Monday, May 11, 2009

How Do Americans Really Feel About God? | The American Prospect

[T]he Pew Forum looked at 'the fluidity of religious affiliation in the U.S.' and found that roughly half of U.S. adults have changed religion at some point in their life. Further, the number of Americans who identify as unaffiliated with a particular religion -- now hovering around 16 percent -- has grown more rapidly than any other religious group in recent decades. In recent years, the story of American religion has been hyped up in fire and brimstone thanks to our previous president, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian, and the massive evangelical movement that influenced him to enact policies that were consistent with religious perspective: the global gag rule, abstinence-only sex education, and marriage-promotion programs, just to name a few. But those days are over...Americans are testing the waters of a new kind of religious complexity. This isn't the New Age spirituality of The Secret or the rabid atheism of Ivy League intellectuals. It isn't the over-the-top bar mitzvah or quinceañera. This is the steady, patient movement of citizens who are searching for the center again, Americans who want to believe in the goodness of a country and its people, folks who are affiliated with fairness and kindness over any one institution of worship...Strangely, Barack Obama's election was the closest thing to a religious experience that I've ever had. My faith was renewed in a country that, at times, has felt beyond saving. My heart swelled with the sense of interconnection that I've only heard described in spiritual terms. I certainly don't think he's a god, but I do think that the hope and sense of responsibility and community that he's been able to inspire in people is profound.

The Pew Forum report linked in the article notes also that the unafilliated are not only the fastest growing "religious group" but the one with the highest attrition rate: more than half of all individuals who were raised unaffiliated become affiliated. And I'm one of them.

Maybe that's why it's so devilishly hard for me to understand the widespread animus against religion--Christianity in particular. Whatever is the problem?

As far as I can see there are 3 problems:

  • The exercise of political power by churches and religious lobbies, particularly in the interests of promoting socially and politically conservative agendas.

  • The affirmation and promulgation of false beliefs.

  • The promotion of implausible and unduly restrictive moral rules, especially regarding sexual conduct.

Even so, it's still hard for me to understand. As the article notes, the political power of the Religious Right has been broken. They had a 30 year run--now it's over. And they didn't accomplish much of anything. Row v. Wade stands; Iowa has legalized gay marriage; campaigns to mandate the teaching of "intelligent design" in the public schools have flopped; and, when it comes to the alleged rights of stem cells, most Americans frankly do not give a damn.

Still, the New Atheists and their followers are vexed and urge constant vigilance. Those Fundamentalists could come back in force at any time and, some urge, apparently rational liberal Christians are just "enablers." They cite the Crusades and the Inquisition to make the case that religion--Christianity in particular--is a politically potent, destructive force.

I wonder how many could explain what the Inquisition was or even answer a multiple choice question about the approximate date of the First Crusade, or what it was supposed to accomplish: 8th century, 12th century, or 16th century? The whole campaign to defend the Enlightenment against incursions by militant Fundamentalists seems awfully like the Reds-under-beds scare during the Cold War.

As for the affirmation and promulgation of false beliefs--who cares? While I was grading my logic yesterday morning I was listening to a Sunday Morning TV show about the latest fad for "cleansing" which is supposed to leech out poisons from the body through the ingestion of godawful concoctions laced with hot peppers, and enemas. Devotées swear by it, though there's no empirical evidence that it does any good. Religious belief is surely no more harmful than this nonsense or any of the other health fads and therapies Americans consume. And surely religion, at least religion of the mainline Protestant variety, is less harmful than than the anti-vaccination movement or the campaign against genetically modified foods or, for that matter, the Mars-Venus literature.

So I, as a Christian, believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ as his only son, our Lord, and the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Big deal. That's metaphysics. I know metaphysicians who believe that tables and chairs don't exist and others who believe in Platonic forms, sets, numbers and propositions do, and many, including me, who believe that denizens of merely possible worlds exist. So what? We all have arguments, none of which are conclusive, and many of us are likely wrong. But our ontological commitments are harmless. No one bothers with us and there's no reason why they should or, arguably, why they should bother with people for believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God with his suite of angels, archangels and all the company of heaven.

