Losing faith in the secular: the politics of faith and knowledge at two American parachurches Public Deposited

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  • March 21, 2019
  • Hersh, Carie Little
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Anthropology
  • How do religious organizations understand and experience the secular? This dissertation analyzes how secular institutions and philosophies are experienced by two seemingly opposite religious organizations, the conservative, evangelical Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and the liberal, new age Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE). Despite ideological differences, the organizations share a similar social positioning in that their core philosophies are religious or metaphysical in nature but their institutions are secular in design. As parachurches, these non-denominational religious organizations offer religious or spiritual guidance in combination with political discourse, academic knowledge, and public services in realms that for more than 140 years have been dominated by secularism: education and academia, media, law and government, science, and medicine. As a result, both CBN and ARE offer insightful critiques of the concept of the secular. Data for this project were gathered primarily during a year's participant-observation research in Virginia Beach in 2006, during which the author divided the year between ARE and CBN, working, leading tours, and attending graduate school courses, conferences, prayer meetings, yoga classes, and meditations. Speaking informally with hundreds of participants, the author gathered three dozen formal interviews from people at all levels, from volunteer to CEO, and in a variety of roles across both organizations. Adopting Holland and Lave's stance that identities are crafted through collective struggles through which positionings of self and other are made meaningful, this dissertation uses Bakhtin's sociolinguistic evaluations of dialogue combined with Christian Smith's and Talal Asad's critical assessments of institutions of power to analyze three core debates: (1) academic representations of Jesus and early Christian history, (2) scientific histories and predictions of earth changes, and (3) medical conceptions of healing and the body. It is through these struggles at the edge of the secular that its authority and power are most clearly experienced, as parachurch members who appeared vaguely confused at references to the secular became impassioned and articulate in their description of an oppressive and often invisible force in mainstream American culture that relegates the parachurches to a bounded and often denigrated position outside of mainstream authority and influence.
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  • In Copyright
  • "... in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Anthropology."
  • Nelson, Christopher
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • Open access

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