Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion

Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion

By Wade Clark Roof
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Paperback. x + 367 pages.

What is really going on in American religion? Indicators today seem to be pointing in all directions at once as one tries to assess the spiritual environment with which Theosophy, and each of us as an individual, must live and work. Look at it one way, and (as certain alarmists insist) rampant secularism is taking over. Look at it another way, and religion- -conservative religion at that--appears to be gaining almost unprecedented political and social power. All that is sure is that American religion is getting more pluralistic all the time, and styles of religious life are changing nearly everywhere.

Now here comes an authoritative guidebook to this incredibly complex picture by one of the nation's most eminent sociologists of religion. Wade Clark Roof first divides the current religious world into four segments: Born-again Christians, Mainstream Believers, Metaphysical Believers and Seekers (a sector Theosophy is given due credit for helping construct), and Dogmatists and Secularists. The last, dogmatism and secularism, are interestingly put together as representing a comparable kind of mentality, though at opposites ends of the continuum. But most religionists today, deep down, do not have whatever it takes either to believe completely or doubt fully, and that's why the scene is so fluid and at the same time so vigorous.

For what is overall most- characteristic of American religion today, according to Roof is not the variety it has long possessed so much as the flexible spirit, the sense of being on a never-ending quest, that seems to shape all but its most extreme ends. Whatever faith one has landed in is likely to be viewed only as the vessel within which one is continuing the journey for now, and its charter always open to revision. Even traditionally rigid churches may be held in a light, searching, and open kind of way that is comfortable with doubt or unconventionality in some areas. In such a situation, boundaries are inevitably fluid; more and more people are not in the religion in which they were raised, and may hold unexpected beliefs. Remarkably, in Roof's poll-data no less that 27 percent of those who said they were Born-again Christians also believed in reincarnation.

Indeed, combining faith with doubt and ongoing search was a common response in place of the old hard attitude toward religion, "Take it [belief] or leave it: [religion]," there was a third option, put memorably by Jack Miles in a passage quoted by Roof: "If I may doubt the practice of medicine from the operating table, if I may doubt the political system from the voting booth, if I may doubt the institution of marriage from the conjugal bed, why may I not doubt religion from the pew?"

Is this just the yuppie "I want to have it all" mentality, or something radically new and different" emerging from the spiritual marketplace? Only time will tell. But Theosophists, who also like to see their worldview as a third option alongside dogmatic science and religion, should pay close attention to what is going on over there behind the scenes as well as in the foreground, so they can speak effectively to those born-again believers, seekers, and doubters. Spiritual Marketplace is a serious work of sociology and not light reading, but it is very well written and unfailingly interesting and illuminating. In a scene so fluid, it can hardly be called the last word, bur readers will not: lay it down without a much richer sense of the religious world in which we live, a world that, as Roof makes clear, is seldom what it seems.


March/April 2002