01 April 2013

Spiritual bipolarchy in America?

In the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson warns of a polarization in the U.S. along spiritual lines. "America is moving in the direction of having one secular party and one religious party, bringing polarization to a new level of intensity," he writes, "this could be a dangerous source of social division, with each side viewing the other as theocrats or pagans. There is no contempt like the contempt of the true believer or the militant skeptic." At the same time, he notes that the American people aren't really becoming more secularized, whatever may be going on in the Democratic party. Instead, Gerson observes a mass "disaffiliation" as more Americans continue to call themselves religious while refusing membership in any particular religious organization. Nearly 20% of the population belong to the "nones," those citing "none of the above" when asked about their religious affiliation. For Gerson this is as great a potential problem as outright secularization. The "nones" may be more liberal on some moral and social issues, but they are also more antisocial, he suggests, as their disaffiliation would seem to show.

Those cheering the trend of religious disaffiliation should consider some broader social consequences. The rise of the nones is symptomatic of the decline of many forms of belonging. According to Pew, all of the recent growth in the nones has come among those who are not married. This indicates a group of people distrustful of institutions, with marriage being the most basic of institutions. The unaffiliated donate less to charity than do the affiliated. They participate in fewer volunteer organizations. Individualism can easily become atomization. Whatever else you may think of the communitarian creeds, they help create community.

If these same people also lean Democratic, as Gerson claims (rather than libertarian), they may fit the profile I've tentatively described as "loner leftist." That seems to be what Gerson wants to describe: people distrustful of everything we think of as civil society (i.e. "institutions") who therefore put their trust in government. Such people may want a more powerful government simply because they don't want to deal with other people for a variety of rational and irrational reasons. I'm not sure if religion has much to do with this, however. If there really are loner leftists -- I feel close to fitting the description sometimes -- some may be self-directed spiritual seekers and others outright atheists. If they're part of a polarizing trend, the other end may be occupied not by institutionalized spirituality, but by those compulsively interconnected (if not interdependent) people whose need for constant communication may have already undermined some older ideas of individualism. If anything, Gerson has probably confused the real issue by bringing religion into it. The real issue may be between the kinds of belonging, or their conditions, that we desire for ourselves or are forced upon us. Changing times will certainly force reappraisals of what it means to be an individual, not to mention what it means to be free. During such times, it would be wise not to jump to conclusions about the nones or loners and their questionable sociability. The individuals who don't necessarily want to deal with other people all the time may be less of a problem for society than those who more readily interact with others yet are sociopaths in any sense of the word, dealing with people by treating them as objects or means to the sociopath's end. Belonging may mean being exploited and little else for many people, but that's an extreme just as the "atomization" of nones or loners is an extreme ideally to be avoided. To find the happy medium, we shouldn't just celebrate "community" and "belonging" as ends unto themselves. What we belong to matters, and in the best case we'll belong not simply by joining but by sharing in the making of whatever we belong to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1) This would not be happening if the religious kept their religion private. Instead they insist on continually attempting to force their religion - despite the Constitution - down everyone else's throats.
2) Considering that the Catholic church continues to protect pedophile priests and too many of the other, more "conservative" brands of christianity only preach intolerance and hate, rather than what their found preached, can you blame people from disassociating themselves from the trash?

I consider myself a "leftist" because I do NOT hold with greed-driven capitalism. I consider myself a "loner" because, observing the human race, I have decided most of the race is ignorant, superstitious trash who have learned nothing in the 10,000 years or so of homo sapient domination. I do NOT consider myself a part of them because they represent an evolutionary dead end that will hopefully drive itself to extinction.