Millennial Spirituality

I have been saying that the fastest growing religion in the United States is not the non-denominational, evangelical mega-churches, or Mormonism or any other such easily identifiable thing, but the hazy category of “spiritual but not religious.” Today the front page of USA Today brings more grist for the mill (Grossman, Cathy Lynn, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘More Spiritual Than Religious’,” 27 April 2010):

Most young adults today don’t pray, don’t worship and don’t read the Bible, a major survey by a Christian research firm shows.

If the trends continue, “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. In the group’s survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.”

Among the 65% who call themselves Christian, “many are either mushy Christians or Christians in name only,” Rainer says. “Most are just indifferent. The more precisely you try to measure their Christianity, the fewer you find committed to the faith.”

The line about seeing churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships was a nice gag, but more evocative for me would be to say that if the trend continues, we will soon start to see churches in the U.S. closing as quickly as they are today in Europe. Declining religious sentiment is an aspect of modernization and what’s amazing is that religion has managed to persist with such strength so long into the age of scientific reason.

In addition to the point about “spiritual but not religious”, this survey also makes Daniel Dennett’s point that belief in belief is far more widespread than actual belief. There are a significant number of people who self-identify as “Christian” when asked, but don’t attend church, don’t ever pray, don’t read the Bible, don’t think “what would Jesus do”, or “God’s watching” in their moral considerations, don’t take religious identity into consideration in forming their interpersonal associations and don’t talk about god to other people.

Some sociologists need to get on this “spiritual but not religious” category. What do people who so identify believe? I have no idea. I imagine that being so ill-defined it’s a bewildering hodge-podge of belief.

I always joke that “spiritual but not religious” means you like green tea and yoga. But maybe there’s no accident in these two tropes. The future belongs to Asia and “spiritual but not religious” might be an early manifestation of Asian culture beginning to exert the kind of global influence that Western culture used to enjoy.

Is “spiritual but not religious” a sort of scientific illiteracy? There are all these people for whom religion has no practical consequence in their life, but find the alternative unpalatable? I’ve known a number of people who believe in what I call a “prime mover” god: the whole big bang story sounds too implausible so they invoke god to get the story rolling, but then he drops out as a narratively compelling actor.

I know plenty of people who are essentially atheists but owing to the stigma of the label, simply won’t take the final step of self-identification as such.

Is it a bad faith version of Pascal’s wager, where people think of non-declaration as a hedge: If I don’t say anything, god won’t know and I may still be eligible for the afterlife should I turn out to have been wrong.

Do the “spiritual but not religious” respond to religion in politics? I imagine that to be “spiritual but not religious” means rejection of religion as ideology and dogma in favor of religious sentiment. Political invocations of religion tend to be religion as ideology and dogma at its most strident. But many of these people continue to identify as Christians. Is their identification sufficiently deep for them to respond to the identity group politics of religion?

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American Ecumenicalist Pluralism

Charles Blow tells an amusing story about the essential ecumenicalist pluralism of the United States (“Heaven for the Godless?,” The New York Times, 26 December 2008, p. A25):

In June, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a controversial survey in which 70 percent of Americans said that they believed religions other than theirs could lead to eternal life.

This threw evangelicals into a tizzy. After all, the Bible makes it clear that heaven is a velvet-roped V.I.P. area reserved for Christians. Jesus said so: “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” But the survey suggested that Americans just weren’t buying that.

The evangelicals complained that people must not have understood the question. The respondents couldn’t actually believe what they were saying, could they?

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

The full study results are here (“Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,” 18 December 2008).

I suggest that this means that Americans are essentially communitarian, consequentialist and anti-foundationalist in their moral outlook.

For the fundamentalist religious person, right belief about metaphysical and factual matters is paramount and right behavior secondary. Right belief is often seen as being of such a higher order of importance that it alone is sufficient and gross moral deviance on the part of the righteous is perfectly acceptable, hence modern day religious fanaticist terrorism. But for most Americans it is the reverse. The conception of the good is primary and they bend the rest of their beliefs around this. The particular beliefs that lead to the right behavior aren’t all that important, just so long as the result is someone who is a good person. (I think here of Aristotle’s suggestion in the Nicomachean Ethics that for he who has “been brought up in good habits … the fact is a starting point, and if this is sufficiently plain to him, he will not need the reason as well; and the man who has been well brought up has or can easily get starting-points.” §1095b)

But if Americans don’t believe that right and wrong consist in adherence to a particular book of maxims, then where do they think they come from?

People decide right and wrong prior to religion — at least logically prior, if not chronologically prior. Most people think religion an okay source of moral instruction for children, but eventually attain a level of ethical sophistication where they use their own standard of right and wrong to judge religious teaching, rather than vice-a-versa. It’s Daniel Dennett’s point that many more people believe in belief than actually believe. Chronologically, I imagine people probably go through something like Kierkegaard’s three phases of the slave, the knight of infinite resignation, and the knight of faith. People develop an idea of good from their upbringing, a host of stories in the culture, their moral exemplars, their conception of their own life, their own moral experimentation and so on. Moral discourse is an equal opportunity endeavor. Armed with that, they recognize fellow good people based on an intersubjective or commonly held standard — differing one person to another, but demonstrating “family resemblance.”

The Christian right attempts to bolster the case for its monolithic policy preferences by arguing that the United States is a Christian nation, that it’s becoming more religious or that religion is essential for morality. To the degree that any of these are true, it’s not in a way that helps the case of the right. Americans are essentially pluralist, tolerant, even polyglot, pragmatic and not particularly concerned with the finer points of principle — exactly what one would expect from a real liberal democratic polity.