Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

exit

A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are enjoining themselves to any particular religion with each new generation.

In a recent paper, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer conclude that both politics and generational succession have real effects on religious preference and have significantly contributed to why fewer and fewer people are identifying with a particular religion. One-in-five people expressed no religious preference in 2012 compared to one-in-fourteen in 1987. They argue that secularization along the definition they use, did not have an observable effect on this trend which helps to account for the rather stable percentage of people who believe in God without doubt (61%) and life after death (81%). In several statistical models, secularization did not hold.

Religious disaffiliation is explained primarily in two ways. The first is that as one moves from a moderate to a more liberal political stance, they become less religious. This is in part because of the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity caused moderates and liberals to distance themselves from religious organizations, hence, the “backlash.” It’s not a reaction to religion per se, but leaving religion because of its perceived association with conservative politics, in general. The second and greater effect is generational succession. Each generation that replaces the previous has been less affiliated with religion in general, especially among liberal households, and the proportion of unchurched is growing. Moreover, those not raised within a religion are less likely to join one in the future. There was far less a change over time in affiliation among political conservatives who tend to enjoin themselves with conservative religion. However, given the decline in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, we may be seeing the cracks in the conservative foundation as well.

This looks like a double-whammy for liberal and progressive religious organizations. Not only is there a general distaste for religious organizations among those who identify as liberal or progressive in their political, social, and cultural beliefs, there will be an increasing likelihood that they have never grown up in a religion and therefore see it as having little or no value in their lives. If we push this up against other explanations for secularization, it looks bad for progressive, God centered organizations. Religion is but one means of social bonding among many competing choices that happen on the weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays. Youth sports is one draw even though it has seen a recent decline in participation. It is also part of a wider trend of civic disengagement as argued by Robert Putnam.

Reclaiming the political position of the left might be one vehicle to reverse some of these trends. The position of Trump has caused a new vigor among religious liberals and progressives who feel threatened by right-wing policies and even betrayed by Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, who is ostensibly the least Christian looking candidate and President in a very long time. Religion used to be an important means to gain social capital in Western and American societies. During presidential campaigns, it has been normal for candidates to enjoin themselves to denominations and traditions because of their influence. Eisenhower joined the Presbyterians for this reason as Trump courted the evangelicals in 2016. We may see a liberal candidate hook up with progressive Christians with the same idea that religion feeds social capital even though the politically progressive have moved away from religion and continue to do so. But even if a reversal of political trend helps galvanize those in religions and attract people to religion, it will not move the downward trend on religious participation all that much. There is still a massive problem with a growing population in the country of people who have never been involved in any religion and are not likely to join one just because it seems to share a few political views and activities with them.

This is why Hout & Fischer’s narrow and linear definition of secularization needs to change. It is true that we have not seen people lose faith and then leave religion. Right now, leaving religion is happening first. Moreover, it might not be just that the modern ideas of reason and scientific progress are enough to dislodge belief in God from young peoples’ worldviews. It might be that with endless war, famine, economic inequality, murder, and oppressive political systems, that any doctrine of God does not come out looking all that loving, powerful, or knowledgeable about human affairs. It could be in the cultural disconnect between ancient texts and societies that look absolutely nothing like them.

Without a regular involvement in a religious community to help make sense of old doctrines and texts utterly alien to the people and events of this world, faith in them will not survive. This is a theological claim made in most Christian traditions where the center of worship is in baptism and communion. These are vehicles to nourish faith and without them, faith dies on the vine. Without these social constructs to nourish faith, we are left with vague spiritualities and temporary communities of interest that rarely gain enough momentum to act as vehicles for lasting spiritual practice. As Hout and Fischer conclude, “Time will tell if personalized religion is sustainable or if belief fades without public profession and community practice.” If this continues to happen, and it looks like it will, what is left to nurture or reinforce the notion of God or spirituality in any shape?

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Living Lent Free

ash_nocrossThis is my first year without Lent. For years it was a time for reflection and focus on my spiritual self and to seek out a better union with God. I have fasted, prayed, and read the Bible. I have attended liturgies and fully invested myself in both the Western and Eastern calendars and cycles within the broader Christian community. But not this year.

Lent is not happening not because I have resentments toward religion, God, or Christianity or the people who worship there. It isn’t happening because I have chosen a way to find health and happiness apart from God and it is working. In short, I can’t sit in a pew this year and pretend as if God matters, because God does not. I am approaching a significant marker in my life. In March I will have lived one year without God. As I approach that marker, I will say more. But for now suffice it to say that engaging in a Lent practice where God is not at all part of the picture feels strange to me and lacks integrity. I can’t be authentic and do Lent which is the exact opposite of what Lent is supposed to do.

