Religiosity? What’s in God’s name is that?

Ben Zeller gives his take on the decline of religiosity. This, if such a thing as "religiosity" even exists.

Benjamin E. Zeller, assistant professor of religious at Lake Forest College.

Benjamin E. Zeller, assistant professor of religious at Lake Forest College.

Guest post by Benjamin E. Zeller

This past January I was a panelist at a session of the American Society of Church History responding to Tobin Grant’s provocative The Great Decline: 60 years of religion in one graph, and its follow-up blog post from a year later. Tobin kindly responded to a gang of unruly historians critiquing him at that panel, and even more kindly offered to post and host our responses on his blog.

The big question lurking behind the Great Decline is what exactly we are measuring. “Religiosity,” apparently. But what is that? In the research publication from which his blog post derives, Grant definesor rather describesthe term thusly,

I use the term ‘religiosity’ throughout the article to indicate the level of religious belief and behavior. This term encapsulates similar concepts of religious commitment, religious participation, and religious activity.

But are these similar concepts, or rather are they similar enough to collapse into the same theoretical construct? That is, can “religiosity” be measured as a whole? To offer a provocative set of examples, are the following phenomena all manifestations of the same thing:

  • occasional attendance at mainline Presbyterian Sunday worship service;
  • weekly participation in an Evangelical Bible study group that meets at a coffee shop in a suburban mall;
  • group meditation amongst eclectic spiritual seekers led by a teacher professing a vaguely Buddhist but still unspecified religious identity;
  • a Jewish family celebrating Passover in their private home?

How about

  • purely individual and private yoga practice;
  • the reading of books about angel visitations or the Mayan apocalypse;
  • participation in crystal healing;
  • the seeking of mystical experiences in a national forest; or
  • the meeting of the student humanist group at the college where I teach.

Are these all examples of “religiosity”?

I wonder if we even know what we are trying to measure.

Are “nightstand Buddhists,” to borrow Thomas A. Tweed’s term, whose religious practices are limited to private readership, really in the same category as individuals who have committed to membership and involvement in a Buddhist temple or other organization, to expand that example? (We can ask the same questions about “adherents” of any religion.) Do we measure them the same way? What happens if these two are collapsed or not collapsed into the same category?

“Whether or not each of these aspects of religiosity is manifestation of the same phenomenon remains an open empirical question,” Grant writes. I concur. This open question is indeed unresolved, and I suspect unresolvable. I’m not sure what religiosity really is, and I study the thing!

Read historian Elesha Coffman’s response to The Great Decline

Benjamin E. Zeller is assistant professor of religious at Lake Forest College. He is author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, and Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America. He is co-editor of Religion, Food, and Eating in North America, and The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. His website is

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