Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Future of Religion

Last year, I heard an episode of This American Life (#311: "A Better Mousetrap") that still fascinates me. In Act III of the show ("What would fill-in-the-blank do?") a reporter (Brett Marlin) told how he had used focus groups to try to invent a new, modern religion specifically for Americans who are disaffected with traditional religions.

For a church, the focus group wished for an open space with flowers, individual napping spots, pleasant smells, pond and waterfalls, perhaps puppies wandering around, maybe some nice plasma TVs with soothing images. For priests, they wanted men and women in simple robes walking around, mingling with the parishioners, answering questions politely, and generally being good listeners. It was something akin to a spa, staffed by polite salespeople and uncredentialed therapists. For music, they liked new-age, meditative music--not hymns or choirs.

As for what the beliefs of their new religion would be... Well, nobody clamored for a new holy book; none of them were interested in moralizing, beyond the general notion of some kind of cosmic karma; they did not desire any particular rituals; and they were not particularly curious about the afterlife except that none of them really liked of a "hell." They were not really interested in getting "answers" or "truth" at all. It seems that all they really wanted was a religion that would make them feel good and gently encourage them to do good in their daily lives. (Not surprisingly for such a group, the idea of a "god" was nowhere in sight.)

The catch, of course, is that people often do not know what they truly want--and they understand even less what it is they truly need. A Burke Williams Monastery is not the future of religion, but it may illustrate the needs of the flock. Perhaps more than ever in this age, people need help, hope, and someone to talk to. And so I wonder if the future of religion in America is not conservative megachurches, but liberal micro-ministries. Just a thought.


The Law Talking Guy said...

Of course, what Dr.S describes is precisely why most Americans no longer go to church on a regular basis, even if nominally Christian or if they claim to believe in God, or angels, or to be "spiritual." I mention angels because polls show that more Americans believe in angels than God. Think about that.

By the way, monasteries do exist, as to zen retreat centers and the like. Many churches try to create some welcoming spaces like this. One of the most recharging experiences I ever had was walking the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. But after you've had your nap and your cup of herbal tea, after somebody has told you "it's gonna be okay," then, at some point you want more. Like after seeing Hurricane Katrina, or losing a child, or losing a job, or just watching leaves fall, you might start asking the Big Questions. At some point you stop just needing to be ministered to, and start wanting to participate in ministering to others. Giving, not just receiving.

The focus group was a group of people who know so little about the idea of a spiritual journey that they can't even see beyond the starting point. The focus group is really asking what sort of waiting room people want, not what sort of spiritual journey they desire or where they hope it will lead.

But point well taken. Churches need more flowers and benches in courtyards.

I also notice nobody suggested paying for any of this.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Not to be too picky, but the only poll I found regarding Angels and God was this one. It showed that 75% of Americans believed in Angels, as opposed to 86% who believed in God. Did you find different polls?

Anonymous said...

My impression of American religion is that by far the largest group of church goers do so out of habbit or some vague sense of cultural obligation/tradition. They go to church on Sunday because that's what you do on Sunday.

The next largest group of church goers are looking not for spiritual fulfilment but a rule book for daily life. They are looking for some external authority to tell them what to do, think and feel in every little situation. They aren't seeking spiritual enlightenment so much as submission to what Jefferson called the "tyrrany of the mind."

The smallest group are genuinely interested in spiritual self exploration. But these people are so small in number as to be even more rare than atheists.

I'm less concerned with the waiting rooms, flowers and so on than I am with the tyrranical tendency of all religion. It's inherent tendency to exclude, judge and persecute.

Anonymous said...

Previous comment (12:41) was by RBR

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG notes that part of any spiritual journey is "participating" and giving, rather than just receiving from religion. That is an excellent point. It also confirms LTG's original point that reverting to the Latin Mass (about as non-participatory as you can get) is a bad idea.

LTG also writes that, "after... losing a job, or just watching leaves fall, you might start asking the Big Questions." I agree, yet isn't it interesting that the members of the focus group--who have surely experienced such things--were not asking the Big Questions? Are they just ignorant, as LTG believes, or do they simply no longer find the so-called "big" questions to be particularly important or relevant to their lives? And if so, what does that say about the future of religion?

The Law Talking Guy said...

I took the focus group as a group of people who were simply tired and stressed. Modern life does that to people. They want a place to nap. Nice quiet people and flowers. Soothing new age music. In short, they want to rest. After the rest, life returns. Then come the questions about what life is, and the search for meaning. Rest is crucial, but it is not an end in itself.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR writes, "I'm less concerned with the waiting rooms, flowers and so on than I am with the tyrranical tendency of all religion. Its inherent tendency to exclude, judge and persecute."

I think that's pretty much a human tendency. We do it all the time. Every group of people does it. Surely RBR can attest that academic departments are not immune from a "tendency to exclude, judge, and persecute."

Religion can be dangerous because it can inspire the worst of these things. And it certainly has. But that's because religion is powerful. It can also inspire the very best, far beyond what the Rotary Club or the Make a Wish Foundation can do. Religion is like playing with fire.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Despite the bad behavior of some groups, I do not believe religion in general has an inherent tendency to exclude, judge, or persecute.