Other than confiding in a few people about my shift in beliefs, or lack thereof, I had this consistent feeling of guilt and even shame that I was “giving up on God.” That’s not what happened. I did not “give up on God.” What happened is that I decided to stop pretending. There is nothing “wrong with me.” To the contrary. The truth is that I lost faith a very long time ago, but I refused to let go. That refusal is the problem.

I held on for two reasons, both of which are not very healthy. 1) To let go of God means I am letting someone down. I need to have faith because other people expect me to. So therefore I have to believe. 2) Letting go of God means that all of my very hard work to understand my faith is a complete waste and a disappointment. The root of both of these problems has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with my imagined status before others and a fear of losing them. Doing anything as a response of fear of rejection is a bad way to have a healthy relationship with anyone or anything. I decided a few years ago to move past fear-based thinking and find a better way to live. As I have become less afraid, God has become less important. That is something significant. I decided in March of 2015 to stop ignoring it and accept it for what it was. I needed to let go of the God idea even on a trial basis just to see what would happen. So I did.

What I miss about Lent is the experience of a community seeking the same or at least a similar thing. The rhythms and experiences of a religious community that were so central to my life for many years feel strange not being there. This is punctuated by the various practices friends from my previous religious communities are sharing all over social media this season. Synchronizing yourself in time and space with other people especially in the visceral experience of seeking a higher order and purpose for living is incredibly powerful and rewarding. I love the honesty that Lent is supposed to engender. It is a foundation of practices that one should engage in every day of the year. In many ways Lent is a great reset button for the year. In Orthodoxy, the first Monday of Lent is called Clean Monday for that purpose. The Greeks will clean the house and fly kites to celebrate the journey to personal purity and reconciliation. It’s a beautiful practice.

But this year there is no special calendar marker for this year. Today is Tuesday, it’s freeing rain, my dog refused to poop as we got soaked and cold, and I came to work this morning. I will run on a treadmill later to get in my workout, see a few friends later if the weather permits, and then go home. I will catch up on Scandal with a bowl of popcorn, read, and go to sleep. Then Wednesday will arrive. I am finding my own rhythm now. While part of this journey into authenticity has been a sense of loss, I have gained so much more. Today, I am happier and healthier than I think I ever was when God was such an important focus in my life. I am more in tune with the world and with what is going on inside of me in relation to it. I am more honest and less afraid. If living without God was something of an experiment, it is working for me.

Jindal’s Chronic Islamophobia and Christian Hypocricy

“In other words, we shouldn’t tolerate those who wanna come and try to impose some variant or some version of Sharia law.”

via Megyn Presses Jindal on Suggestion to Ban Radical Islamists from U.S..

The sheer ignorance and myopia of Jindal in this clip is nearly baffling. His message is basically that there are Islamist immigrants who want to treat women as second class citizens, undermine the freedoms of others, and who will weaken American by not believing in American exceptionalism.

“There are Muslims that wanna treat women as second class citizens.”

“There are those who wanna use our freedoms to undermine the freedoms of others.”

“We believe in religious liberty but that doesn’t mean that you can use your freedoms to undermine the freedoms of other people.”

Jindal like so many in the GOP ranks will make statements like these without calling out Christians who do exactly the same thing on a much wider scale than American Muslims. Jindal delivered the commencement speech at Liberty University in May of 2014 where he spoke about his conversion experience, the current “war on religion” perpetrated by the “left,” and his support for Phil Robertson and those who defend “traditional marriage.”

The question is not about what freedoms are limited, but whose freedoms are limited and by what religious beliefs. Christianity gets a free pass on every issue – even if the kind of Christianity he endorses to speak freely is very clear in its understanding of the subordinate role of women to men and consciously and intentionally limits the ability of some Americans to exercise the same rights and freedoms as others. This is no more clear in the case of same gender marriage. It is justified to limit these freedoms as a Christian. Apparently it is not justified to do the same action in the name of Islam – even if Islam generally supports the same views regarding human freedom with respect to women and homosexuality.

This is before we even take on the fact that the way the term Shari’ah Law is casually tossed around in GOP and conservative Christian circles completely misuses and misunderstands what it actually is. It is not a process to compel the infidel to submit to Allah. Shari’ah Law is fundamentally,

“concerned with a set of values that are essential to Islam and the best manner of their protection…Faith in God, the manner of worshipping Him and observance of the five pillars of Islam thus constitute the essential concerns of Shari’ah” (Kamali, 2008, p. 2).

That its application has become overly legalistic in some Muslim communities is known and it has been an area of disagreement in Muslim communities for how Shari’ah is interpreted and applied. This is true in Sufist philosophy which has a more inward focus on one’s mystical communion with Allah as opposed to outward or legalistic displays of legal submission. It is an emphasis on Islam in which one seeks foremost, “sublime feeling of divine presence.” External legality is secondary to this aim.

