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A Secular Age (6): Religion Today

Epstein How do people respond to religion in the modern world? To explore this issue, Taylor draws upon a wealth of studies of religious attitudes in Europe, the United States and former Soviet nations such as Ukraine to construct an impression of the state of religion today. The background to this exploration is that which we saw last week – the nova effect, which has created a near-infinite number of spiritual and religious positions, and the ethic of authenticity, which allows each to establish their own path, with the sole provision that it rings true to the person concerned.

Taylor summarises the general thrust of the moral zeitgeist as follows:

…it is clear that the ideals of fairness, of the mutual respect of each other’s freedom, are as strong among young people today as they ever were. Indeed, precisely the soft relativism that seems to accompany the ethic of authenticity: let each person do their own thing, and we shouldn’t criticise each other’s “values”; this is predicated on a firm ethical base, indeed, demanded by it. One shouldn’t criticise the others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do. The sin which is not tolerated is intolerance. This injunction emerges clearly from the ethic of freedom and mutual benefit, although one might easily cavil at this application of it.

So the background to morality in the modern West has evolved from the process that gave us exclusive humanism (via the modern moral order of mutual benefit), which Taylor also sees as the seed of the nova effect which has multiplied the possible positions to a point beyond measure. He is also noting here that the common appreciation of this falls rather short of the high ideals it has emerged from: there is potential for criticism.

One significant change is that not only has the attitude towards this kind of “soft relativism” shifted dramatically, it is now standing on its own whereas previously it was part of a wider system. Locke, for instance, felt the Law of Nature had to be inculcated in the populace by strong discipline – the goal was individual freedom, but the method was one people today would be unlikely to accept. It was two hundred years before a less rigid formulation was developed: John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” (‘no-one has a right to interfere with me for my own good, only to prevent harm to others’). This is widely endorsed today – but in Mill’s day it was quite a shocking suggestion, seeming to be “the path to libertinism”.

Today, the harm principle is so prevalent that it serves as a justification to deny the validity of traditional religious authority, and embrace a kind of unlimited pluralism:

For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life. The injunction is, in the words of a speaker at a New Age festival: “Only accept what rings true to your own inner Self.” Of course, this understanding of the place and nature of spirituality has pluralism built into it, not just pluralism within a certain doctrinal framework, but unlimited. Or rather, the limits are of another order, they are in a sense political, and flow from the moral order of freedom and mutual benefit. My spiritual path has to respect those of others; it must abide by the harm principle.

Drawing upon sources such as Wade Clark Roof, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead, Taylor paints a picture of today’s spiritual seekers as trying to find “something more”:

…they are seeking a kind of unity and wholeness of the self, a reclaiming of the place of feeling, against the one-sided pre-eminence of reason, and a reclaiming of the body and its pleasures from the inferior and often guilt-ridden place it has been allowed in the disciplined, instrumental identity. The stress is on unity, integrity, holism, individuality; their language often invokes “harmony, balance, flow, integrations, being at one, centred”.

The modern spiritual quest is often contrasted directly with religion (which is generally used as if to mean solely orthodox religion):

This kind of search is often called by its practitioners “spirituality”, and is opposed to “religion”. This contrast reflects the rejection of “institutional religion”, that is, the authority claims made by churches which see it as their mandate to pre-empt the search, or to maintain it within certain definite limits, and above all to dictate a certain code of behaviour.

These features of “spirituality”, its subjectivism, its focus on the self and its wholeness, its emphasis on feeling, has led many to see the new forms of spiritual quest which arise in our society as intrinsically trivial or privatised. I believe that this is part and parcel of [a] common error… the widespread propensity to identify the main phenomena of the Age of Authenticity with their most simple and flattened forms.

Spirituality and religion are thus set up as polar opposites, yet Taylor notes that despite this prior assumption, it is perfectly possible for the spiritual quest to bring someone into a more conventionally religious position:

Again, “finding out about oneself, expressing oneself, discovering one’s own way of becoming all that one can… be” is opposed to “denying or sacrificing oneself for the sake of a super-self order of things, or even… living by reference to such an order.” But this contrast can’t be considered exhaustive. The first term could be seen as a definition of the contemporary ethic of authenticity; the second invokes one view of what is supremely important in life. The question set in the first can initiate a quest, and this can end in the second as an answer. Nothing guarantees this, but nothing ensures its opposite either.