Raised By Republicans said...

The difference between an academic department enforcing methodological consistence within its own discipline and a religion is that the academics don't claim the sole understanding of the entire universe. They only claim the right to maintain a consistent approach to inquirey within their own profession. Other professions are free to follow their own methods and approaches.

With the exception of some Unitarians, religions are based on the idea that their point of view and only their point of view is the path to salvation. Anyone who does not follow their path is misguided and doomed for eternity. By pretending to such high stakes and such priviledged moral authority, religions are far far more judgemental in their very nature.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I was making a joke about academic departments to some extent, but I won't leave it be. Some academics do "claim the sole understanding of the entire universe" - or at least of their field.

Also, most religions do NOT believe that those who follow other paths are doomed for eternity. Those are the extremist or "fundamentalist" Christians and Muslims. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and traditional religionists certainly do not.

I despair when I see fundamentalist Christians set up as the exemplar of all religions.

Raised By Republicans said...

Do you believe that Fundamentalists are saved? Or are they lost?

Raised By Republicans said...

I've never heard an economist or political scientist say that anthropologists or historians were going to go to Hell. Or even that such departments should be forced out of the university.

The pretension to universal and unique enlightenment simply isn't there.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I have no idea if the Fundamentalists, the Hindus, or even I are saved or not. That is God's province, not mine.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Do you really have no idea if you are saved or not? Surely you believe your time in the pews counts for something?

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, Dr. S., that's a loaded question. And forgive me for delving too deep into theology, but here goes:
-I really don't believe in salvation or damnation in the medieval sense of St. Peter standing at the gate with a list.
-I don't really think that religion is really about an afterlife in the final analysis.
-I don't trade "time in the pews" for some heavenly reward.
-I do not expect "the answers" to be presented magically upon death, as if this life were a test to see if I would wait for them with bated breath.
-I do not believe in "the rapture."

I believe living into the Kingdom of God is something we begin now, on earth. Similarly, it has been said that hell is the eternal absence of God - it begins by choosing to live a life estranged from God, in particular, a life contemptuous of the basic principle of God, which is unconditional love for all. That principle is what makes it clear to me that resurrection is to be widely shared. Salvation comes from God alone, but damnation you do all by yourself. Quite literally alone. The Rabbi Hillel wrote that origin of all sin was treating other human beings as a means to an end. The spirit grows or it atrophies. It deepens in love and connections to other human beings. The "deadly sins" are sins of disconnection and objectification of others: avarice, anger, hate, lust, jealousy, envy. The Great Commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." Note that the latter commandment, which requires no belief in God, is by far the harder one. Jesus said, "Therefore be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." The goal is unattainable; forgiveness, however, is free.

And I should add that many early Christians did not believe that we immediately ascend into a world of puffy clouds as a disembodied spirit. The affirmation of "the resurrection of the body" in the Nicene Creed meant something else, something more Jewish in inspiration. We are not spirits trapped in bodies; we are our bodies. Being human is a physical thing, a spirit bound up with living material and flesh. A body is not a mere shell, but is really who we are. We are finite. When we die, then, we die. The Great Commandment reflects this ("all your strength."). Only at the end of time will be resurrected, body and all, in a way we can scarcely imagine.

So, I believe that God became finite in the incarnation. The miracle of the incarnation of Jesus is that God became human, really just like us, which means so much more than just taking on human form. He suffered, died, and was buried. When Jesus died on the cross, those final words of agony, "My God, have you forsaken me" are retained in the original Aramaic because they are so stunning: the final act of the incarnation was to experience the alienation from God at the core of our own humanity, our otherness. The traditional recitation that "Jesus descended into hell" is, to my understanding, a traditional way of grasping the idea that the Godhead experienced the ultimate in alienation, which ultimately is hell.

I did not understand all this when I started on this spiritual journey. I hope to gradually understand all this better. I do not expect learning to end with death.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think it's fairly clear that LTG is one of that tiny minority of church attendees who are interested in the spiritual journey of self exploration and the contemplation of one's place in the universe.

But as much as it may irritate him, he is far from representative of American religiosity. The fundamentalists who have appointed themselves God's judges on Earth and the cynics who trade "time in the pews" for salvation are much more typical.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I'm sorry--I meant "time in the pews" to be humorous but it sounds more insulting. I did not mean it that way.

What I meant to say is that--in my experience--even humble, liberal Christians still believe deep down that God will eventually do right by those who try to have faith, who try to do good, and who try to ask forgiveness for their inevitable failings. It's not that they are buying anything but that God is good and that's what a good God would do. So that means they have as good a chance as any of going to "heaven" whatever that may be.

I am curious about your statement that, "[h]ell is the eternal absence of God - it begins by choosing to live a life estranged from God..." What does this imply for atheists?

USWest said...

Sometimes I wonder, RBR, if you are really more anti-religion than anti-god/higher power. I sense more bitterness in your response than anything else. Most people I know who attend religious services regularly do so in non-mainstream churches, looking for acceptance and spiritual enrichment. They are all seekers on a private journey. Others just go out of habit.

