Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Disappearance of Religion

So, maybe it's a bit drastic to say, disappearance, but certainly a devaluation of traditional religion has been underway in the west for the past half century or so, at the same time that there has been a resurgence of spirituality.

In media ecological terms, religion as we understand it emerges out of a media environment that employs some sort of writing system; without one, what you have is more of a polymorphous spirituality and a multitude of local practices and beliefs, all seen as equally valid, if not equally powerful. Writing gives us sacred texts which define religious ritual and theology, making it possible to drawn boundary lines between believers and unbelievers, creating an either/or system that includes concepts such as conversion and heresy.

And now that the electronic media are undoing the effects of typographic literacy, an emphasis on homogeneous religion has been giving way to something more like oral spirituality, a neo-paganism if you like, although it isn't necessarily New Age phenomena, but also a mix-and-match approach to traditional religions.

So, given all this, I was intrigued to read an opinion piece reprinted in the North Jersey Record, originally appearing in the Christian Science Monitor, on this subject. The author, Stephen Bates, teaches in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the title of the piece is Why Americans are devout and diverse but not divided (and the title is linked to the original article in the Christian Science Monitor, if you want to go take a look).

Bates starts out with a gratuitous jab at the prevalence (and presumed over-diagnosis) of ADD and ADHD, which I think unnecessary:

In the Adderall age, many Americans are flitting from faith to faith, or from faith to no faith. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life recently released a poll showing that about half of adults have changed faiths since childhood. Moreover, some 16 percent of Americans say they no longer identify with any religion, compared with 7 percent who were raised without one.

The Pew Center report is called Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. (yeah, I got it linked), Here's the Executive Summary of the report:

Americans change religious affiliation early and often. In total, about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once during their lives. Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once. These are among the key findings of a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey documents the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S. and describes in detail the patterns and reasons for change.

The reasons people give for changing their religion - or leaving religion altogether - differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

But let's return to Bates, and see what he has to say as he makes reference to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was one of the all time great intellectuals of American politics in the 20th century (and a New Yorker, natch):

Those are just some of a passel of trends that have been reweaving the nation's religious tapestry. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned against defining deviancy down. In a variety of ways, we're defining deity down. Have we gotten so skittish about giving offense that American faith is all but meaningless? Then again, the US is one of the most peaceful nations when it comes to religion. That speaks volumes.

You see? An interesting conflict is brewing here. So, what exactly is going on?

For almost all groups, religious intermarriage has nearly doubled since the 1950s. Though two-fifths of Americans claim to have attended worship services in the past week, scholars believe that between a quarter and half of them are bearing false witness. Speaking of the Commandments, one poll found that 42 percent of Americans could name five of the 10 – whereas another poll found that 43 percent could name three of the five cartoon Simpsons.

What's going on? "The idea of a plural society is so new to Americans that many will not even understand the term," Christian Century magazine said back in 1951. "It will be even more difficult to arouse their concern over the development because they will find it difficult to believe that any such thing can happen here." The headline read "Pluralism – National Menace."

It happened here, and, as Christian Century editors fretted, it hasn't been altogether good news for the Good News. Using 1990 data, economist Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., studied the effects of people of the same faith clustering together. For every 10 percent decline in religious density, by his measure, attendance at worship services dropped by 8.5 percent. Religious homogeneity boosts churchgoing. And the United States has become the most religiously diverse nation the world has ever known.

My natural inclination is to think of pluralism and diversity as a good thing, so it's interesting to encounter this other point of view where it is seen as a mixed blessing at best.

Such a society can try to reclaim the faith by slaughtering the infidels, or it can make accommodations. Perhaps the most important accommodation is to quit claiming that your god is the best. In 1924, Robert and Helen Lynd asked high school students in Muncie, Ind., whether Christianity is the one true religion. Yes, said 94 percent. Asked in 2002 if they practice the one true religion, just 17 percent of Americans said yes. Monopolies on truth don't go over well in a religiously multicultural society. Thus, such talk has gone the way of the walls of Jericho.

Since people in religious minorities (my own included) tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to talk about slaughtering infidels, I am happy to see an end to such triumphalism. But it is interesting to consider that this comes at a cost.

That's why most houses of worship are so easygoing, too – why they now welcome folks who try out faiths the way they try out screen savers. As John Updike wrote, the Christian church once could "exclude and excommunicate; now, unlike most other organizations, it will take us in if we so much as show up."
The cost, then, is a kind of religion-lite, shading into a wholesale trivializing of religion along the lines that Neil Postman warned about in his discussion of televangelism in Amusing Ourselves to Death. So perhaps we become intolerant of religious stricture and discipline, of ethics and morality, but along with it we become intolerant of religious intolerance too.

To be sure, conservative Christians stand apart. They aren't marrying people of other faiths at the same rate as other Americans, and they're considerably more likely to deem theirs the one true faith. When President George W. Bush declared that all religions pray to the same God, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention "corrected" him. But many of the rest of us can't tolerate such intolerance. A Gallup poll in 1989 (admittedly, the Age of Falwell) found that nearly a third of Americans wouldn't want to live next to a fundamentalist Christian.

