Is Choosing Religion a Modern Phenomenon?


One of the things we discuss a lot in my sociology of religion class is the changing nature of religion in modern society. There are a whole host of notions that are associated with this idea of “the modern,” not the least of which is the idea of secularization, where religious institutions are gradually replaced by secular ones. Of course, secularization goes hand-in-hand with another theory, that of  modernization.  Modernization is a bit different in approach, though, and says modern life leads not to a decline in religion, but rather a change in religious forms as the old ones lose relevancy.

Part of this modernization process is the increasing emphasis on the individual. This speaks very much to Western notions of independent agency—that one can make decisions and act one one’s own behalf. So how does religion get in on this? Well, there are a few ways. The nebulous category of “spirituality” fits here, as does the ability of a person to choose a faith outside the one they were brought up with. Ah choice, such a modern, Enlightenment ideal!

Ask anybody involved with the study of religion, and they will probably tell you this: Choosing religion is a modern phenomenon which is dependent on there being multiple religions to choose from in the first place. The United States seems like a good place for this to happen. So does Canada. However, the chances that someone chooses a religion outside the one they were born with are very low. In America, it is something like 10% of the population. The conclusion is that it is very rare for an individual to question one’s faith or have different spiritual inclinations even when the option presents itself.

Option, however, plays a big part, and social reinforcement can inhibit individual choice. In the past, there were strong incentives for staying in your religion, namely, staying alive. In medieval Europe, if you happened to be on the wrong side of church dispute, you could be accused of—and put to death for—witchcraft.  According to H.C. Erik Midelfort, this was the case in Germany where “witch hunting was part of a program of vigorous centralizing state building and of antiaristocratic politics.” More recently, there remain places in society where religion is used as a tool of politics (ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the conflict between Sunni and Shite Muslims in Iraq).

However, the West is mostly devoid of this. Switch religions and you may have an uncomfortable conversation at dinner table on Thanksgiving, but that’s about it. No drownings, no taunts of “popery.” If you think about it, it’s sort of a luxury.

So choosing religion is a rare, modern and western phenomenon. Or is it?

I want to challenge this idea with an ancient example. Yes, even in the Greco-Roman world, long before television and Google, people were choosing religion. Specifically, there were Gentiles who were so enamored with Jewish practice, they converted to Judaism. Others practiced Judaism in a limited form. This latter group is so common that there is even a specific term for them, the “God Fearers.”

While the Jews acculturated in many ways to Greco-Roman society, to be one also meant being set apart from what it meant to be a Greek. Being a Jew meant that civic cult, a social cohesive that bonded entire cities together under the banner of the gods, was idolatry. You bet they noticed that the Jews weren’t taking part in the parades to Artemis! Being a Jew also meant not doing work on Sunday. Back in ancient times, there was no notion of the weekend, so taking a day off every week was considered very, very weird. (In fact, the Jews were often called lazy for this very act.) Being a Jew meant being distinctive, and in many ways, different from the host society.

The Gentiles who converted took on this mantle. They weren’t born Jews, they became Jews. They participated in synagogue and even underwent circumcision. You can imagine that dinner table conversation. “What did you do today, Nikos?” “Not much. I was hanging out with the Judeans and decided they were pretty cool so I trimmed off part of my penis and started worshipping Yahweh. By the way, I won’t be attending the games on Sunday. It’s the Sabbath, you know.”*

In short, becoming a Jew was a big decision and it was a choice some non-Jews made. This ancient practice squares itself with modern notions of religious choice, namely, that in a religiously pluralistic society, religion is a consumer good that people utilize to meet certain needs. In this case, there the Jews were doing something that clearly appealed to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles made the choice to partake on some level.

So what’s the deal? Were these “God Fearers” exceptionally futuristic, or has religious choice always been present where multiple religious options exist? This is my suggestion (and bear in mind I am an undergrad who is making this hypothesis completely unsupported by evidence):

In societies where multiple religious options exist, it is possible, though rare, that an individual will choose to be affiliated with a religion other than the one at birth. This is not a reflection of modernity, but rather a by-product of a diverse spiritual marketplace.