The overarching Islamic principle of divine unity (tawḥīd) which requires an integrated approach to values should not simply be subsumed under the rubric of legality that focuses on the externalities of conduct often at the expense of the inner development of the human person (Kamali, 2008, p. 4).

Shari’ah is far more complex and nuanced in both its interpretation and application than perhaps Jindal and its staunchest opponents will ever acknowledge. That is beyond a shame. It is the kind of rhetoric that continues to adrenalize intolerance to the degree that even conservative pundits like Megyn Kelly are unable to it bring down to earth. Lest we think that this is limited to conservative media, liberal sources are bleeding with Islamophobia.

An exchange that we need to watch carefully and often is between CNN’s Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota who are factually incorrect and continue to adhere to their beliefs even when confronted head-on by Reza Aslan. This is precisely why we need stronger departments of religious education as the media shows us time and again that with religion, Americans are chronically and pathetically ignorant. This, not letting those who oppose American exceptionalism become citizens, is the source of American weakness.

Source: Kamali, M. H. (2008) Shari’ah law: An introduction. OneWorld: Oxford.

The Jesus Movie You Didn’t Hear About, But Should

With Son of God, Noah, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Exodus: Gods and Kings coming soon, God has been a popular source of movie material this year. Son of God has racked up over $59 million since its release. Noah is at about $98 million, while Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead are hanging around $55 million.

What do all of these movies have in common?

White people.

The history of Jesus in recent film is very white. From Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Scorsese’s the Last Temptation of Christ, Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, and Son of God, Jesus is a white guy every time. Gibson’s film makes Jesus only seem Middle Eastern because Jim Caviezel, wore a prosthetic nose and his eyes were digitally enhanced to appear brown. Gibson essentially put Caviezel in black face to play Jesus. I’ll give Son of God a little credit since Diogo Morgado is Portuguese. At least we are headed in the right direction.

But no matter what, America still likes a good, white Jesus.

The movie you probably did not hear about was filmed in Jordan and Bulgaria, by a Palestinian director, with a Jordanian cast, and written in Arabic. It was based on the Gospel of Luke and premiered in Turkey. Not a single white person is in the movie – not even the Romans.

There’s one hang-up – there are Muslims who play many of the roles in the film. Of the many marketing reasons including the language issue, the fact that Muslims are even in the movie isn’t exactly a big selling point for a US Christian audience.

For the brave souls who can tolerate a brown Jesus surrounded by brown people from the same region in which the biblical narratives took place, the film is called The Savior and you might want to see it.

Many Christians berate all of the white Jesus images not only because Jesus was not a white guy, but that they over-emphasize the dominance of white culture and power in the world. I understand this sentiment and support it. I support it not only from the perspective of Biblical scholarship, but from the perspective of what I know about the culture and dynamics in a Middle Eastern, multi-cultural context.

So here is the preview to Savior. Want a Jesus movie more true to form? Get this one, share it, and crowd out the loud power trip of white Jesus. Prosthetic nose not included.

Being Christian after Religion

“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.

Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:

  • 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
  • 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
  • More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.

None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:

“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).

Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).

While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.

However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.

As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:

“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”

There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.

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Sources

Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Palin Pisses on Baptism

“Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4

Suggesting or pronouncing that baptism is a form of torture sounds absurd at best and down right heretical from most theological positions among Christians. In fact, I am not sure if it has been said in the modern age.

Sarah Palin has now used baptism as a metaphor for torture amidst cheers at a recent NRA rally.

Let’s give her some slack; she was trying to make a joke. We all make bad jokes. If this came out of the mouth of Bill Maher, Louis Black, or Louis C.K. we might be offended, but expect to be offended since these are comedians. The difference is that she made this leap not as a comedian, and at an NRA rally. She engaged the audience and they lapped it up like parched dogs. I give her credit for that. But she also revealed utter theological ignorance and an ironic lack of conviction for her faith.

I haven’t spoken to or heard from any Christian who thought she was clever or amusing. The reaction has been quite the opposite. Pundits all over the map are registering really bad reviews for her near sadistic rant.

Here’s the snippet of what she said:

“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

This statement should alienate her from any Christian who takes sacraments seriously. Baptism is perhaps the most universally revered of the holy mysteries of Christianity as it marks the initiation of one’s life with God and the Christian community.

Baptism was certainly important in her own religious upbringing. Ms. Palin became a Christian as a member of the The First Assembly of God in Wasilla, AK. The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, believes that one is baptized after the initiate declares a pronouncement of faith in Jesus Christ, and encourages a Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a sign of which is speaking in tongues.

Ms. Palin has never been shy about her faith, offering often loud and convicted statements. Baptism played an important role in her own life as told in Charisma Magazine in 2009.

“It was so cool growing up in this church and getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Riley … my whole family getting baptized,” she told the congregation, just two months before her vice presidential nomination.

