Thursday Miscellany (On Religious Irreligion, Groupthink and Sectarian Leanings)
Well, it’s that time again. Time to empty out the “scraps and drafts and intriguing tidbits and provocations and half-formed thoughts folder” on my laptop and in my brain. It’s been a while since a “Miscellany” post anyway. I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath.
According to an article in The Globe and Mail, the number of Canadians who have no religious affiliation has more than doubled over the last 20 years. Over a third of us now, evidently. Which is a decent enough batting average in baseball but doesn’t bode particularly well for the institutional church. I doubt this data comes as much of a revelation to many of us who work in churchy contexts. We see and hear the anxious evidence every week.
I’ve read plenty of articles like this over the last few decades, so nothing in here particularly surprised me. But today, my reaction wasn’t really about the sociological or philosophical or theological implications of this data. It was more personal. Twenty years is roughly the age of my kids. In my kids’ lifetime, irreligiosity in Canada has doubled.
Which is kinda scary, at least in my view. Because here, too, I see and hear evidence every week of a generation that is unmoored from anything resembling a coherent tradition of belief and practice. The subjective self and its fleeting impressions, irritations, and distractions are often all that remains. And this is very wobbly ground to stand on.
Speaking of the advance of irreligion, I was intrigued by the following exchange between Kate Bowler and theologian Stanley Hauerwas on Bowler’s podcast, Everything Happens:
Hauerwas: “Christianity is in deep trouble… I don’t know what the future of the church is going to be. I think Protestantism is coming to an end, at least mainstream…
Bowler: Have we been replaced by therapists?
Hauerwas: I really don’t know… I think people are living lives they’re not sure they understand.
I would answer Bowler’s question with a bit more confidence. I would say, “We absolutely have.” Here again, I suspect that many clergy know this full well. The therapist has far more legitimacy and utility these days than the pastor. “Mental health” is a far more esteemed and respectable category than “spiritual health.” If you doubt this, ask yourself which of the following would get a more positive reaction in our cultural context:
- I’m going to see my pastor; I’m concerned about the state of my soul.
- I’m going to see my therapist to work on my mental health.
Perhaps mental health or the “wellness” industry has simply become a kind of new de facto religion. And yet here, too, the dominant narrative may be wobbling. One recent New York Times article explores whether “going to therapy” has become, like so many other things in our world, a largely performative exercise undertaken by those seeking social affirmation. Another wonders if we’ve reached “peak mental health.” Both ask awkward and important questions. Perhaps we really are living “lives we’re not sure we understand.” Perhaps our religious impulses would be better directed in other directions.
Ah, that religious impulse. It does not so easily die. David Zahl buries the following zinger of an insight in a footnote in Low Anthropology:
When belonging isn’t readily found in conventional spheres like church, or family, or neighborhood, the surplus emotional energy has to go somewhere. Today, much of that energy is being directed at our ideological and political affiliations, ergo the increased vehemence. It’s not simply “issues” at play, but belonging.
Well, yes. There is very little that matters more to human beings than belonging. When we cast religion aside, we’ll hunt around almost anywhere to find a place for all our surplus emotional energy to land.
Speaking of belonging (you see how I’m so seamlessly making all these transitions??)… Ezra Klein has been pondering Marshall McLuhan’s whole “The medium is the message” thing. He’s embracing the idea that the technologies we embrace change how we think.
McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.
It’s sad to think that unreflective groupthink might be among the most enduring legacies of the digital age. It’s even sadder to think that we seem to have zero will to change the technological architecture that makes this possible inevitable. Social media is, of course, having devastating affects on mental health (again, see above). Klein quotes Jonathan Haidt who sums it up quite succinctly (and quite terrifyingly for anyone who is a parent:
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”
So, there’s an Anabaptist Bible coming out. It’s a project to mark the five-hundred-year anniversary of the Anabaptist movement. I have to confess that my first reaction to this news was not particularly charitable. It might have been something like, “Oh dear Lord, the last thing our world needs is another niche bible.” I’ve written (disparagingly) about this in the past.
I was talking with a learned friend about this project the other day. Both of us are in the Anabaptist orbit, both are tracking this project with interest and with some ambivalence. We would probably both consider ourselves to be “big tent Christians,” happy to learn and draw from across the Christian spectrum from Orthodox to Catholic to Protestant to Anabaptist. She expressed some of my reticence much better (and more briefly) than I could:
I’m not sure this is the time for us to be leaning into sectarian differences.”
Well, yeah. See above references to the decline of religion in the West. Whatever I might think of other aspects of this project, I wonder if doubling down on what makes us special and unique is the wisest approach. It seems to me that Christianity might be at a time and place, culturally and historically, where we don’t have the luxury of focusing on our differences as much as what binds us together.
Well, this has all been a little bleak. But, as a glance out my window this morning reminded me, the sun still rises each morning, full of beauty and possibility. It brought to mind Malachi 4:2: The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.”
Amen, may it be so.
Feature image source.