Monday, January 21, 2013

No (Religious) Label

I was educated into an intellectual tradition that insisted everyone was religious, even if they were a-religious. Fundamental to our human constitution, so the assumption went, was an internal yearning for existential fulfillment, which could not ultimately be satisfied by just this or that. It had to be satisfied by something transcendent capable of embracing every this or that you could point to, think about, and name. In the language of traditional metaphysical argumentation, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, this something transcendent is what was mean by God.

My educational programming predisposes me towards thinking that the need for an existential fulfillment automatically manifests itself empirically in terms of identifiable, observable religious affiliations, even if those affiliations are a-religious.

Enter the Pew Forum on Religion in the Public Square, which published a study that argued '"Nones" are on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults have No Religious Affiliation'. What do we make persons who refuse to affiliate--whatever that might mean?

Somewhere between the prescriptive ideal of the human being as a religious being and a descriptive account of the reality of things, our best theoretical attempts seem to go awry. Predictable defensive attempts to distance 'religion' from a surrounding culture ethos that prizes therapeutic solutions to our everyday problems avoid altogether the problem of religious affiliation. True religion, presumably, is more than a panacea  and affiliating with the likes of the occupants over in the next pew can be trying stuff at times. It takes true, God-glorifying, grit and demands the best of us. Here affiliation is the norm against which everything else is judged. Other attempts to patch the breach introduce a half-way house category of 'spiritual, but not religious', which has a limited purchase, though is not without its own difficulties.For example: who actually qualifies for membership? and, do they have any say about whether or not they accept membership? The crux of the matter, after all, is whether affiliation is both identifiable and empirically verifiable.

A more sensitive reading of the present religious ethos is provided by Daniel Silliman:
Perhaps the "nones" aren't mainly to be thought of as religious or non-religious in a new or different way, but as a group that has a problem with the question, in much the same way that some protest self-identifying with a particular race.

Those people aren't themselves a new demographic, but rather are saying that they think the category is a problem.
My own experience with interacting with students in a class studying world religions inclines me to agree. Students seem fairly comfortable examining all religious possibilities, without ever feeling their that personal failure to commit themselves to one, to the exclusion of all the others, is a significant problem. They travel lightly through life, so to speak, unlike their grandparents.

The problem may be purely categorical. An empirical study like that made by the Pew Forum contains an implicit assumption that all the possible answers to questions about religious affiliation cut from the same cloth. Attending church, mosque, synagogue, or temple is regarded as conceptually equivalent with not attending anything; in same way antelope, moose, and deer are treated as generic equivalents to the caribou. The difficulty is obvious: a negation the members of a set does not amount a positive addition to the set.

Looked in a slightly different way, the problem may conceal a moving target. Even if you insist that everyone is essentially religious, while allowing that some are superficially a-religious, for example, this is still not quite the same thing as saying everyone is essentially a theist, while allowing that some are superficially atheists. Different things are being referred to. The term religion directs us to consider a set of readily identifiable human phenomena, sets of beliefs and ritual practices oriented towards a transcendent reality. Atheists could manifest these otherwise religious markers. A.C. Grayling has put out a canonical collection of atheist writings titled The Good Book, while posthumous devotional works by Saint Christopher (Hitchens) pour off the presses. Certainly sounds religious. On the other hand, the term theist directs us to consider...what exactly?

The term religion appears broad enough to include within it everything that might be defined under the term theist. A theist is someone who believes in the existence of God--which is to say, theism is a religious belief. But theism also entails a stronger claim that cannot be subsumed under the definition of religion. Namely: the existence of God, though it may be bound up with, cannot be reduced to the human belief in the existence of God. For the theist, God is never merely a belief; if the human mind is not able to comprehend God, nor can it expunge him from existence.

The category of religious affiliation, as Silliman ably articulates, fails to comprehend the 'nones'. Curiously, his 'nones' find themselves in exactly the same position as my 'theist'. The question is why.

One obvious answer is that the superficial markings of religious affiliation never go deep enough. They provide a rough and ready map of the social terrain, but inevitably distort its image, much like a 2-D map of the globe does the spherical object which it represents. Relative to the center, the edges of the map are grossly exaggerated.

The less obvious, but no less important, answer is that we have to think through what exactly it is we suppose our categories represent. And conversely, we need to question what they can accomplish for us. Do we use our badges of religious identification to define ourselves over against everyone else? If the 'nones' have discovered that the interpretive powers of categories of religious affiliation are limited, it won't do to fault them for not affiliating.

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