“The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal.” This statement from an American scholar of religion belies the conventional opinion that 94% or so of Americans believe in God—that, moreover, Americans are a relatively religious people (when we are not at work or in the stores). I suspect that there are at least three Americas when it comes to religion.
First, there are those people, most explicitly the Christian evangelicals, for which religion is almost always on their minds. Try changing the subject with an evangelical from religion and you may observe a sudden impatience then several attempts to not-so-subtly jar the conversation back to the topic (e.g., “religion as selflessness”). This group steadily grew through the last two decades of the twentieth century and into the next. Second are the secularists. They may have grown up attending religious services, but their adulthood knows no religious dimension. This group was growing too, particularly during the first decade of the twenty-first century.
The two groups could be living in different worlds for how different their orientations are. One could even say there are two Americas in this respect. Even conversation can be difficult between them, as even the matter of general topic would be in dispute due to the one party’s sheer indifference regarding the interests of the other. This dichotomy is too simplistic, however, for there are millions of Americans who lead basically secular lives and still attend weekly (or less) services of a “mainline” (i.e., established) religious institution. For example, a Catholic might attend Mass on Christmas and Easter, or even dutifully every Sunday, and that would be the extent of religion in his or her life. The quotidian nature of such religiosity can itself be taken as secular in that there may be very little actual religious experience in the “same old, same old.” It is merely what one does—how one was raised. Once the Mass is over, there is no hint of religiosity.
I suspect that Europe consists overwhelmingly of the second two groups—the secularists and the relative few (15%) who attend religious services weekly. To the vast majority of Europeans, religion is simply a part of the historically-given culture (Europeans tend to value this component of culture more than do Americans, who are more apt to value newness). Consequently, most Europeans have a great deal of difficulty understanding the evangelical wing of American politics (many Americans do too).
Having established the three American groupings—the different worlds in a sense—I want to focus on the secularists, as their substantial presence is typically ignored except when Christmas comes around and charges fly that secularists are commercializing Christmas—leaving Jesus out of it. Actually, as any Jehovah’s Witness will admit, the birth of Jesus is not a theological, or religious, event. Jesus is said to have been born the same way you and I were born. The two Christian miracles are the incarnation (conception of Jesus, before the birth) and the resurrection. Misunderstanding also surrounds the secularists. Most notably, they are often misconstrued as atheists.
According to USA Today, 44% of Americans told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey that they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom” and 19% said, “It’s useless to search for meaning.” Forty-six percent told a research agency (LifeWay Research) that they never wonder whether they will go to heaven. Twenty-eight percent said, “It’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” Eighteen percent said they did not believe that God has a purpose for everyone. In 2007, 6.3% of Americans were found by Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey as “unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.” I suspect this last percentage is understated, given the higher percentages above. In the American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS), the people who checked “no religious identity” leapt from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008. Nearly half of the 15% said they believed “nothing in particular.”
I think we have to take these people at their word, rather than assume that they are misguided and simply haven’t “gotten it” yet. The great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, was at ease refusing even on his death bed to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. It would be presumptuous for the rest of us mere mortals to assume he had made the wrong choice even though the evangelicals insist that one must have faith in Jesus’ identity (and thus salvific role) in order to avoid hell after the death of one’s corporeal body. It would also be reckless to assume that Hume and the people in the percentages above are necessarily atheists simply because they are secularists and reject institutional religion.
Unlike atheists, the people represented in the percentages above don’t reject religion; they simply are indifferent to it. It is said the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Put another way, atheism—the creed that denies the existence of God as conceptualized by man—is a reaction against theism and thus in the religious domain of theses and antitheses. The indifference, on the other hand, is simply to be without religion, and thus to be neither theist nor atheist.
Suhas Sreedhar, for example, is mentioned in USA Today as having grown up with a Hindu mother and an atheist father. “I was saturated with both views, and after a while, I realized I don’t need either perspective.” Significantly for our purposes, he relegated both views—both being in the religious domain. “God? Purpose? You don’t need an opinion on those things to function,” he says. This is not agnosticism, for he is not saying that God may exist. Rather, the matter of having an opinion—yes, no, or maybe—is itself set aside with indifference. “There may be unanswerable questions that could be cool or fascinating . . . but they don’t shed any meaning in my life,” he added. The question of God simply never comes up; one is immune and utterly indifferent to it because it does not offer any meaning.