While Taylor is keen to observe that the spiritual quest may end in religion, he is equally keen to stress that pre-empting the spiritual quest (by, for instance, insisting that orthodox religion is the only valid response) is tremendously short sighted:

Some people want, of course, to declare a fundamental opposition between this search for integrity and the transcendent: [Heelas and Woodhead] quote a minister who told his congregation that “wholeness” should matter to them less than “holiness”, but that is what one might expect from a hostile observer for whom religious authority renders this kind of quest useless and dangerous. There is no reason to buy into this kind of myopia.

Another important aspect of the state of religion in the modern West is that there an increasingly varied set of ways that one can relate to traditional religion. In the context of Christianity (which has dominated the history of the West), Grace Davie speaks of “believing without belonging” – that is, Christians without a church, and those who have faith in God, and even identify with a particular denomination, yet never attend services. Danièle Hervieu-Léger identifies another pattern in Scandinavia, in which people identify with the national church but attend only for the rites of passage (birth, death, marriage) while expressing considerable skepticism concerning that church’s theology. 

Mikhaïl Epstein (pictured above) finds even further diversity of Christian beliefs in post-Soviet Russia:

…Epstein introduces the concept of “minimal religion”. He also speaks of an overlapping category, the people who declare themselves “just Christians” in surveys of religious allegiance, as against those who adhere to one or other Christian confession, like Orthodox, or Catholic. This kind of religious position Epstein sees as “post-atheist”; and this in two senses. The people concerned were brought up under a militantly atheist régime, which denied and repressed all religious forms, so that they are equidistant from, and equally ignorant of, all the confessional options. But the position is also post-atheist in the stronger sense that those concerned have reacted against their training: they have acquired in some fashion a sense of God, which however ill-defined places them outside the space of their upbringing.

The situation in the United States in this regard is very different indeed, and Taylor explores the differences from a number of different perspectives. He points to an aspect of this difference from polling data: people in the US tend to exaggerate their religious involvement (they claim to go to church more often than they do) while people in Europe tend to understate it. There seems to be a sense that people have an impression of what is “normal” in their culture, and thus people skew their responses towards their expectations. He wonders if the belief in mainstream secularization theory acts in part as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in Europe: because the beliefs of intellectual élites can define the “religious imaginary” for the populace at large, the attitude of the academic world in Europe (which is quite hostile towards religion) seems to have created a cultural atmosphere where people are almost embarrassed to admit their connections with religion.

Yet on the other side of the Atlantic, this has not happened. The academic world in the US is as “deeply invested in unbelief as its European counterpart” but here it “seems without effect on large segments of the greater society”. Part of this may lie in the role of religion in the formation of the national identity in the United States:

…the continuing importance of religious identity in national integration keeps a majority of Americans happy in “one nation under God”, even while they are disputing bitterly with others about the supposed entailments of this, in areas like abortion or gay marriage. Lots of voters in “blue” states, who abominate the zealots of the Religious Right, are in their majority members of mainline churches, who will still happily sign on to the hallowed formulae of harmoniously co-existing denominations.

An additional facet Taylor identifies is the tendency for Europeans to feel that churches and religion imply authority and “conformity to society-wide standards, not to speak of hostile divisions between people, and even violence.” This “baggage of submission and conformity” has largely been lost in the United States (despite popular European misconceptions to the contrary), whereas in Europe the echoes of an embarrassingly fractious religious history encourages people to “seek extra-religious forms of meaning.”

A common theme throughout these explorations is the way in which “it is a pluralist world, in which many forms of belief and unbelief jostle, and hence fragilize each other”. Belief is no longer an obvious and unchallengeable position, although there are cases where it may be a “default” solution – but there are also milieux (“including important parts of the academy”) where unbelief is the default solution – and between these conflicting poles, only the most narrow-minded of belief systems (whether founded on belief or unbelief) can resist the increasing currents of fragilization. 

As we saw previously, it is between these polar opposites that the impossibly diverse spiritual landscape of the nova effect lies, but in this space traditional religion suffers from specific disadvantages:

Whatever the level of religious belief and practice, on an uneven but many-sloped playing field, the debate between different forms of belief and unbelief goes on. In this debate, modes of belief are disadvantaged by the memory of their previously dominant forms, which in many ways run athwart the ethos of the times, and which many people are still reacting against. They are even more severely disadvantaged by an unintended by-product of the climate of fragmented search: the fact that the falling off of practice has meant that rising generations have often lost touch with traditional religious languages.

