In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice, and Change
by Michele Dillon & Paul Wink
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. ISBN-13: 978-0-520-24901-1

For those professionally concerned with religious practice — pastors, ministers, directors of faith formation — or for those personally curious about the subject of how Americans put religious beliefs into practice over a lifetime, the results of a long-term study of religious practice by men and women born in Northern California in the 1920s in invaluable.

Policy-setters and politicians could also put the information to good use in designing legislation acceptable to their constituents.

Writers whose content depends on knowledge of American religious practice could make good use of such information, if it were readily available in non-technical form.

All these audiences will find much to ponder in In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice, and Change by Michele Dillon & Paul Wink.

The authors take data generated by decades of study and boil them down to tasty case studies against the backdrop of the ongoing history of the 20th Century, not neglecting to examine the changes in religious belief and practice that occur at different stages of life for each individual:

As we discovered in our research with the IHD study participants, ordinary lives produce extraordinary accomplishments and achievements, and people are remarkably resilient in adapting to personal loss and tragedy. But individuals can carve out purposeful lives only if they have the economic, social, and cultural resources that allow them to fully engage with others and, in the process, fully realize the promise of the self. Religion provides one such resource.

For instance, someone writing about the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina should consider the disparate impact of the catastrophe on those with strong ties to local churches — and therefore a lifeline to external help — and those with no ties to local churches.

Another example might be a minister starting an outreach to his community, who could take into account that young couples often wish to renew regular religious practice at the birth of their first child.

Anyone engaging in debate about religion’s place in the public sphere would be wise to read up on what people actually believe, and how people put that belief into practice. Such debate, better informed if based on information from this book, could avoid useless hand-waving or hand-wringing.

Anyone wishing to be better informed on American religious practice is well-advised to read this book as a steppingstone to better understanding.

For those concerned with methodological rigor, an appendix explains the methods used to measure religiousness and spiritual seeking in the IHD study used as the basis for the book.

[cehwiedel also writes at]

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