Religious not spiritual?

Pew Research reports that there’s been a 40% increase — just from 2012 to 2017 — in the portion of Americans who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” The percentage of people who label themselves as religious has dropped in just five years from 65% to 54%. The trend isn’t surprising, but the speed is extraordinary. If this rate were to continue (which it won’t), then there wouldn’t be any religious people left by 2042.

But I’m also looking at the bottom category of “religious but not spiritual.” Just 6% of Americans put themselves in that bucket. And it’s flat from 2012 to 2017. What does that look like in real life?

And — while we’re at it — what does it even mean to call yourself “spiritual”? How does that help you live your life to the fullest? Does it allow you to connect more strongly with other people?

It’s easy to see the flaws in organized religion, but I wonder about what we might be giving up by emphasizing spirituality divorced from religion. I suspect some of the “religious but not spiritual” folks may be getting the better end of the bargain.

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The most interesting idea you’ve never heard of

On this Easter Monday, I’m reflecting on the most interesting new idea that I encountered in the last year (new to me, not new to the world). This is Rene Girard’s interpretation of the Christian crucifixion myth. I’m using “myth” to mean a story that tells us about who we are and how to interact with the world. I believe Girard is a practicing Catholic, but his theory should be no less interesting to the non-believer.

What I love about this idea is that it cuts across many different disciplines and levels of analysis — from psychology and anthropology to theology, politics, and comparative geopolitical history.

I’m astounded that I never heard of this extremely important idea until this past year. It seems monumentally important, if true. And — even if not true — still extraordinarily interesting and provocative.

Have I built it up enough?

I’m going to restate the idea in my own words without consulting any outside reference, so this account will include all the ways that I’ve been processing this Big Idea over the last few months:

  1. Life is hard. Even in the best case, every person suffers horribly.
  2. Trying to explain the suffering, we can’t help but look outside ourselves. We blame others.
  3. We are social animals, and the mob tends to concentrate this blame into a scapegoating of one person or group of people.
  4. Left unchecked, the scapegoating builds to a crescendo, and the mob kills the scapegoat. Or one representative of the scapegoated group.
  5. This problem — the potential killing of the scapegoat — is common to all human societies.
  6. The Christian crucifixion story centers on one archetypal instance of this type of scapegoating leading to mob murder.
  7. The government is completely powerless in the face of this type of mob. Government power (as represented by Pontius Pilate in the story) is corrupted or co-opted by the bloodlust of the mob.
  8. The essential plot twist in the story is that the mob got it wrong this time. This person we killed wasn’t the scapegoat. He wasn’t just innocent. He was divine. We killed God.
  9. But it was all for naught because God is immortal. Thus Jesus is resurrected.
  10. This myth-with-a-plot-twist has tremendous social utility. It bolsters the social compact that is necessary for a modern society to flourish, because…
  11. First, it puts the brakes on the mob’s rush to judgment.
  12. Second, for those who are scapegoated, it gives them the strength to carry on and — perhaps — the forbearance necessary not to retaliate.
  13. Also, in this idea is the seed of democracy, since it recognizes the sovereignty of the individual (who may indeed be divine).
  14. And modern Western democracies — as displayed so brilliantly in our own Constitution — balance the competing goals of (1) popular rule, and (2) protection of those not in the majority.
  15. By providing a social structure that constrains this universal human phenomenon of murderous scapegoating, the Christian crucifixion myth sets the stage for Western democracies to be (relatively) stable and peaceful.
  16. And that stability and peace allows for the emergence of the modern world.

I’m pretty persuaded by #1-12. It’s transformed the way I think about religion and human nature and the purpose of myth. The second part — #13-16 — is intriguing but I’m less sure.

Of course, there are lots of examples of Christians engaging in scapegoating, sometimes even murderous. So the prophylactic effect isn’t 100% reliable. But even a small improvement could be important.

UPDATE: HT Rod Dreher (and indirectly, Peter Thiel) for turning me on to Girard.

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“I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now”

On EconTalk, Harvard historian Jill Lepore says something that I’ve been thinking — that we are overdue for a religious revival. Russ Roberts asks her about the revival of nationalism and nationalism’s attraction as a “feeling of tribal belonging.” Here is her response:

I think it has a lot in common with religious revivals… I would have expected a big religious revival to explode any minute now, because religious revivals tend to happen in the aftermath of a very significant… sea-change in the body of knowledge… or received notions of how we understand the natural world. So, I think… the accelerating, the sort of knowledge-vault metaphor of the Internet and the kind of revolution of machine learning and artificial intelligence and all the anxiety about a world of knowing that most people don’t understand, at all, is just the kind of thing to set off a religious revival. 

Two other factors: (1) massive economic changes that have left some people behind and added a level of anxiety to modern life even for those who’ve benefited, and (2) the weakening of traditional social relationships due to social media.

I know a lot of very lonely people. And I know a lot of people who have very little economic security. And often the two go together.

The Left seems to be settling on “Antiracism” and an aggressive progressivism as the new “religion.” (See John McWhorter’s brilliant essay at the Daily Beast from 2015.) But I suspect that

I think it’s more likely that we’ll see a religious revival centered around some form of Christianity. Will it be some sort of hyperlocal form of orthodox Christianity as proposed by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option? Will it be something that comes out of the Emerging Church movement, perhaps a form that borrows elements of progressive political ideology? Will there be a new wave of televangelism empowered by Youtube and social media?

Or maybe it’s already started…

Is the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon a type of religious revival?

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The “unhinged delirium” of preacher/musician Claude Ely

We visited a new church in Highland Park yesterday, and the band played “Ain’t No Grave” by Claude Ely, which is just amazing. It’s basically proto-rock-and-roll …written in 1934.

Claude Ely was a preacher, songwriter, singer. Legend has it that Elvis’s mom took him to Ely’s tent revivals, and it’s not hard to hear Elvis in this recording. The Washington Post said that Ely had an “unhinged delirium.”

What a find.

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