Thursday, November 5, 2015

Just Religion

You can’t eat food. Or rather you can’t eat “just” food. You can eat a steak or a yam, obviously. But even though both are examples of foods people eat all the time, there isn’t anything that is “just” food without it having to be some specific kind of food. The same is true of languages—you can speak Finnish or Yiddish, but you can’t speak in “just” language without speaking in some specific one of the 6,500 languages that are spoken in the world today. You can take this idea into all sorts of other realms as well: you can’t “just” sing a song without singing some specific song any more than you can “just” read a book without reading some specific one. It’s not such a complicated idea. But does it apply to religion as well?

Can you adhere to a religion without adhering to a specific one of the world’s religions? The answer feels like it would have to be no, and for the same reason that applies to singing and speaking—because there is no such as “just” religion, only the thousands of “actual” religions to which people in the world today adhere. But if I pose the question slightly differently and ask if it would be possible to be religious or to be a religious person without adhering to any specific religion, the answer feels less obvious. If I choose to leave the words “religion” or “religious” out of the mix entirely and instead ask it’s possible to be a spiritual person—a person with a meaningful spiritual dimension to his or her life—without belong to any specific religious group, the question seems less easily answered. But the question itself remains worth pondering as asked: if religion is the language of the spirit, can you embrace “just” it without concomitantly embracing any specific religion? 
Or is the notion that you can be religious without actually embracing any religion just self-serving fantasy that makes such people feel less guilty about their lack of “real” religious affiliation?

I was moved to ponder this issue just last week while reading a very interesting essay by Los Angeles-based journalist Tamara Audi that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Tuesday. The essay itself was based on a recently released study by the Pew Research Center that concluded that Roman Catholic Americans, until recently the largest group within the Democratic Party to self-define by religious affiliation, have now been outnumbered among the Democrats by the so-called “nones,” people who, when asked, respond that they have no religious affiliation at all. Indeed, the “nones,” the Pew Center study concluded, now number about 28% of Democrats, compared with only 19% as recently as 2007. (Catholics, who numbered 24% of the party in 2007, are down to 21%.)

On the other side of the aisle, the situation is both similar and dissimilar. The largest religious group within the G.O.P. have traditionally been evangelical Christians, who number about 38% of the party, not Catholics. But the “nones” are growing in Republican ranks as well, up from 10% in 2007 to 14% now.  And all of this mirrors the trend in the general population as well: in 2007, only 16% of Americans declared themselves to have no religious affiliation at all, but today the figure is 23%.

All of that is interesting enough, but the specific detail that caught my eye was that the Pew Center study lumps together as fellow “nones” both people who self-define as atheists or agnostics and people who profess belief in God but who lack any specific religious affiliation. In other words, according to one of America’s leading research institutes, the answer to my question is that no, you cannot be a religious person if you don’t adhere to a specific religion. Just believing in God is not enough to pry you loose from the “nones.” To be counted as a religious person, you have to self-define as belonging to a specific religious group, exactly in the same way that you can’t be “just” food without being a steak or a yam...or some other edible thing. But is that really true? That is the question I’d like to address in my letter to you all this week.

In the eighteenth century, many of the founding fathers of our nation subscribed to a school of thought called Deism, generally defined as belief in God unencumbered by any ancillary beliefs in divine revelation or in prophecy. God, thus demoted to the level of philosophical principle and specifically not acknowledged as the active agent in the governance of the universe, is real…but not in the sense that human beings need to do anything too much about: like gravity, God is imagined really to exist but invisibly and uncommunicatively. The world, for its part, is as it is because it has as the ground of its existence and at its ethical core a Deity who, by virtue of existence alone, grants order and morality to all that is; but the mythology that the world’s religions promote can be dispensed with as so many ancient fables and the notion that human beings must conform to the whims and wishes of that Deity or face dire consequences can be safely set aside. Deists believe in God as the great Clockmaker, as the Creator who has no ongoing relationship with creation any more than the clockmakers have ongoing relationships with the clocks they build and sell to others. The clockmakers exist. The clocks exist. But their relationship exists solely within the realm of history, not in the province of day-to-day reality.

There were lots of Deists in our nation’s past, although it is true that not all specifically embraced that term to label themselves or their beliefs. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all used terminology in their writings that, despite their formal affiliation with various Christian denominations, make them sound far more like Deists than like orthodox Christians. It is true that all of the above-mentioned founders had complicated relationships with organized religion, particularly Thomas Jefferson, yet history has comfortably labelled them all as at least strongly influenced by Deism and its basic beliefs. To give a sense of what this feels like in the works of the founders, I will only quote from one book, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, written in 1794 as a defense of the French Revolution while the author was in residence in Luxemburg. There, he writes openly about his beliefs:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy…I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

That, in a nutshell, is Deism in its plainest guise.  Is it religion? It’s hard to say. But I think I can say with near certainty that Thomas Paine would have been flabbergasted to find himself lumped together with atheists and agnostics by the Pew Research Center researchers as a “none.”  Certainly George Washington and James Madison, both life-long members of the Episcopal Church, would have rejected the label both as Episcopalians and as Deists.

So what happened to Deism? It still exists. (You can visit the website of the World Union of Deists at But it doesn’t exist as a driving force in the world of religion, as the Pew Center report blithely demonstrates by lumping together in one single category people who profess faith in God by without feeling drawn to affiliate with any specific religion and atheists who deny the existence of God entirely. Whether that was fair or unfair is a debate worth undertaking. On the other hand, to say why exactly Deism declined isn’t that hard to say at all.

Philosophical principles are interesting ideas, but hardly anyone since Socrates has willingly or unwillingly accepted a martyr’s fate because of them. To engage the soul, to transform the spirit, to draw people to a life infused with and informed by faith, to inspire people to embrace morality and to turn away from evil…religions need more than ideational substructures of sound philosophical principles. In fact, they need two specific things to make them flourish in the world of actual people: rituals and rites able to grant physical presence in the world to the ideas that rest beneath them something like the way the steel girders that support tall buildings exist invisibly yet also indispensably deep inside those buildings outer walls, and a warm, thick fabric woven of myth, history, biography, and sacred legend in which people eager to adopt those principles as their own can wrap themselves and, in so doing, find comfort, confidence, and the inner strength necessary to persevere in a world in which living a life devoted to spiritual ideals is almost always an uphill battle. From the Jewish point of view, this couldn’t be more true. Indeed, it is precisely the way Judaism brings together ritual shell and ideational core in the context of mitzvah, of sacred commandment, that makes it such an engaging lifestyle for so many people seeking to give physical stature to dogma and reality to the core concepts they have embraced as the truths that guide them forward in life. I’m sure other religions have their own way of making their foundational principles real in the world. But I speak of what I know…and for me personally it is precisely that combination of moving idea embedded deeply within repeating ritual that makes of Jewish life a spiritual journey not only that satisfies, but actually that leads somewhere.

I disagree with the premise of the Pew study mentioned above. I believe that people who are possessed of faith in God are far more like the religiously-affiliated than they are like people who have consciously divested themselves of the trappings of belief. We should acknowledge that reality, with or without reintroducing the name Deism into our national vocabulary, and accept that the divide between those who believe and those who do not is far greater and more profound than the one supposed to exist between people who merely believe and those who have formally chosen to affiliate with a religion that has a name.

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