Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Travails of Modern Religion

Religion in the Western world has become an undercurrent that only occasionally pops into view.  In the 1960s, sociological opinion held that religion was dying, Today sociologists have mostly changed their minds and hypothesize that religion has  not declined, but changed. Social historians have pushed the timing of this change into the late 20th century from the earlier idea that ascribed this transformation to Darwin & Co. in the 19th century. This was the very first topic I ever wrote about way back .... way, way back about 50 years ago.  My adolescent self opined that science was the cause of the decline of religion. My adult training and reading in the history of religion has added a much more nuanced view.

Of course, all this requires a definition of what one means by the term 'religion'.  Sociologists, who are much enamoured of statistics, liked to chart attendance and membership figures, which the media also love to quote. This has produced articles that note the decline of religion because only a small percentage of people attend weekly, or monthly or whatever standard suits the already formed opinion expressed.  For my university courses in the history of religion I have attempted to solve this problem by introducing two terms I invented a few years ago. One is religio and the other spiritus.  By religio, I mean the institutional presence of religion - Imams, ministers, priests, rabbis, temples, churches, mosques and the bureaucracy needed to maintain all this. By spiritus I mean the actual faith felt, reasoned, adhered to, practiced by all concerned whether an ordinary believer or a religious professional. Of course, like most attempts at categorization, this hides the reality that both exist in the same space and time.

In this blog post, I thought I would approach these thoughts here summarized from a different angle. One is the personal and the other was inspired by a newspaper article commenting on the meaning of the current Catholic Pope's visit to the United States. (I say Catholic Pope, not to be redundant, rather to be deliberately pedantic as there is a Coptic Pope also. Forgive me my pedantry.)

My mother was raised an Episcopalian in the United States.  She married my Canadian father and after the Second World war never lived in her native country again.  For some time, my family attended the United Church of Canada, then moved to the Anglican Church. My mother attended St. Matthew's Anglican in South Windsor Ontario from 1960 to about 2005. The reason I bring my mother into this meditation is that she makes a mockery of statistical analyses of religion, whether that be of religio, or spiritus.  As a family we attended church every Sunday, except in July and August during the long school summer break.  We did not go to church in the summer. Yet my mother was a devout, believing Christian.  For ten months of the year a sociologist or social historian would have classified her as a regular attender and believer, but for two months every year as being wholly secularized. When I was in my 40s and first training to be a professional historian focussed on religion, I asked my mother once why she still attended after the Anglican Church had abandoned most of the beliefs it once taught were necessary - male only priesthood, closed communion, confirmation and so on. Her reply is one I have turned around in my mind ever since.  She said, 'I go to church to pray to God, and I ignore what those stupid men at the front are saying.'  So.... if religio includes doctrine and ritual and all that goes with that, where does she fit?  She had obviously a strong spiritus, but not orthodox if that means observing what a particular church is teaching at a particular time.  She violated all the statistical models of the social scientist.

Next, I am cutting and pasting the first part of the article in the National Post today as it is the essence of the writer's point and I think describes accurately why so many avoid religio in particular unlike my mother.

“The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.”
– Psalm 19
That Psalm verse was sung at the papal Mass in Philadelphia on Sunday. And the claim made by the psalmist captures the heart of Pope Francis and the message of his visit to the United States.
The psalm claims that following the way of discipleship, obeying the commands of the Lord, conforming our plans to His will, brings joy to the heart. Pope Francis’ triumphal tour inspired so many, including those rather distant from the practice of religion, in large part because he so transparently has been transformed by the joy of the Christian gospel.
Yet many, if not most, of those around us have drifted away, or decided against, the things of God precisely because they consider the psalmist wrong. The precepts of the Lord, far from bringing joy, are instead considered a burden that diminishes our freedom — at best a duty to be discharged for fear of even worse consequences; at worst an assault our own identity, autonomy, priorities and ambitions. The secular age considers God, not a loving father who elevates us, but a rival who threatens us. The precepts of the Lord are thus to be ignored, if not actively rebelled against.
His point is that the experience of religio is one of constraint, discomfort, boredom, hypocrisy, ... a dreary, dreadful faith. This stands out to me as an historian because historical descriptions of Christianity are replete with descriptions of life and joy even in periods of persecution of the early church. I think here of one of Pliny's letters to the emperor Trajan where he is asking how to handle these Christians. In the letter he describes their worship:  
they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.
Modern Christianity, of all types, seems to have become a sterile practice where religio is the main point and spiritus has been lost to a great extent.  There are, of course, exceptions, but this is the message often given from the pulpit - a long list of sins, crimes and thou shalt nots, delivered angrily, or haltingly with much wagging of fingers. No joy is found here.  Is this the result of science? I don't think so as science as properly defined as a method began in the 17th century and had no discernible impact on religio or spiritus until the late 20th century.  In any case, science itself has become atrophied into arguing political positions and lust for grant money which is not that much different than any religion in need of reform. 
So what happened?  Historians note that whatever happened and whatever the reason, it seems to become evident in the 1960s.  This loosely defined decade was one of profound cultural change, and one must never forget that religion is not some separable thing, but an integral part of any society of which I am aware past or present. I think here of what I learned about religion during the six years I worked as a research assistant to an anthropologist studying the Oji-Cree of NW Ontario.  'Religion' for them was woven into the fabric of their culture, much as it was for Christians in Europe from the first century until the 20th and is still for Muslims and for Christians in the so-called Third World. Apparently decades of Marxist-type socialism in China has not been able to squelch ancestor worship either. Perhaps, the increasing stultification of religio - putting the institution ahead of spiritus is what is being rebelled against and 'religion' is now become a current within society, integrated into all the other activities, worries, joys that make up humanity. So people may not spend time each week engaged in ritual, whether that be highly complex, or quite simplified, but simply pray when their heart needs prayer.