With these pronouncements, her language at the NRA rally takes a rhetoric of fear, violence, and hatred up many notches. Her faith preached from the pulpit of the gun is now scarcely recognizable from what it may have been.

Here is another comparison. The above image is an infamous photograph called Piss Christ (1987) taken by Andres Serrano. Here a Crucifix is submerged into a beautifully colored container of urine. Lovely. This work of art drew the ire of many, but the loudest voice was from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States; a conservative Catholic organization. The Crucifix Serrano used in the photo is distinctly Roman Catholic.

“I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don’t go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith,” (Bill) Donohue told the Guardian. “I don’t care whether you’re Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or whatever you might be.”

Whether it’s pissing on a Crucifix or telling us that a method of torture is like being baptized, Christianity was just mocked by one of its supposed champions.

White Christians Say “Redskin” Shouldn’t Offend Indians

Flipping through radio stations this afternoon I landed on a Christian station. Within a minute I heard such an absurdly offensive assertion that even the callers were confused.

On Way, Truth, Life Radio (WTRL) 89.9 in State College, PA the evening begins with “In the Market with Janet Parshall.” This program is produced by Moody Radio which gets us to the core of American Fundamentalism. What is the purpose of Moody Radio?

Moody Radio promises to provide programming filled with solid biblical insight and creative expressions of faith that help you take the next step in your personal relationship with Christ.

This isn’t just about programming radio for your listening pleasure; this is about converting people to their distinctive understanding of Jesus Christ. I didn’t even know that it was a Christian station until I heard a little spot from Ken Ham who is the brain trust behind the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky. His little bit was about how dragons were real and that they were in fact dinosaurs.

The assertion that Janet and guest Craig Parshall made went something like this:

  • Football teams market their brand based on success.
  • Invoking a racial slur is not a good business decision if you want to have a successful image.
  • Therefore, “Redskins” is not a racial slur.

The hosts went on to say that the debate over the mascot of Redskin is a fabrication of political correctness. “Where do we go with this? Where does it end?” they said. A 49er is a dirty gold digger. A Buccaneer is a nasty pirate. So what about them?

What I heard was: Well everyone else is doing it so why can’t they?

I wouldn’t dare teach my 8 and 6-year-old boys that such an ethic is responsible. I teach him to be principled no matter what others are doing or saying. That is just what virtuous people do from Socrates to Confucius.

The image of the Indian our Radio hosts conjured follows a white myth of the Indian. He is an emotionless, brave, and fearless warrior. The Indian is more of a mystical deity than a human being. This was a popular image in film before the Great Depression.

As I learned in a recent presentation, viewing, and discussion about the film Reel Injun, that mythic imagery was blown up by one movie – John Wayne’s persona in Stagecoach. From that point through several decades, the American Native was seen as savage, mindless, aggressive, unethical, and closer to animal than man. The women were sexualized and became sources of masculine pleasure. The American Indian became the race that could uphold white dominance all the way through to the Civil Rights era.

This is significant. Either the mascot for the Redskins was an intentional slur drawing on the image of the savage native, or it was that false idealization of the native as someone less than human. No matter what, the image of the Indian changed. Even if the image of the Redskin may have once been an image of dignity, it most assuredly has not been this way for a very long time.

Ethics 101: Just because something is so, therefore does not imply that it ought to be so.

In my mind that was where the academic assertion fell apart. I thought it was absurd, short-sighted, and a clear ploy to get me all frustrated. It worked because I kept listening.

A self-identified Choctaw called in. He said in no uncertain terms that Redskin is an offensive term and has been for quite some time. It did not make sense to him why his people were not given the same protection as other minorities. Why couldn’t his people tell us why a term used to give them an identity? Why couldn’t they dictate their own racial identity? To me, that seemed like a very reasonable question.

Rather than address the question, they dictated to this Choctaw why he should not be offended by the term “Redskin.”

Let me put this in sharper terms to highlight the offensive nature of this statement and the assertions made by the Parshalls – two privileged white people talking on a self-identified Christian program.

  • Faggot should not be offensive since it can mean a bundle of wood or even a cigarette.
  • Nigger just means the color black.
  • WOP is just an acronym for someone without papers, basically an illegal immigrant.
  • Kike is really a term that points to the anti-Christian sentiment of immigrant Jews.

If you were offended by any of that, good. You should be. I should be and am. The conservative diatribe that I heard is what I have been hearing for the entirety of this year with regard to racial slurs: It’s 2013 people, lighten up.

It does not matter what year it is. It does not matter how long and deep a tradition is. If we are acting with indifference and apathy to the psychological and social needs of any group of people, we are ceasing to protect the pursuit of happiness that defines an American citizen.

Theirs is not a position against political correctness, whatever that may mean.

It is a bold-faced dismissal of people of color.