To people like Suhas Sreedhar, scripture and tradition are “quaint, irrelevant artifacts,” according to USA Today. This is not to say that materialism or even licentiousness is the default. Many for whom the (or an) Almighty is off the radar can nevertheless love their families, care for their kids, and value friendships. Suhas Sreedhar would be offended by the following passage from the Pope’s 2009 Midnight Mass homily: “Origen, taking up one of John the Baptist’s sayings, saw the essence of paganism expressed in the symbol of stones: paganism is a lack of feeling, it means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God’s love. Origen says of the pagans: ‘Lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones and wood’.” (see Lk 22:9) In seeing Christ, however, “God who became a child,” the Pope goes on to say, “our hearts are opened.” In other words, people such as Suhas’ Hindu mother lack feeling and reason. Suhas’ mother is incapable of loving her own child. In other words, by including the quote from Origen in his homily, Joe Ratzinger was essentially saying that anyone who is a polytheist (e.g., any of the nearly 900 million Hindus around the world) is incapable of loving even a spouse or sibling (and of thinking). If you are like me in shaking your head in utter stupefaction that such a statement would be made at all, least of all in the twenty-first century and by the head of the Roman Catholic Church (and broadcast around the world on television), you may be getting the picture on how institutional religion has facilitated the growth of the “Nones.” That is to say, the lack of “feeling and reason” might be on the religion side of the equation, and the indifference (rather than hatred) of the “Nones” being a kind of charity toward the “religious” birds of prey.
Generally speaking, institutional religion may be on a trajectory of discrediting religion itself and even spirituality by getting them so utterly wrong even while claiming to be infallible. The sheer arrogance in the presumption among many of the most proud in the ranks of the clergy may be enough for some people to comfortably check the “None” box and move on with their lives rather than argue (or engage) with those who presume that they are somehow superior to other human beings (in terms of being related to God) by virtue of a specific calling (or laying on of hands). What if people with authority (i.e., power) in the institutional religions have made convenient choices that essentially sideline religion itself from the lives of an increasing number of people? What if the “officials” have been getting religion wrong, spreading their lapses by means of their exclusive right to the pulpit?
Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., for example, may have it wrong even in how she defines “the whole purpose of faith” as “to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times.” This seems too rationalist to serve as the “whole purpose” of faith, which could alternatively be applied to a transcendent-based (i.e., faith in a transcendent being, or in transcendence itself beyond the realm recognized by the “Nones”). In other words, “difficult times” may already be extrinsic to religiosity if the latter’s core (or domain) is religious experience. Finals week may be a difficult time for a student, but religious experience is intrinsic to that busy week, much less practiced at a time of such time pressure. Budde herself may thus have missed or at least mistaken the core of religiosity for something only indirectly linked to it. A dearth of meaning in religious terms could be expected among those to whom she is preaching.
Blithely unaware that she might be at fault, Budde conveniently blames society. Referring to the “Nones,” she easily opines, “We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable.” What if “unacceptable” were applicable to the supercilious clergy instead? What if “society” were just a natural reaction, or verdict, against the decadence that has rotted institutional religion from the staid, wooden pulpit, rather than from the “lazy” back pews? The failure by most clergy to even consider this point as a mere possibility makes my point. As one church historian said, “We can’t underestimate the power of the collapse of institutional religion in the first ten years of [the twenty-first] century. It’s freed many people to say they don’t miss rituals or traditions they may never have had anyway.” While collapse is perhaps too strong of a word to describe a general decline, particular given the “counter-example” of expanding megachurches, the decade may represent a turning point in it being generally acceptable for a person to say to strangers that he or she is not only not affiliated with any institutional religion, but also is simply not interested in (discussing) the subject.