I suppose the real issue is sex. Christianity, at least officially, mandates restrictions on sexual activity. Popular culture defines human worth in terms of sexual attractiveness and sexual activity. This at least is the way it was in the wake of the sexual revolution when I came of age. I diligently strove to have sex with as many men as possible and managed to achieve double digits though not, I think, triple digits.

But how many Christians take their churches' official doctrines regarding sexual expression seriously? So whatever is the problem? More generally, why should anyone worry about churches' official doctrines concerning any moral issues since churches don't have the power to enforce them and most adherents don't take them seriously. They're pleased when their churches endorse moral views they hold on independent grounds but ignore moral injunctions they do not endorse.

So why did I, like most others who were raised unchurched, become religiously affiliated? What interested me were the aesthetic elements broadly construed, mysticism and metaphysics.

If I had been born later, or further to the west, I doubt that I'd ever have developed the slightest interest in religion. If I grew up amongst megachurches meeting in auditoriums, where people sat in theater seats listing to Christian soft rock and therapeutic sermons I would never have been attracted.

But I grew up amongst brownstone churches filled with dim religious light, vibrating with the numinous. And I was in training to be a musician: I sang the Mass in Latin, and the Te Deum and Magnificat, in innumerable classical settings. The People of the Land in my neighborhood were Italian Catholics and I grew up with Mediterranean Folk Catholicism--which I envied. I am hard-wired for high church: Anglo-Catholicism opened its gaping maw, swallowed me up, smirked and burped. I just plain love churchiness and all religious stuff--the buildings, the music, the smells and bells, the Prayer Book, and all the gee-gaws and frou-frou.

I was also interested in mysticism, something that went beyond the heart-swelling "religious experience" the author describes, something that has little to do with any sense of "interconnection," hope, responsibility or community. I suppose I can understand those sentiments but they've never really interested me much. I was after an acid trip. That churchy stuff did it for me--and still does.

Finally, I find the metaphysics intriguing--in particular the doctrine of the Trinity and the Real Presence doctrine, on which I write. Is it true? I don't know, any more than I know whether any of the other metaphysical commitments I've taken on, to four-dimensionalism, the existence of possible worlds or mereological universalism (the last currently under reconsideration), are correct. But I've plonked for them and will defend them, unless I become convinced otherwise. Maybe most importantly I simply like working on these issues.

I doubt that I'd have become interested in religion if I were raised affiliated and ground through the whole regime of church and Sunday School as a child: smarmy Jesus and sentimental Jesus stories, construction paper projects, niceities and moralizing. It's drivel but it's harmless drivel. Whatever is the problem?


Sunder said...

The danger is that the power of the religious right has not been broken. There was an article in a recent Harper's, if you have access to that excellent magazine, about how fundamentalist Christian organizations are literally, actually taking over American's military. This is not fear-mongering on my part; if I am not very explicit, it is because the article (I apologize for not knowing the author's name) did such an excellent job of presenting facts--facts that the religious right does not even deny, facts that are publicly accessible. I would feel quite lame attempting to summarize them without the actual article in front of me (I lend out my magazines, alas). Hopefully, some other reader will followup on my comment with more detailed info about, or better yet, from, the article; it is chilling.

H. E. said...

That would be Jeff Sharlet. I had a look at a 2006 article--a more recent one on fundies in the military is behind their paywall.

I'm still inclined to disagree: there's plenty of evidence that the political influence of the religious right is waning, e.g. the result of the last presidential election.

More importantly though what I find puzzling is the attack on religion as such--not fundamentalism. Most religiously affiliated americans arent fundamentalists, don't support the fundamentalists' political agenda and are, for the most part, embarrassed by fundamentalists and hostile to them.

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