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What is living religion? We're so glad you asked!

Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus mosaics at outdoor chapel, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, San Jose. [Photo by Elizabeth Drescher, 2020.]

Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus mosaics at outdoor chapel, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, San Jose. [Photo by Elizabeth Drescher, 2020.]

The study of living religion focuses on how ordinary people engage, express, create, and otherwise do religion and spirituality in their everyday lives. We look not only at how religion is practiced in formal, institutional settings, but also at how people use and make religion at home, at work, and in their neighborhoods.

The living religion approach changes how we understand what religion is. Is religion made up of formalized statements of beliefs and institutionally approved practices that are enacted by practitioners under the supervision of recognized religious authorities? Or is religion what people come to believe and how they act based on their own reflections on and interpretations of formal teachings and rituals? Is it what people do with religious resources—images, artefacts, rituals, moral teachings, etc.—from traditions they may or may not know well to enrich their daily lives, express something about their identities, connect with others, cope with life’s ups and downs, or help those in need? When we study religion as it is lived, then, we are attending to what people do with religion more than what they believe and to what religious practice does in their lives. The study of living religion is, thus, active, engaged, collaborative, dynamic, and creative. It calls us to pay attention to the places where religion happens and to the things—including human bodies, other animals, natural settings, spiritual objects, special foods, religious clothing, etc.—that make religion real in our lives.

This is different from traditional approaches to the study of religion, which have focused largely on texts—scripture, doctrine, and the interpretation of both, as well as the life stories ("vitae") of celebrated religious and spiritual figures like saints, mystics, prophets, and other spiritual superstars or the scholars who study these venerate figures and texts. This can all be quite fascinating, but it misses a lot much of what counts as "religion" or "spirituality" in the everyday lives of ordinary people.

This way of understanding religion and spirituality often relies on methods that are called ethnography. Very simply, ethnography is the study of people in their own environments—“in the field,” ethnographers would say—through methods such as direct observation, interviewing, photographing, or creating videos. This allows us to collect detailed, first-hand accounts about how ordinary people practice religion and spirituality in local communities around the Santa Clara University campus. It also gives us a sense of how students—young adults—experience the local religious and spiritual landscape and its diverse inhabitants. Throughout the Living Religion Collaborative website, you’ll find examples of students’ ethnographic fieldwork on living religion in Northern California.

We typically think of religion in institutional forms centers of houses of worship and formal services. While this is often the case, religion is also present throughout the everyday lives of ordinary people. As the phots in this gallery illustrate, religion is often present in homes, neighborhoods, parks, and businesses; it is marked on bodies, and often otherwise lives outside the formal locales of institutional religion.