Reading "Religion Out Loud"

Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism, by Isaac Weiner. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

When I picked this book up from my local public library (thanks MeLCat for your statewide deliver) and glanced through it I braced myself. I held an academic book covering a field where I’ve done little to know reading. I was ready to be challenged.

What I encountered instead is a book of stories told by a good storyteller. And within and around those stories was very accessible and insightful critical analysis. This turned out to be a wonderfully engaging read. I will acknowledge I have little to no experience with the critical world of sound studies, and so I have few resources to analyze the book from within that discipline. I’m a guy interested in faith and sound, and this book is about people of faith and their relationship to sound.

The books author, Isaac Weiner, is an associate professor at The Ohio State University and co-director of the American Religious Sounds Project.

The book covers the main stories covering the span of about 100 years: church bells in late 19th c.; Jehovah Witness sound cars in the early 20th c.; and broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in the late 20th c. And with each story Weiner details the related legal, or legislative stories.

The primary issue this book covers is how has American society responded to religious sounds in public spaces. Sound often transgresses public and private space. While we can often avoid those things that stimulate our other senses, such as sights and tastes, we have few real barriers to sound. Related to the transgressive issue of sound, is the question of when is sound received as noise? This book also considers the understanding of religion simply as a set of beliefs, or whether the material manifestation of a religion – by doing such things as making loud sounds in public – is an integral part of religions.

Weiner categorizes public religious noise as serving one of three purposes: to project authority; to announce dissent; and to indicate and negotiate difference.

In looking at stories from mid 19th century to current times, the book follows the track of the industrialization of the U.S. And with industrialization came more loud sounds; of factories, steam and combustion engines, powered public transportation, etc. All this noise was seen by many as an indicator of progress.

But while the public noises of American industrialization was seen as a sign of progress, the public noises of religious life were increasingly seen as a sign of incivility. Western civilization presumed a religious evolution from noisy barbarism to quiet civilization; from a public, materialized religious practice, to a private, internalized set of beliefs.

Weiner does a wonderful job of depicting the challenges the American courts have had with “noisy religions” from seeing all sounds, whether religious or not, as equal and any loud sound as noise, to understanding public religious sound as acceptable free expression of religion. And while the cases of the church bells, and the Jehovah’s Witness sound cars were resolved in the courts, the debate over broadcasting the Islamic call to prayer in Dearborn was resolved through legislative means.

Weiner pulls together his understanding of the American response to public religious sound “[Complaints about religious noise] have expressed liberal Protestant and Post-Enlightenment ideas about ‘good’ religion, conceiving it as properly internalized, individualized, and intellectualized while also serving to authorize and legitimate these distinctly modern notions of suitable religiosity.” (p. 196)

This book helped me consider me consider the sounds of faith and when they means of expressing the content of beliefs, and when they are in themselves actualizations or materializations of that faith. I have been in contexts where the volume of sound was central to the expression of joy and faith. The question of how we should respond when other’s religious sounds transgress our personal sonic space, and when our religious sounds intrude on others remains with me.