I am suggesting that exposure to religious plurality can stimulate, in the few, the necessity for conversion. While it is logical to see modernity as the force behind religious plurality, and this is certainly concurrent with society in the West as we know it, I feel it is not the decisive factor. Rather, religious plurality can exist independently of “the modern.” I think the Greek example, where there was religious plurality and individual choice, certainly bears this out.

Again, this is just my observation. I’m sure there is a two-sentence rebuttal that completely blows this idea out of the water. But it does seem that the idea of choosing religion is not a new phenomenon.

*This is a fictional portrayal of a possible dinner conversation that might have happened two millennia ago. Please note, it has not been subject to peer review

Photo by Farouqu Taj.

10 thoughts on “Is Choosing Religion a Modern Phenomenon?
  1. In The Golden Ass, Lucius converts and becomes initiated into Isis’ priesthood. Indeed, Isis’ worship spread throughout the Greco-Roman world following Alexander’s conquest of Egypt.

    A similar thing happened after Christianity became codified and spread across Roman territories. Edward Rutherford provides a convincing portrayal of British Pagans taken with Rome and Roman’s new god in Sarum.

    Conversion happened, and continues to happen, not only by threat of violence or death, but as people are exposed to and find identification within mythologies that speak to them.

    Likewise, atheism has always been around, though it’s only recently (the past hundred years or so) that we’ve been able to provide alternate explanations for our existence.

    1. So true, and the Golden Ass is a great example of how the mysteries existed alongside and concurrent with other forms of worship.To have multiple religious identities in Ancient Greece was normal. Just as it’s normal in Asia to be a Buddhist and Confucian and Shinto depending on what the situation is.

      Admittedly, to some extent these are cultural constructs, as what you are exposed to will likely determine where your identity lies. But I agree that the notion of change or conversion is not necessarily a new one.

  2. Someone else already mentioned Apuleius of Madauros and the cult of Isis. It is worth mentioning that Apuleius was also an Initiate in the cults of Asclepius and Hermes, and held the office of “Chief Priest” of Carthage (sacerdos provinciae Africae).

    Sarah Iles Johnston has a really excellent anthology, “Religions of the Ancient World”, in which she writes in the Introduction about the fact that “Only relatively recently, however, have scholars recognized the extent to which ancient peoples, as well, were exposed to a diversity of religions, both indigenous and imported.” And James B. Rives also talks about this in his book “Religion in the Roman Empire”, where he devotes a whole chapter to the subject of “Religious Options”.

    1. Great to see this turning into a discussion of ancient religious plurality! Love it!

      Thanks for mentioning the Rives’ book. We used it as our text book in a class last year. Your mentioning it is like revisiting an old friend!

      I will have to look into Sarah Illes Johnston further–I’ve only read some selections of her work (again, school related). I believe she also has a book on ancient divination. Have you read that one? Would you recommend it?

    2. I haven’t yet had a chance to read her book on divination except to skim it, but what I’ve read is very good. Her book (along with Frtiz Graf) on Dionysian Mysteries (Ritual Texts for the Afterlife) is fantastic. Basically everything she touches is intellectual gold for people into ancient and/or comparative religions.

  3. Since we are talking so much about ancient religious practices, I wanted to add that the mysteries of Isis were somewhat unique in ancient times, in that they often required a higher level of commitment from initiates than other, more causal ones (such as Eleusis).

    While it was common to affiliate with multiple cults and also partake in the mysteries of many gods, Isis’ rites required more stringent devotion. The Golden Ass shows this, with Lucius taking up residence near the temple, going through double-dream ordeals to undergo initiation, shaving the head, etc. You didn’t have to do this to partake in the mysteries of Demeter, you just showed up when they blew the horn!

    Fun stuff!

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