Thus religion today is a complex many-faceted affair, belaboured by the weight of its historical excesses and failures (particularly in Europe), but in the constant process of re-inventing and exploring itself anew. Most believers today are as far from orthodox religious practice as they are from unbelief, and all but the most bellicose bigots accept this vast range of beliefs as a legitimate expression of “the spiritual quest”.

What of unbelief today? Behind all the many different positions in the spectrum of modern unbelief lies a particular idea, a way of looking at our world which we all share (excluding a handful of belief systems near the orthodox religious pole) – although believers and unbelievers interpret this particular concept very differently. To fully understand modern unbelief it is necessary to examine the foundation upon which it is almost unilaterally founded. 

Next week: The Imminent Frame


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Heheh, do I hear an echo of my own "Tolerate everything except intolerance" ?

Hmm, I dunno, the tone and biases of the quoted parts rubs against my own opposing biases :)

Why talk about "embarassed to admit their religion" in Europe, without its counterpart "embarassed to admit to non-Christianity" in the US? Even if the culture somewhat encourages in-your-face rebellion, it's still the case that people concerned with appearances (eg. politicians) need to be Christian or at least heavily Christian-compatible.

I guess I'm ignorant of the details - are there any openly non-Christian US politicians? Atheist? Muslim? Something else?

zeech: I met many non-Christians in the US, and I didn't find much evidence of them hiding their religion. (When you're Hindu or Muslim, that's very hard to do in Tennessee anyway!) I know of one US atheist who keeps his beliefs to himself out of concern it might affect his livelihood, but mostly I'm not seeing much evidence of "embarrassed to admit to non-Christianity" in the US, and certainly not to the same scale as the problem of "embarrassed to admit to a religion" in Europe. The Pagans in Knoxville positively *revel* in their non-Christianity! :)

There are certainly Jewish politicians in the US, but you're right - it is practically a requirement in US politics to represent as Christian (mostly because of the high volume of Christian voters, and representative democracy is a game of numbers) although I'm quite sure that the more liberal states - New York, California - would happily elect non-Christian representatives if there were good candidates of this nature on offer. I don't really see this as connecting with what this piece is about, though, except tangentially. The realities of politics and the experience of personal religion are two very distinct domains, and this piece is wholly about the latter.

It might be interesting to explore religion and politics further, but it would have to be at some other time.

Best wishes!

Well, I'm saying that, if it's not politically feasible for a candidate to be non-Christian, then there's obviously *some* sort of stigma attached to it. If there wasnt any stigma, then christian voters should be able to happily vote for an atheist or muslim candidate.

But anyways, going off topic even further (since I cant find a good place to ask this).

This site is uncomfortable to me because the "recent comments" list on the side is so short and cannot be expanded in full (afaik). This makes it very hard for me to track replies to my comments (I cant really be bothered subscribing or doing stuff like that.) Is there a feature here that I'm missing that will help me? (I've been resorting to google searches for my name in this domain lol).

zeech: yes, it's a common complaint that the recent comments list is too short. :( We only get ten comments, and that's just not enough. I mention this to TypePad every month, but nothing has been done yet. I'll raise another ticket again today.

"Is there a feature here that I'm missing that will help me?"

Not that I know of. :( I can only suggest a change of habits. I really appreciate your fervour in the comments, but I have been tempted to suggest that you reign in how many comments you post in parallel. When you post 5 comments at a time, I then post 5 replies, and between us we've used the whole bandwidth of the recent comments! :) If you'd picked the 2 of those that were most interesting to you, you'd have had a better chance of your comments 'surviving' on the roll.

I'm not saying you can't comment on lots of different posts - please feel free to do so! - just that if you paced your comments over a wider interval it would be easier for you to track them, and it would prevent the two of us from choking the bandwidth of the recent comments list.

As someone who compulsively replies to comments, however, I realise this is a case of pot critiquing kettle. ;) I also recognise that this suggestion doesn't necessarily help you since a rush of comments from other posters will "flush" you from the comments list anyway...

Honestly, I suspect there is a better way to track comments here but I have no idea what it is. If any other reader has anything helpful to offer, please share!

Best wishes!

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