Sheilaism is a shorthand term for an individual's system of religious belief which co-opts strands of multiple religions chosen by the individual usually without much theological consideration. The term derives from a woman named Sheila Larson, who is quoted by Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen in their book Habits of the Heart as following her own "little voice" in a faith she calls "Sheilaism".
In Chapter 9 of their 1985 book Habits of the Heart, Bellah and Madsen discuss how religion in America has moved from being highly public and unified, as it was in colonial New England, to extremely private and diverse. To demonstrate the shift, they quote a young nurse, to whom they gave the name Sheila Larson:
- "I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice...It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other."
Bellah and Madsen suggest that Sheilaism creates the logical possibility "of over 220 million American religions, one for each of us," and they see Sheilaism as "a perfectly natural expression of current American religious life".
The coinage quickly became a touchstone for sociologists of religion who repeatedly reference it. One sociologist summed it up as "spiritual bricolage". Sheilaism even has worked its way into more mainstream culture.
Columnist Don Kahle concluded that Sheila "has a code of ethics, but it's no longer connected to a sacred text or an observing deity. It's personal - and unpublished. Sheila abides by Sheilaism. Sheilaism is good for Sheila, but it doesn't build community. Nobody but Sheila knows what are the codes of Sheilaism. Often Sheila doesn't know herself until something 'doesn't feel right'."
Bellah and Madsen saw Sheilaism as a form of self-absorption that caused a disaffiliation with communities. Their perspective was very much in line with the prevailing view of sociologists since the 1960s who saw such highly individualized religious experience as proof of a larger decline in the importance of religion in the United States as a whole. In later comments, Bellah summed up the problem with Sheilaism: "she has made the inner trip and hasn't come back out again, so to speak."
Cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki juxtaposes Sheilaism with Judyism, the joke religion created by comedian Judy Tenuta. Whereas Tenuta is poking fun at the idea of an individualist religion, even titling a book The Power of Judyism, Niedzviecki laments the fact that Sheilaists take the idea seriously. "Sheilaism permeates our individualistic conformity and continues to demand that our institutions dramatically change to accept us as we want to be."
Recent scholarship has re-evaluated Sheilaism, noting that even those who claim a particular organized denomination and regularly attend church often have highly individualized perceptions of their faith.
- Bellah, Robert, and Richard Madsen. 1996. Habits of the Heart, University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-20568-5. p. 221.
- Bellah & Madsen. p. 221
- Wood, Matthew. "The Nonformative Elements of Religious Life: Questioning the 'Sociology of Spirituality' Paradigm. Social Compass June 2009 56: 237-248, doi:10.1177/0037768609103359, p. 241
- Wilcox, Melissa M. "When Sheila's a lesbian: Religious individualism among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians", Sociology of Religion. Washington: Winter 2002. Vol. 63, Iss. 4, pp. 497-514.
- Kahle, Don. "Will downtown progress be thwarted? Blame Sheila", The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon. October 26, 2007, pg. A13.
- Wilcox, p. 498.
- Bellah, Robert. Habits of the Heart: Implications for Religion St. Mark's Catholic Church, Isla Vista, California February 21, 1986.
- Niedzviecki, Hal. 2006. Hello, I'm special: how individuality became the new conformity. City of Lights Publishers. ISBN 0-87286-453-7. p. 49.
- Wilcox, p. 500.