Listening for Religion on a Digital Platform

Amy DeRogatis (derogat1@msu.edu), Michigan State University, United States of America

What does religion in the United States sound like, and where should one go to listen for it? What are the different ways that religious individuals and communities make themselves heard--to each other, to their gods, and to others? How is religious pluralism reshaping the sounds and spaces of North American religious life? How might we begin to reconceptualize religion and its place in North American life if we begin by using our auditory perception as a source of knowledge? And how might this knowledge be represented and transformed through the use of new digital media?

I co-direct “The American Religious Sounds Project,” a collaborative initiative of Ohio State and Michigan State Universities to leverage opportunities afforded by the new digital environment to consider what religion sounds like in the United States. The project centers on (1) the construction of a unique sonic archive, documenting the diversity of everyday American religious life through newly produced field recordings, interviews, oral histories, and related materials; and (2) the development of a new digital platform and website, which draws on materials in our archive to engage users in telling new stories about religious diversity in the U.S. This multi-modal platform includes a searchable archive, database-driven visualizations, which invite users to explore, discover, and listen for surprising connections among our materials, and a curated gallery of multimedia exhibits, which allow for greater interpretation and contextualization. Future phases include plans for museum installations, traveling exhibits, and community-based workshops.

It has become commonplace (if arguably inaccurate) to describe the United States as the most religiously diverse country in the world. Scholars of North American religions have recognized the pressing need for new approaches to documenting and making sense of this diversity. Our approach stems from our particular interests in the material and sensory cultures of American religions and in the varied ways that religion has become newly visible and audible in American life, confounding once dominant assumptions about secularization and privatization. Rather than retreating quietly into an interiorized or immaterial realm of personal belief, religion has remained an integral feature of the modern world, and religious communities have inscribed themselves on urban landscapes and soundscapes in a variety of ways.

The working we are doing through the American Religious Sounds Project also has been stimulated by a “sensory turn” in scholarship across the humanities and social sciences. Historians, anthropologists, geographers, and others have been attending to the cultural values and social ideologies expressed through different ways of sensing the world and to the multi-sensorial modes through which modern culture was constituted. The nascent field of sound studies, defined broadly as the cultural study of sound and listening, has proven particularly generative, giving rise to new ways of thinking about critical questions that have long animated humanistic inquiry, including the legacies of industrialization and urbanization, the role of technological production and mediation, and the construction of ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, gendered, and class-based differences. Research on sound and through sound provides a rich medium for understanding religious groups, people, events, and conflicts.

Religious studies scholars, however, have paid far more attention to visual and material culture than to auditory culture. In part, this can be attributed to the limitations of the textual media through which scholars have traditionally presented their research, including published monographs and journal articles. Such media have not readily lent themselves to engagement with sonic materials, for sound can be difficult to represent in such formats. Acutely sensitive to this problem, many ethnomusicologists and sound artists have begun experimenting with digital tools and platforms, like soundmapping, but such approaches have not yet made their way into the discipline of religious studies. Scholars of religion should take greater advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new digital environment, while also reflecting critically on its limitations. The American Religious Sounds Project is designed to do both.

Our sound selections are robustly multi-religious, including a wide range of Christian and non-Christian traditions. We include the formal sounds of religious institutions, such as prayer, chanting, and hymns, as well as the informal, and often unintentional, sounds that arise during relaxed coffee hours and spontaneous conversations, ambient and incidental noises like laughter and crying, clapping and shouting, and the shuffling and movement of lived community during worship. We record regular weekly and daily services, as well as seasonal festivals and other special events. We move outside of formal religious institutions to capture the sounds of devotion in homes and schools, public parks and interfaith chapels, coffee shops and workplaces, as well as at ostensibly “secular” gatherings such as a school graduation, public arts festival, or college football games. For example, our researchers recently recorded the sounds of a public Christmas tree lighting, an interfaith prayer vigil against violence, a neo-Pagan brewing mead in his home kitchen, an anti-Islam protest rally, a (secular) Sunday Assembly meeting in a coffee shop, and a Bhutanese Nepali Hindu festival. By casting our net widely, we aim to build a resource that is broadly comprehensive, comparative, and even a bit provocative. We do not intend to answer definitively the question of what counts as religious, but to invite critical reflection on what is at stake in that designation and to consider the role that auditory perception plays in its constitution.

In this paper, I will introduce the project and present our website, which we expect to launch in March 2018. I will solicit critical feedback and offer reflections of my own on the capabilities and limits of new digital methods for enhancing our research of the varied sonic cultures of North American religious life. One of the goals of the American Religious Sounds Project is to provide a bridge between our academic settings and our local communities. That work must be done carefully and respectfully in the present political and religious climate of the United States. I will end with some thoughts on the precarious work of the public presentation of religious sounds and communities on an open accessible digital platform.