When the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared in 1883 that God was dead, he miscalculated the staying power of religion. Since the turn of the century the number of Christians across the globe has almost quadrupled — from 558 million to 1.9 billion. Other religions have shown equally large increases.
In America today 96 percent of the population professes to believe in God or some kind of universal spirit. Sixty-seven percent of Americans belong to a church or synagogue. Thirty-nine percent attend services at least once a week.
Why should Mother Jones, a political investigative magazine, examine the state of faith in America? Some might argue that religion and politics don’t mix, claiming that spirituality is a purely private matter. But a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center illuminates how religion already affects our political landscape: Two out of five Americans report that religion heavily influences whom they choose to support in an election.
Not surprisingly, white evangelical Protestants are the most cohesive religious electorate. They are not only more conservative about life choices that go against their religion, such as abortion or homosexuality, they are also more hardline on a wide range of political issues, from the environment to international security. Although white evangelical Protestants make up only 25 percent of registered voters in the United States, the Pew study concluded that their conservatism is “clearly the most powerful religious force in politics today.” Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have made startling membership gains, while mainline churches have lost about a quarter of their members in the past 25 years. The willingness of mainstream Christian leaders to confront their evangelical brethren seems to have declined even more precipitously.
Because the doctrinaire hegemony for which the religious right is fighting assaults the most basic tenets of a pluralistic society, we cannot allow spirituality to be the exclusive preserve of the politically conservative. But I’m much less worried about a theocratic takeover than about the lopsidedness of the American spirit. After all, the realm of the soul — real or imagined — is where most of us make our most important moral decisions.
For too long, progressives and the establishment have ceded public discussion about morality to the religious right. That’s a major reason Mother Jones has dared step foot on this sacred ground. Still, we do this not just to counter the religious right. Spirituality, if approached with integrity and intelligence, is an effective force for public good. Brave mainstream people of faith have made common cause with reformers at key moments in America’s past — from abolitionism to the Progressive era, from the New Deal to the civil rights movement.
Many political reformers have lost this historical understanding. Some civic activists seem righteously wedded to atheist or agnostic positions, as if the impulse to do good is best if it emanates from reason alone. Ironically, an absolute reliance on rationality resembles the religious right’s fundamentalism. I prefer a mix of faith and skepticism. Some skepticism toward religious impulses is healthy since most established religions have authoritarian, sexist traditions, and too many New Age spiritual leaders traffic in charismatic narcissism.
If Karl Marx were frowning down on us today, he might still muse that religion is the opium of the people. Marx thought that if economic arrangements were more equitable, people wouldn’t need to escape into faith. But neither he nor Nietzsche could see that animating the world’s religions is a profound — sometimes suppressed, sometimes hidden — life-affirming impulse. To sense our place in a vast universe, some of whose principles (death, for example) lie fundamentally beyond our comprehension, doesn’t mean we should cede control of our hearts and minds. A sense of humility can give birth to deep personal satisfaction and courage.
Over the centuries, though, Western civilization has become so intoxicated by dominance that we no longer honor communion between the rational and irrational aspects of life. Paleolithic cultures apparently were tamed by tribes that demoted goddess worship and elevated sky gods. Male gods gradually reigned supreme. As fertility lost its mystery the imbalance between male and female increased, and nature became desacralized. In their book The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford assert that, for the past 4,000 years, the feminine principle, “which manifests itself in mythological history as ‘the goddess’ and in cultural history as the values placed upon spontaneity, feeling, instinct, and intuition,” has been lost as a valid expression of the sanctity and unity of life.
Whether or not you accept their conclusions about the Paleolithic past, it is certainly true that the earth is no longer experienced as a living being. We have flattened our forests, overfished our seas, eradicated species and ecosystems. It is no coincidence that the original meaning of pollution was the profaning of that which is sacred.
Can modern religion be brought back down to earth, its patriarchal hierarchy rebalanced? The effort is already under way. Sixty-one percent of Americans think priests should be allowed to marry (see “Unfaithful,” page 44). Sixty percent believe women should be allowed to become priests. Balanced spirituality can provide vision in times of crisis by placating the ego and pulling for both strength and humility. In my own life, when repeatedly faced with the grave illness and subsequent death of those closest to me, I’ve found faith the most sustainable, healing resource. Personally, I’m grateful when I find faith in something larger than myself. This gratitude, I’ve noticed, generates optimism.
Let’s chalk up the last few centuries to rational, or lateral, development. Now it’s time to admit that we still don’t fundamentally comprehend or control the world. We can reconnect vertically — face doubt, mystery, and awe — without losing the insights of the Enlightenment.
None of us really knows the source of the life pulse. Many of us speculate. Some of us embrace the intuitive basis of our speculations; others of us hold firmly to all that is quantifiable, and therefore reasonable. But all systems of belief or disbelief, including science, have suprarational foundations. Science posits that humans can only make progress based upon revealed, objective, repeatable truths. This is a respectable faith. But when it is used uncritically as the only model for improvement, it leads to social engineering programs that can have either pathetic or disastrous results.
In the future, belief systems will have to become increasingly interdependent. I’m not advocating a blend of everything that is easy and appetizing. The integrity of each faith is part of each one’s particular appeal. But quiet conversations about convergences might help believers and skeptics alike deepen their compassion.
As we enter the 21st century, it becomes harder not to recognize the commonality of the human condition. Our societies are fragmenting as we continue to hyper-focus on personal consumption. Lip service has replaced real service. How much longer can we afford to ignore the mutual responsibilities we bear for the health of our symbiotic web?
Precisely because I feel that enlightened faith can help nurture our common future, I am a devout believer in the separation of church and state. The government’s prime role in this regard should be to protect freedom of religion. The freer we are to forge our own faiths, the more vital these beliefs are likely to be.
Nietzsche could not conceive the extent to which religion could be a source of human empowerment. And Marx did not recognize that our desire to connect with a transcendent power runs even deeper than our drive for economic satisfaction. Each of us seeks. How we honor each other’s search will tell the tale of the next millennium.