Religion in America: A Very Short Introduction

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Oxford University Press, Jul 29, 2008 - Religion - 144 pages
2 Reviews
It's hard to think of a single aspect of American culture, past or present, in which religion has not played a major role. The roles religion plays, moreover, become more bewilderingly complex and diverse every day. For all those who want--whether out of curiosity, necessity, or civic duty--a vivid picture and fuller understanding of the current reality of religion in America, this Very Short Introduction is the go-to book they need. Timothy Beal describes many aspects of religion in contemporary America that are typically ignored in other books on the subject, including religion in popular culture and counter-cultural groups; the growing phenomenon of "hybrid" religious identities, both individual and collective; the expanding numbers of new religious movements, or NRMs, in America; and interesting examples of "outsider religion," such as Paradise Gardens in Georgia and the People Love People House of God in Ohio. He also offers an engaging overview of the history of religion in America, from Native American traditions to the present day. Beal sees three major forces shaping the present and future of religion in America: first, unprecedented religious diversity, which will continue to grow in the decades to come; second, the information revolution and the emergence of a new network society; and third, the rise of consumer culture. Taken together, these forces offer the potential to create a new American pluralism that would enrich society in unimaginable ways, but they also threaten the great ideal of e pluribus unum. With visual aids that help readers navigate America's diverse religious landscape, this informative, thoughtful, and provocative book is a must-read in the emerging public conversation concerning religion in America. About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.

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Any short introduction to a subject as vast as religion will inevitably leave a lot of martial out, and in the case of a religiously rich country like America this will be doubly so. It is impossible to squeeze in the full variety of the America's religious experience and history in a hundred odd pages, and there is a need for some judicious editing. Even granting all this, the "Religion in America: a very short introduction" comes across as a disappointment. It is written from an academically liberal perspective, and most of what is mainstream and ordinary in American religious landscape gets either marginalized at best, but more often viewed with suspicion. The single biggest religious institution, the Catholic Church, is barely mentioned in passing, and the recent rise of megachurches that are starting to dominate the religious conscience are not even granted that much of attention. Instead, many pages are spent on marginal and/or insignificant religious groups like Aryan Nation, Nation of Islam, Kentucky Buddhists, and similar groups. All these accounts are actually pretty interesting in their own right, but that doesn't help with understanding of the dominant forms of American religiosity.
In the chapter on history of religion in America a great deal is made of the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans. This is a very unfortunate chapter in American founding, but it is best understood through the lens of colonialism. To ascribe to it a primarily religious component is too much of a stretch.
One of the things that make America so different from other industrialized Western nations is the degree to which the US is religious, and Christian in particular. However, this book will not elicit any deeper understanding of where this religiosity comes from or what are its dominant manifestations. In its own right the book is well written and informative, but the title misrepresents what the main topics covered are.


One Sunday Morning
Exploring the Neighborhood
Religion in America by the Numbers and Then Some
Uneasy Inheritances
Forces of Change
E Pluribus Unum As Ideal and Dilemma
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About the author (2008)

Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University. Author of several books, including the critically acclaimed Roadside Religion (2005), he has published essays on religion and American culture for The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Washington Post. He has been featured on national radio shows including NPR's All Things Considered and The Bob Edwards Show.

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