Fundamentalists lack the light touch of channel surfing and, of course, of surfing the web. And where does that leave us? I agree with Mather below, and disagree with Bates--it leaves us with the disappearance of religion, in all but name.

"The toleration of all Religions and Persuasions," Puritan preacher Increase Mather observed, "is the way to have no Religion at all." Mather got it wrong, but toleration does recast religion. Is that a problem?

Bates himself seems to be rather tactfully tacking around the questions. His conclusion?

Not when you consider the alternative. Here, it's not Sunnis versus Shiites, or everybody versus the Jews. We are a sprawling nation of near-universal belief in a Supreme Being, of many religions, and, at the same time, of scarcely any interfaith strife. We're devout and diverse but not divided. No other country has managed to pull that off, and it's quite an accomplishment. By defining deity down, Americans keep the faith – and keep the peace.

I do agree with his touch of triumphalism here--the American achievement of religious tolerance is remarkable, especially as it has been achieved without resorting to the kind of impoverished atheism that seems so prevalent across the Atlantic. This is not to disparage atheists in any way, shape, or form, there is much to be said for the position they hold, but there is also an enormous loss in abandoning all sense of the sacred in human life.

Peace is one of the great goals of most if not all traditional religions, and you can't argue with that. Watching The Tudors on Showtime, I am reminded of the incredible fact that at one time the English were killing one another over whether the communion wafer was merely a symbol or literally was transformed into the flesh of Jesus during the ritual. I mean, my God, what an absurd cause for war, as duly satirized by Jonathan Swift. And then there's the whole history of the Jews as we lived among Christians and Moslems. Oy vey!

So, after all, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were not all that far off in The Communist Manifesto when then posited a utopia absent all religion, and predicted that it would come to pass as an inevitable historical development. While they may not have been exactly correct, I do think we are witnessing the withering away of the state and of organized religion, albeit very gradually, and not without considerable resistance, and due to technological change, especially the electronic media.

And this, finally, brings to mind the song "Imagine" by John Lennon Here's a version where it's sung by the very young Connie Talbot (someone left another version of it for me under the Comments section of my MySpace profile):

What was amazing about this song is that the lyrics, while quite beautiful, are pretty much straight out of The Communist Manifesto. I just have to wonder how many fans actually have been aware of this fact? In any event, I don't think the case for Communism was ever put more persuasively, certainly not more entertainingly. And while the idealism this represents, however commendable, must be viewed skeptically, neither should it be dismissed out of hand, as it is not entirely without predictive power. Imagine that!

1 comment:

Mike Plugh said...

I've been giving this very topic some thought recently, due to some very heated discussions about the role of religion in the fight to block gays and lesbians from winning equal recognition and protection under the law in the United States.

As a little background, my opposition was arguing that the passages in the Bible which advocate or command the murder of homosexuals condemn religion as an enemy in this case. I argued that, like any other doctrine of the literate tradition, including our Constitution, these things are open to evolution, moderation, and indeed change.

It is fundamentalism that is the enemy to progress, rather than religion itself. As we struck the idea that African-Americans are 3/5 of a person from our national identity, so to can we see progress in our religion.

The argument is really one of media ecology. The printing press allowed Martin Luther to reshape the face of religion, by opening access to the Word of God to a larger audience. Where King James used his control over media to control the interpretation of God's commandments to suit his own political agenda, Luther's use of the printing press opened the door for a broader interpretation and a questioning of doctrine.

We see an even more greatly expanded sensibility of evolution, change, and control due to electronic media and in particular the generations of people using the internet and computers in their daily lives. People not only have a sense of personal ownership of their religious belief and experience, but also a sense that they can edit, interpret, and change the Word of God to suit their own set of standards and values.

Perhaps this is contrary to the notion of religion or dogma in the traditional sense, and supports the notion that we're tribalizing our religious culture with the media of the day, but it also shows some capacity to shape and evolve the nature of our belief system in order to make human progress. It's a grassroots religion that's emerging rather than a church-controlled religion.

It seems as though the idea of a Pope for Catholics will inevitably come into conflict with the very cognitive organization that younger generations are experiencing. The idea of a WikiPope seems more like what we ought to see out of the Vatican of the future.

Is it good? Is it bad? Those aren't the right questions, but they are the questions that will be most frequently asked. The real question is, "Will the collection of beliefs and values that evolve from the core of our traditional religious doctrines continue to serve us as an effective moral mediator in the future?"

The Unitarians are answering that question with their inclusion of a gay bishop, for example.

I'll be writing something about media ecology and Quakerism in the near future, related to this topic. My background is in Quaker education and I've had ample room to contemplate their tradition in this respect. The Quakers, in fact, see their relatioship to God as unmediated...ripe for exploration in our discipline!