In August 2020, Oxford University Press published Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures. Sociologist Robert Brenneman and I co-authored the book in a multi-year process that began with a conversation in a Chipotle at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting in Indianapolis.
The social sciences have mostly ignored the role of physical buildings in shaping the social fabric of communities and groups. Although the emerging field of the sociology of architecture has started to pay attention to physical structures, Brenneman and Miller are the first to combine the light of sociological theory and the empirical method in order to understand the impact of physical structures on religious groups that build, transform, and maintain them. Religious buildings not only reflect the groups that build them or use them; these physical structures actually shape and change those who gather and worship there.
Religious buildings are all around us. From Wall Street to Main Street, from sublime and historic cathedrals to humble converted storefronts, these buildings shape the global religious landscape, “building faith” among those who worship in them while providing a testament to the shape and duration of the faith of those who built them and those who maintain them. Building Faith explores the social impact of religious buildings in places as diverse as a Chicago suburb and a Guatemalan indigenous Mayan village, all the while asking the questions, “How does space shape community?” and “How do communities shape the spaces that speak for them?”
The book uses multiple methods – ethnographic observations, interviews, historical data, content analysis – across multiple contexts – suburban Chicago, Vermont, Guatemala – to show how religious buildings shape religious experiences and communities. It adds much to and draws on several previously published works – a 2016 Sociology of Religion article, a 2018 Visual Studies article, and a 2019 The Sociological Quarterly article – to uniquely address in sociological analysis the role of religious buildings.
The book has been reviewed in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Review of Religious Research, Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft, and Sociology of Religion. Robert and I discussed the book in a 2021 episode of the podcast More Than This.
From one of the concluding pages of the book, here is how Robert and I describe what we found in studying religious buildings:
“In order to truly take structures seriously, we need to pay closer attention to the physical structures that shape social structures…Paying more attention to religious buildings will help scholars address the materiality of religion, examine how congregations become a “we” rather than an aggregate of individual participants, better understand religious and congregational experiences, note the processes by which religious buildings arise and are sustained over time, and discuss the long-lasting effects of religious worship and gathering.”