The Studies Are Wrong! America Is Religious, But Not Spiritual
In 2017, the Pew Research Center announced that more Americans now say that they are spiritual, but not religious.
The Pew organization is highly respected, and for good reason. Their studies are professional and credible and most of the time they are the gold standard for in-depth social analysis.
Still, after the past few week’s worth of headlines, I can’t help but feel that they need to either rework their numbers or run an updated study, because anyone watching social media has seen indisputable evidence that Americans are increasingly becoming totally religious, but not very spiritual at all.
The confusion may arise, I think, thanks to the unusual alternative orthodoxies to which these New Religious have subscribed. In fact, the New Religious may not yet themselves realize that they are practicing a religion, even as they observe their special rites and rituals, identify new sins, and assign penances that demand a great deal of breast-beating, self-loathing, and amends-making, but never completely blot out the offense or expiate the sin.
Mercy is not a big feature of these new churches. Redemption is rare, and grace non-existent. That’s because the gods around whom these belief systems spin are not creators, who leave room for wonder. Rather they are human creations—all them are products of ideas alone.
In writing on the life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa made a most trenchant and true observation: “Ideas create idols,” he wrote. “Only wonder leads to knowing.”
Our New Religious wonder about very little, because they are staggeringly sure about the rightness of all the ideas upon which they have constructed their strange gods. They are in fact, absolutists, and absolutism never lends itself toward mystery, mysticism, or great retreats into questioning, exploratory wonder which—again, sorry—“leads to knowing.”
Absolutism in service to an idol of ideas not only narrows the way to knowing; it makes for some terrible evangelization too. Its outreach involves not an open palm but the back of the hand.
One of the upstartiest of these upstart religions worships a godling named GOWIAE (pronounced “GohWAY”) who is the God of What I Am Eating. This idol is served through a radical commitment to a particular and righteous way of consuming food. One of its lesser rituals involves taking snapshots of whatever a believer is about to consume and posting it on a social media platform, even if it means stalling conversation with fellow diners in order to get just the right angle posted over a slow wi-fi connection. While the food plan may vary among GOWIAE worshipers, there are common rites of menu purity which all demonstrate with Pentecostal fervor when invited to share a meal. Instead of “praise the Lord” they cry out, “I cannot eat this!” And, “I will not eat that!” And, “How could you consider serving this other thing?”
Only those in a state of gustatory grace are admitted into fellowship, and the most mortal of sins are those against purity. One stained by an un-immaculate encounter with foodstuffs is quickly and publicly shamed, like a modern-day Hester Prynne. This week on social media, a tainted member of the faithful—vegan denomination—admitted to buying a crying child an ice cream cone and was summarily called out for the sin of not first ensuring that the cone was dairy-free and no baby cows had been killed or injured in its production.
There is also the growing religion that worships DUMCOPF, (pronounced “DOOMcough”) the god of Don’t Use My Culture O Presumptuous Faker. Adherents to this religion serve their idol through the speed and ferocity with which they are able to take deep offense whenever someone dares to eat, wear, use, practice, or engage with the food, clothing, jewelry, art, or exercise of a culture without possessing the required DNA. This is a fairly new religion, but it is spreading quickly. Thanks to the DUMCOPF church, questions have arisen as to whether non-Asian people should rightly practice Yoga or Tai Chi, whether non-African (or perhaps I mean Byzantine?) people should wear hoop earrings, and whether people should ask permission of any available Latin friend before downing a Margarita on Cinco de Mayo.
Something, by the way, no one would think to ask of the Irish in mid-March.
This week, again on social media, a non-Chinese teenage girl was publicly shamed—with extended outrage—for wearing a beautiful thrift-store purchased qipao to her prom. Many women of Chinese heritage, must be said, defended the teenager’s choice as flattering to their culture. We may assume that the original owner of the dress, having put it to thrift, was similarly unconcerned about possible sacrilege.
The Twitter timeline of the offended DUMCOPF practitioner revealed that he is something of a lapsed disciple, who has publicly praised eating tamales—a Mexican delicacy—while using chopsticks. Perhaps because this religion is so new it has not had time to achieve depth, and so his fault seems to be a common one amongst church members. They often wish to apply their strictures to others without reciprocation. Nor have they figured out how to square the worship of DUMCOPF with the need to communicate in a language not native to their hereditary culture, or their preference to use the indoor plumbing first invented by an English Yorkshireman, even if nothing in their heritage would recognize a bubble and squeak.
We may be justly relieved that, so far, none of the followers of DUMCOPF have told Misty Copeland to stop dancing the ballet because she is not obviously French, or told Yo-Yo Ma to put down his Italian-made cello and stop playing Bach. Nor has anyone suggested that Japan end its love affair with baseball. This reassuringly suggests that DUMCOPF’s current wave of popularity may not be lasting.
Okay, I am having a little—hopefully gentle—fun at the expense of some people who are making the world seem unusually enraged, but I recognize that while they may not understand much about spirituality, they clearly are seeking something meaningful in their lives, and possess instincts for worship and service to something greater than themselves.
That’s good news, but Christians had better figure out an effective way to introduce these New Religionists—who know nothing of mercy and too much of rage—to the real Good News of the Living God, who is slow to anger; the God who is the fullness of mercy; the One who loved us enough to incarnate so as to live with us, laugh and cry and suffer with us, and finally to die for us, to save us from ourselves; who defeated death, that we might have eternal life. We must find a way to convince the GOWIAE converts and the DUMCOPF ragers that they are unquestionably beloved by this Creating God, who is in fact All Love, and who asks only that they seek out that Love for themselves.
Apologizing for offenses to their godlings, or working to accommodate the demands of their idols who cannot save, will ultimately help keep these folk trapped within spinning spheres of nothingness, and it won’t enhance our souls, either. We will have to answer for it, when we are asked why, upon being introduced to their strange gods, we did not gently, wisely, engage them in hopes of introducing them to I AM WHO AM, and together worked out our salvation, as we waited in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord.