attending to the religious experiences of groups who are often overlooked.

N. T. Ammerman, Studying Lived Religion: Contexts and Practices. NY: New York University Press, 2021