Friday, December 21, 2007

Religion in 2007

For those of us with a religious-studies interest, it has been a pretty eventful year. In reviewing my bookmarks, I noticed several themes emerging in the religious news.

1.Increased interest in spirituality among college students: Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, students attending secular universities are more religious. A survey done in 2004 indicates:
“more than two-thirds of 112,000 freshmen surveyed said they prayed, and that almost 80 percent believed in God. Nearly half of the freshmen said they were seeking opportunities to grow spiritually, according to the survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.”

Most universities seem to feel there is a “shift” towards religiosity, based on increased attendance at houses of worship by students, increased interest in religious studies programs (does that mean more jobs for professors???), and the demand for more religious groups on campus. The “shift is accounted for in a number of ways: uncertainty over the war in Iraq, baby boomers not giving their children religion, with the consequence of their children looking to religion to deal with tragedy, increase in evangelicals in secular institutions, etc.

2. The “attack” of atheism: Between the outcry against “The Golden Compass” and the bestselling books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Ian McEwan, atheism has been in the news a lot lately.

3.The debate over “intelligent design”: This still continues, and my favorite article on this one is the religious discussion on the “Flying Spaghetti Monster”.

4.Wicca now the 3rd largest religion in the United States: It is predicted that Wicca will have 20 million or more members by 2012. That’s pretty big for a directionless religion (if you’ll pardon my editorializing)

5. Mitt and Mormonism: Mitt Romney is the first Mormon to make a presidential bid, and it’s bringing up a lot of controversy about exactly what Mormonism is,and whether or not a Mormon should be President.

I’ve saved the big one for last here…

5.Blasphemy: We’re hearing about this mostly in the Muslim world, most notably in the case of schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who had a large group of Sudanese extremists calling for her death for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed. There’s also the bounty offered for the death of Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks for drawing a cartoon that was critical of Islam. There have been many other instances of this type of thing—people having to fear for their lives for representing Islam in a manner unapproved by popular clerics.

So, the question is—culturally, what are we to make of all of this? I have a habit of looking for patterns in religious behavior in society, which may be a good or bad habit depending on your point of view.

First, I see that this phenomenon that we could call “conservative Christianity” is hanging in there, though there is now some backlash. I think I am in agreement with Huston Smith that the debate as it is presented still misses a heck of a lot. There is this sharp line drawn between those who believe in God and those who don’t, and it’s drawn out as some great battle between good and evil. This is not a battle between good and evil. It’s the same old business of Biblical literalism versus a sort of scientific existentialism—either God exists and functions in the way the literalists suggest, or He/She/It doesn’t exist at all, and those who believe in such a being are immature and unwilling to face reality.

What is missed here is that the debate is not about the “ultimate concern” (to use Paul Tillich’s phrase). It is about control. I agree with the assessment that religion is more popular because the world seems very uncertain, and perhaps because of the lack of religious training that baby-boomer children have had, though that would only be one factor. When people are afraid, they need something to cling to—the child missing his parent clings to his teddy bear; when it’s dark out, we look for a light; when it’s stormy and windy, we cling to something solid or get inside to keep from being blown away.

Institutionalized religion is just the comfort for many people. The religions are established, they have rules, and they have specific guidelines for behavior, to allow one to make a judgment in the face of uncertainty. The more unsteady and uncertain a person or group feels, the more they cling to “the rules” for safety. It is not uncommon for former drug addicts, prostitutes, and other socially dysfunctional members of society to embrace religion and become “born again”. This is not to suggest that everyone who embraces these things is sick or crazy—it is merely illustrative of the fact that it is viewed as a means of controlling the out-of-control.

There is nothing wrong with using your religion as a navigational tool to find your way through life, or belonging to an organization to help give you a sense of social identity. The problem comes in when these organizations feel the need to make everyone else adhere to their rules. God refers to something Ultimate, something that is beyond our comprehension. There is no way that any holy book in any religion can possibly lay down the “will of God”—at best they can be a guide.

Which leads us to Blasphemy. What is that, anyway? Taking the name of God “in vain” seems to be the most common definition. For Muslims, creating any image of God is a blasphemy, and they do think this for what I consider to be the right reason—you can’t make an Image of the Ultimate—people will mistake the image for the thing it points to. And by the way—Atheists also believe that you can’t make an image of God. Whatever drives the universe, you cannot give it a gender, physical attributes, or even political or religious attributes. Whatever God is, we can be pretty certain that God is beyond all of our limited human comprehension. Mystics in all religions try to talk about God, but admit that they will always fail, because God is something experienced, and impossible to describe with any real sense of accuracy. The real “blasphemy” comes in trying to limit God to your own petty rules, conflicts, and dogmas. I find it amazing that extremist Muslims can speak out against the use of images, but then declare that God wants them to kill certain types of people who don’t “fit in” with what God wants. Under such logic, how can you claim to know what God wants without violating your own rules on blasphemy?

The inconsistencies of organized religion are not unrecognized in our society. Atheists and others viewed by conservatives as “anti-Christian” are actually anti-institution. They don’t like the petty rules of religious organizations, which are often bandied about at convenient times (and not very consistently) driving the lives of individuals with varied beliefs—beliefs about something that we can all agree that we do not “know”. At the same time, there is a felt need for “purpose”, and this is what really drives people to spirituality—the need to feel that you are relevant in society, and that your existence isn’t pointless.

Which brings me to Wicca. I practiced Wicca for many years, and I’m not sure that I’m too excited about it being “the next big thing” in American religion. Wicca, among other things, has an appeal because of its loose organization. But that benefit is also a detriment—you basically have groups of seekers getting together battling out their own ego issues among each other, and making up the rules as they go along. There are a very large number of “solitary” Wiccans because they can’t stand the group dynamics that exist in covens. I’m sure that there are very functional covens, but I’ve not personally experienced any. It’s a pretty basic tenet of psychology—the larger a group gets, the more the petty politics takes over, as the cause bringing the group together is usually subverted by battles for dominance and power within the group. In a case like this, even if you have many sincere spiritual seekers, it is still a case of the blind leading the blind.

I could say much more about all of this, but I’ve gone on for too long already. I will probably write more in another post. Happy holidays, everyone, and cheers to 2008 being an interesting year (in a good way).

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