Do secular Americans secretly pine for religion?
Even atheists have a spiritual side. Does this reveal a deep-rooted predilection for religion?
For much of the 20th century, sociologists and other scholars assumed that modernity leads invariably to secularism. A generation ago, this consensus began to be shaken by the persistence of religiosity in the United States. Might there actually be two or more forms of modern life — the secular European model and an American variation that remains much more accommodating to and encouraging of faith?
But within the past few years, polling data showing rapidly declining religious belief and practice in the United States has led some to wonder whether secularism might be the modern fate after all, with American disenchantment merely taking place somewhat more slowly than one finds on the other side of the Atlantic.
But what does "secularism" even mean in this context? Are Americans on a path leading to the strident atheism of Richard Dawkins? Or might they, instead, be charting some third way between historic Judeo-Christianity and dogmatic godlessness by embracing new forms of non-theistic spirituality? And if so, is it possible that Americans who think of themselves as "spiritual but not religious" or "moralistic therapeutic deists" might eventually find themselves drawn back to more traditional forms of monotheistic faith? Or will their new styles of piety remain meaningfully distinct from those traditions?
These thoughts were inspired by reflecting on a rich and subtle post by Ross Douthat of The New York Times — and by reading the article that inspired it, a moving personal essay in Elle magazine by Lisa Chase, the widow of late New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan.
Chase's essay tells the story of how she coped with her grief following Kaplan's untimely death from cancer in 2013, in large part by enlisting the services of a medium named Lisa Kay who seemingly enabled her to communicate with Kaplan's "discarnate" spirit from beyond the grave.
As a skeptic, I'm…skeptical about Chase's story, though I realize that such tales are common enough that they shouldn’t be cavalierly dismissed.
But what I really want to explore is Douthat's take on it. In a nutshell, Douthat wonders if Chase's experiences — and perhaps even more so, the willingness of various friends and medical professionals in her thoroughly secular urban world to validate them — might complicate widespread assumptions about the character of our supposedly secular age. Douthat doesn't come right out and predict that we're on the cusp of a religious rebirth. But he does raise the prospect of a future turn back toward a more robust form of theism (which he even describes as a new Great Awakening) based on the following series of assertions:
[M]an is a religious animal, nature abhors a vacuum, people want community and common purpose, and above all people keep having metaphysical experiences and it's only human to want to make sense out of them and not just compartmentalize them away from the remainder of your life. [The New York Times]
I think this is quite wrong — not because I dissent from Douthat's portrayal of human nature, which I think is broadly correct (at least for most people), but because metaphysical experiences of the kind Chase recounts don't lead to (or back to) anything meaningfully like historic Judeo-Christianity.
Let's begin with the question of whether Chase's spiritual experiences can even be said to affirm anything beyond what Douthat calls an "arid and strictly materialist" view of the world. The story of a woman who communicates intimate details with her dead husband sure sounds like evidence to back up a theistic construal of existence. At least it does until you look closely at how Chase's medium describes her role in facilitating this communication: "Spirits are energy — energy can't be destroyed, just read the quantum physicists. Max Planck. They're just on a higher vibrational frequency, and I have to tune in to that."
The talk about spiritual energy might sound like an expression of New Age religiosity, but this is actually a thoroughly materialistic statement. Just as a dog hears sounds that go beyond the range of human hearing, so a medium has merely trained herself to "tune in" to the "vibrational frequency" of spiritual "energy." The information is out there in the material world, waiting to be perceived. The rest of us simply haven't learned how to detect and convey it as accurately as medium Lisa Kay.
With the possible exception of Mormons, who sometimes flirt with embracing metaphysical materialism, the Christian traditions have affirmed a form of theism that takes a radically different view of the meaning of, and relationship between, life and death, salvation and the afterlife. While leaving open the possibility of commerce between the human and divine — through prayer, ecclesiastically sanctioned sacraments, and rare mystical-revelatory experiences — classical theism emphasizes that God is wholly other than both human beings and the created, physical universe. That's why it also tends to suggest that whatever awaits us after death, it must involve a radical transformation, possibly including ecstatic unification with God, a process of sanctification or deification that draws the dead continually closer to God in his Otherness, or an ordeal (temporary or eternal) that serves as a punishment for earthly sins.
The messages that Chase's medium convey from Peter Kaplan give an altogether more mundane impression. They read like dispatches from some other place within our physical world — a place quite like our own, only somehow invisible to our inadequately trained senses.
And that points to a deeper discontinuity between Chase's experiences and the spiritual outlook that undergirds all three monotheistic religions, as well as most of the world's non-monotheistic traditions.
The teachings of the major world religions differ in an enormous number of ways, but most affirm forms of providence. Whether this providence is conceived of as the expression of a single personal Godhead (as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), multiple personal gods (as in the world's polytheistic faiths and some forms of Hinduism), or as an impersonal force (as in the notion of karma that plays a crucial role in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern faiths), these religious traditions are united in proclaiming that something guides human life and fate, responds to prayers, and (in some mysterious way) rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
Belief in providence is not just part of religion. It's close to the core of religion. (It can even be detected in the conviction, expressed by many otherwise secular men and women after they've endured a personal trial or tragedy, that "everything happens for a reason.") And yet there is no trace of it in Lisa Chase's spiritual experiences. The medium conveys nothing at all about righteousness, grace, judgment, beatification, sanctification, deification, reproval, or punishment. Neither is there even a single mention of God or any other theological force that cares for us or our fate. There's just Kaplan, his deceased parents and dog, and maybe some famous historical personages milling about the streets of heaven.
Far more than biblical religion, Chase's spiritual experiences resemble the vision of the afterlife proposed by Socrates at the end of Plato's Apology, just after the philosopher has been sentenced to death by the city of Athens. In this memorable passage, Socrates suggests that death is one of two things: It's either a dreamless sleep that never ends (annihilation) or a journey to a place that's pretty much exactly like life, with no divine rewards or punishments of any kind.
The most one can say for Lisa Chase's non-theistic spiritual experiences is that they may indicate that secular America is finally catching up to Plato.
But the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus? He is nowhere to be found.