To be sure, some people are undoubtedly just not interested in religiosity. Were they to experience religious experience without the distractions, they might say, “oh, that’s what it is,” or “Ca m’est égal,” returning to their own pursuits. It is likely that some of us more than others are genetically “hardwired” or more attuned by environment to find religious experience to be inherently satisfying or fulfilling. To push this on everyone may ignore real differences and, moreover, misunderstand the nature of religious experience itself. It may not be like breathing air or eating—things we all must do. Particularly in institutional religion, religiosity is conveniently treated as a common underlying trait or even basis in human nature. This assumption is wide-spread enough that it is taken as the default in society at large. Moreover, religion itself has been distended such that it has come to be misunderstood by us all, as if an error had unwittingly become the default. In other words, things extrinsic to religiosity have come to be deemed as lying within its domain, inherent to it even above that which lies at its core by its own internal logic.
For example, abortion is generally recognized as a religious topic, but is it really? Particularly relative to religious experience, “the issue” looks pretty “manmade” at least in the degree of emphasis (given the opportunity costs in terms of religiosity). Religious ritual is generally recognized as the point of “doing religion,” but what if ritual is merely the “prep” for religious experience, which is religiosity? Furthermore, how often does one have a numinous experience while listening to a carefully-prepared (and delivered) sermon or homily? Even so, the sermon is a staple in religion, particularly in Protestantism. One goes to church to hear the sermon, rather than explicitly to enter into distinctly religious experience.
Beyond the “likenesses” are the interlarding abuses that have tainted institutional religion itself as well as its “authorities.” Most notable as the “Nones” were growing in number was the serial pedophilia taking place or discovered among some Protestant clergy but many more Catholic priests during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Indifference may represent a bit of a lucky break for institutional Christianity, given its lax regulation of itself even as its clergy preached Jesus’ line, “what you do to the least of mine, you do to me.” Walking away from religion in a sort of “out of sight, out of mind” indifference may be the healthiest move for an onlookers to take; meanwhile, the “flock” that continues on with the “same old, same old” as if nothing had happened—rationalizing “it was just one man”—may be just as sick as him. In short, the “society” at fault may not be that to which secularists have flocked, but, rather, those perpetuated (or enabled) by the flocks that have been unknowingly misled by what Nietzsche calls the new bird of prey.
In conclusion, more than sheer boredom with religion lies behind the rise of the “Nones.” Rather than being about “nothing,” those people who are indifferent to religion may be saying something affirmative in having voted with their feet—namely, that institutional religion deserves indifference (or worse, actually) because its “leaders” or authorities have mucked it up so bad while presuming near infallibility in so doing. While surely not all of the secularists, I suspect that some of them, plus even many current congregants, would be surprised to discover that religiosity is not what the “expert” practitioners have been saying and doing for at least a century or perhaps several. In other words, those humans in institutional religion have not sufficiently restrained themselves from getting in the way; they have been loving religion to death by contorting it to fit their own image. Indifference, even more than disgust, is what they and their edifices to self-idolatry may indeed deserve. Were religionists to “get back to the knitting,” a higher proportion of people who are innately oriented to religious experience might partake. However, the notion that every human being is or should be so oriented seems mistaken to me. It may stem from a misunderstanding of both human nature and the nature of religiosity, with religion having become human, all too human even while retaining the name of the divine as a sort of game flag.
Perhaps it is actually self-idolatry under a ruse that has been fueling the indifference that has been fueling secularity. As per their nature, the proud are wont to blemish the natural reaction of indifference into some sort of demon, wholly unaware that the stygian culprit lies within themselves. The natural reaction of others to such darkness is simply to walk away, back into daylight. The transparency afforded by the disinfectant sunlight effectively dissolves the supercilious edifices in the new world—the city on the hill called secularity. It is not indifference to meaning itself that is evinced here—the popularity of Hollywood films alone demonstrates this; rather, it is indifference to purported meaning gone wrong: self-vaunted meaning on stilts under the subterfuge of humility. How’s that for a mouthful! Now go out and feel alive—play like comic dancers too adult to be so serious, and forget all about, rather than deny, this sordid religious stuff.
Cathy Grossman, “For Many, ‘Losing My Religion’ Isn’t Just a Song: It’s Life,” USA Today, January 3, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-25/religion-god-atheism-so-what/52195274/1