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One nation, under Gods

Op-Ed

Far from turning our backs on religion, today's Americans are religiously fluid. And that's a good thing.

December 25, 2011
(Los Angeles Times )

Nearly half a century ago Time magazine famously asked: Is God Dead? The verdict is in. God is definitely not dead — the United States remains a highly religious nation — but God has diversified, and in ways the cheeky headline writers of 1966 couldn't have imagined. We're a spiritually promiscuous nation, increasingly so, and while this is, on balance, a good thing, it also poses certain dangers. It's one thing to explore different faiths, and something else entirely to hop aimlessly from one to another, bolting for the door when the going gets tough. (And it always gets tough.)

It's commonly believed that this spiritual restlessness is a relatively recent phenomenon, born of the cultural tumult of the 1960s, but it's a lot older than that. The 19th century transcendentalists — Emerson, Thoreau and others — borrowed heavily from Eastern thought, and we've been borrowing, and God-hopping, ever since. Today, at least a third of us will change our religious affiliation over the course of our lifetimes, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Never before have so many people been free to choose their religion, and at so little risk. "Heresy" is based on the Greek root meaning "to choose for one's self." We are all heretics now.

It's easy to dismiss all this God-hopping as the spiritual equivalent of consumerism run amok — a sort of Black Friday of the soul. That may be true in some cases, but overall I think it is a healthy phenomenon. No longer are we shackled to the religion of our birth or our community. We are free to choose, and remarkably we tend not to choose the easiest path. The most popular religions are not faddish cults that preach an anything-goes hedonism but, rather, those that make great demands on their followers. Calvinism, for instance, is enjoying a resurgence. Buddhism is also hugely popular, and it can hardly be described as easy, as anyone who has tried to still their mind for five minutes can attest. When much is asked, much is given.

Another result of this "theodiversity" is that while we may live in political silos — apart and rarely mixing — we do not live in religious ones. Few Americans have religiously homogenous families, friends and neighbors, according to David Campbell of Notre Dame University. "If you add to your friends someone of another faith, you become warmer toward that faith," he says, and, crucially, warmer to people of all faiths. Tolerance breeds tolerance.

We also cross religious lines much more easily than political ones. More than a third of Americans in the Pew survey say they attend religious services at more than one place, and sometimes at a different faith from their own.

Not only are we a religiously fluid nation, we're also a porous one. Beliefs, for instance, once considered exclusive to the New Age movement have seeped into the mainstream. Twenty percent of Christians, and slightly more of the public overall, say they believe in reincarnation, according to Pew. An equal percentage believe in astrology and in yoga — not only as exercise but as a spiritual practice.

The point is not that we've all gone Shirley MacLaine but, rather, that religions are constantly borrowing from one another, whether they acknowledge it or not. There is no such thing as a "pure" religion. All faiths are hybrids, to one degree or another, and we are better off for it. We recognize familiar themes in religions otherwise alien to us and are more likely to be accepting of the "other."

Amid this landscape, many people are looking for a faith that fits, though not always finding it. The fastest-growing religious group is the "nones," those who refuse to claim any affiliation. The "nones," are not, for the most part, atheists. They are the religious equivalent of political undecideds. They have yet to hear a compelling argument for one faith or another but would love nothing more than to be swept off their feet.

For St. Augustine, it was the words of a child — "pick it up and read it" — that transformed his life from one of degradation to piety and bliss. Leo Tolstoy and John Bunyan are other examples of the sudden conversion, prompted by a personal crisis.

The more common type of conversion — and the one more likely to stick — is the gradual variety. In Katmandu, I met one such convert, James Hopkins. Born into a traditional Presbyterian family, he never felt like he fit in. His religion didn't speak to him. In Augustinian fashion, he stumbled across a book about Buddhism, but it took years of study — and questioning — before he converted. Buddhism, he told me, has made him a better person. He's less angry, more compassionate. Consciously or not, he adheres to Pragmatism, a philosophy that skirts sticky ontological questions and concludes simply that, as William James put it, "Truth is what works."

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