Arts & Media Culture Entertainment & Pop Culture Opinion Tobin Grant: Corner of Church and State

Can music be your religion?

Maren Morris video screenshot
Screenshot of Maren Morris video for My Church. https://youtu.be/ouWQ25O-Mcg

Can I get a Hallelujah
Can I get an Amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church

— Maren Morris “My Church”

Maren Morris is a new country singer with a top-ten hit. Her song “My Church” is the first single off her major label debut album. It’s a song that celebrates the power of country music. But for religion geeks like me, it also says a lot about what religion is and what it isn’t.

Unfit for Sunday church, Morris finds her religion listening to a Hank Williams sermon and listening to a Johnny Cash-led choir. Her church isn’t a building; it’s her car on a road trip, singing along with a country radio station.

For a religion geek like me, it’s also a song that highlights a divide among sociologists about what is and what isn’t a religion.

I fall into the camp of those who see religion as something that–at a minimum–involves a belief in the supernatural. What makes religion different from other things is that it involves the belief in God, gods, demons, spirits, the force, or other things beyond our senses.

But some sociologists take what is known as a functionalist view of religion. Think of society is like a machine. It needs certain parts, like the family or politics. Each part serves a function. Religion isn’t defined by gods or other supernatural beliefs; religion is as religion functions.

What’s the function of religion? Most functionalists see religion as something gives people shared meanings and helps bind people together.  Religion also helps people cope with stress and the inherent uncertainties in life. So, religion doesn’t need to involve anything supernatural. Any belief system that functions as a religion is a religion.

Atheism? Religion.

Vegans? Religious.

The pledge of allegiance? Religious ritual.

The car where you sing along to a country song? That can be your church.

This isn’t just an academic debate. Last month, Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the IRS over a housing cost exemption given to clergy. The IRS stated that it would give the Foundation the same exemption as it does religious groups, but the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FRF) did not ask for one because the FRF did not want to be treated like a religion. The current lawsuit is over the IRS denying a refund for previous years (it’s complicated: see here for the details).

Is a religion group a religion? It’s an important legal question that rests on whether “religion” is something involving God or the supernatural or whether having a belief system is sufficient.

The same issue arises if a parent can have a religious exemption to vaccination. Does a religious exemption need to be grounded in a religion per se or can any moral reasoning be used for an exemption? If any moral code works, then what isn’t a valid exemption?

The question of what defines religion shapes what you read on sites like Religion News Service. Journalists on the religion beat need to choose which stories to cover. Why not cover the cult-like popularity of the new CrossFit gym, the charisma of Donald Trump, or the irrational devotion of Cubs fans? If it feels like religion, is it?

For me, I stick to the view that what makes something a religion is a connection to the supernatural. Otherwise, everything becomes religion and so nothing is religion. But I also find myself nodding along with a good song that recognizes that there’s a lot in life

But I also find myself nodding along with a good song that recognizes that there’s a lot in life that feels like religion, especially listening to a great country song.

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About the author

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

7 Comments

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  • I think religion needs to involve something supernatural too. That’s how the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster qualifies.

    On the other hand, does a way of being qualify? That’s what something like vegan ism is, a way of being. While most religions include a way of being, that’s not what makes it a religion. It’s an aspect. Anyway, I agree with you, Mr. Grant. (Whoa. I just had a flashback to the Mary Tyler Moore Show!) Religion is not only what one does.

  • I play clarinet as a hobby. Truthfully, playing a good concerto or etude puts me in touch with the transcendental better than any religious experience I ever have had (and I’ve been non-denom Christian, Catholic Christian and Jewish).

    So I use the Judaism (my current faith) for giving me the rules of the road and a schedule to keep to (Passover, Tabernacles, Purim, etc.) and the clarinet for actually experiencing the Divine.

  • There are strains of Buddhism that don’t involve anything that we would recognize as “supernatural.” And yet, by our laws and our reasoning, they are clearly “religions.”

    In my own corner of the religious world, there are Humanistic Pagans who see the Gods as archetypes of human consciousness, not as actual Beings with a will and powers of Their own. Paganism(s) is (are) religion(s). How would you justify casting them out of the tribe?

    It’s simply not that simple.

    –Shannon

  • As an atheist, I don’t feel qualified to answer the question of whether music can be a religion, and I can’t say for sure what a spiritual, transcendental, or supernatural experience is.

    But as a composer who has “severe major situational depression without psychotic features”, I can say for sure that writing & listening to certain music uplifts me to a degree that nothing else I’ve ever encountered can match. (I experience it as joyous excitement and elation, with temporary but absolute relief/escape from depression, and a wonderful wave of head-to-toe goosebumps, of all things.) I’d like to think that such music is spiritual. At the very least, when I’m on a roll writing music, it touches me in a way that feels like healing, and my friends (and my shrink) notice the difference.

  • Defining religion as involving the supernatural is ultimately the death knell for religion. This is known to philosophers as “God of the gaps.” Wherever we have no explanations, we evoke God or religion. As science explains more and more, religion is crowded out. Meanwhile, people who say “Nature is my cathedral” or “God is found in everyday things” or “God is the inner light (Quakers)” or “God is the creative potential in the universe” (Kaufman” are defined out of the club, because they do not require belief in magic. Yes, supernatural = magic. You might as well be clear about it.

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