Let's not make comment about what a majority of people do or don't do without backing that up. According to a 2006 Harris Pool belief in God and the reasons for attenting religious services are much more varied than one would think.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, or perhaps I am fortunate to live in a place that is less prone to fundamentalism than other areas of the country. Or perhaps my view is somewhat limited. But little of that has to do with the idea of God really. That is really the problem of religion, or any belief system or ideology that purports to have some monopoly on truth, including for instance the messianic belief that Western-style Democracy is the only legitimate form of governance or that belief in God is unlightened.

Dr. Strangelove said...

According to an 2005 ABC poll, 89% of Americans believe in heaven (this is consistent with other figures quoted in this thread). Of those who believe in heaven, 85% believe they are going there. It also says that about 25% of believers feel that heaven is reserved for Christians only can get into heaven. This figure rises to 33% when asked of Protestants, and to 55% when asked of Protestants who considered themselves "very religious."

I feel considerable bitterness toward the religious right, I feel a measure of bitterness toward mainstream Christianity, and I even reserve a little bitterness for all those who engage in or tolerate magical thinking (e.g. ghosts, magnetic bracelets, etc.) Gosh, that's a lot of bitterness! But there is a reason: atheists and freethinkers continue to be persecuted in this country, by all those groups. Scientists continue to be under assault in this country, from all those groups. I laugh most bitterly when I hear religious folk claim that they are the ones who are at risk of marginalization. They have learned the language of "victimhood" and now distort it to their own purposes.

As I see it, the religious right is most in danger of marginalization not from nonbelievers but from the religious left. LTG's brand of Christianity is more threatening to the evangelicals than my atheism--that is why the evangelicals always hold us up as bogeymen. But one can see that Christianity has been evolving over time to be consistent with--or at least not opposed to--science and modern life. That is what the right wing fears most: not those of us who deny the sacrament and accept science, but those who say you can have both--and without the hatred too. So while I still feel that twinge of bitterness when I hear LTG speak of Jesus, I feel much more a sense of joy that liberal episcopalian-type teachings may be spreading. Had I been brought up in a world with such teachings, I doubt I would feel any bitterness at all toward any Christians, regardless of my beliefs. And that is a hopeful thing!

USWest said...

Look at the Harris poll that I linked to. It is from Oct, 2006 and found that only 58% of those polled were absolutely certain that there is a God. The rest were various shades of non-belief or doubt. I bet a similar poll would show people's respect for science, supported by the strong support for genetic and stem cell research. And no one can really deny the need for science in addressing our most pressing problems.

The problem for scientists is that they aren't politicians. They do their work and try to remain dispassionate. So they don't stand up and shout that their work is being suppressed for political reasons. That is why having four US surgeon Generals make the statement they did was needed and long overdue. In this climate, everything is political, even science. Only the scientists can combat that, as artists, writers, journalists, and philosophers have in the past. Consider as well that science always wins in the end. The world is round, despite what the Church of the 15th century wanted people to believe.

Yes, the fundamentalists have harmed themselves because all in all, Americans don't do extremes for long stretches. The last gasp of the dying man is always the loudest. If fundamentalists were so sure of their "truth" they wouldn't feel such a need to shove it on everyone because they would know that people would be drawn to it on their own. But that isn't happening because at the end of the day, people don't like Puritanism. The fundamentalists have made us all bitter, and in the end, that is their ultimate downfall, thank God! :-)

Dr. Strangelove said...

Yes, I looked at the poll--and it's quite an interesting one! Thanks for posting the link.

While the authors attribute the surprising results to the online nature of the survey, another factor is how they asked the question. The survey did not ask for people to profess their "belief" or "faith" in god but rather whether they were "certain" of his existence. I suspect many people distinguish between knowledge and belief, between faith and certitude. Some who have strong faith might still admit intellectually that it is not "absolutely certain" there is God. Many might accept the "somewhat certain" position, which garnered an extra 15%. I suspect this is LTG's position.

Furthermore, the supposedly neutral option, "not sure whether or not there is a god," is far too broad. Anyone who is not "absolutely certain" might well select this option because it also encompasses that state.

I might also point out that the online nature does bias the survey somewhat toward the more educated, wealthier crowd, which tends to be less religious. Also, a 2004 Pew study found that evangelicals as a subset were "slightly less experienced in internet use than other categories of religious affiliation."

A 2003 telephone study by Pew found that 69% agreed "completely" with the statement, "I never doubt the existence of god", and an additional 16% agreed "mostly" with that statement. This may be a more accurate representation.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Part of the polling problem is that with religion, like sex, most people feel a need to respond a certain way regardless of the truth. Church attendance (and human behavior) would be way higher if the belief in God were anywhere near as certain or widespread as surveys make it seem. Most people think saying they believe in God is like saying they brush their teeth twice a day. Most people assume there's a God because it's in the cultural air, and because atheism seems foreign or strange. But that's not a whole lot to go on.

The Law Talking Guy said...

By the way, there was an article in the LA Times over the weekend about a new "house church" phenomenon among fundamentalists. The article, of course, failed to mention the obvious: house churches are popular because they are cheap or free, and by invitation only.