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Moralistic Therapeutic Whatever & The Future Of Religion

Conor Friedersdorf posts a short report from a religion panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. An audience member observed that it’s an exciting thing to see American religions breaking down and recombining, all mixy-matchy. Leon Wieseltier wasn’t having it:

“To call oneself a Muslim, a Jew, or a Catholic, what do the continuities have to be?” he asked. “You cannot simply erase the entirety of the religion that preceded you and call yourself a Jew. You can say that there is this tradition that is X,Y, and Z, interpret as you choose, state your reasons. It’s a free country, this is the kind of Jew you want to be. What worries me is that the new forms will be so disconnected from the traditions that something called Judaism will survive but that the tradition in its richness may not. That is my deepest fear about my faith.”

Wieseltier added, “On the question of what is true or false about the universe, Americans are not interested anymore.”

I think that’s true. A Christian friend of the Millennial generation and I were talking recently. She’s been living on the West Coast, and says that the shift in attitude among her friends, even Christian ones, on the gay marriage issue has been rapid and stark. I don’t want to put words into her mouth — she reads this blog, so she may wish to clarify her thoughts — but as I recall from our conversation, the velocity and ferocity of the shift has left her disoriented. The issue went from something up for discussion to “the conversation is over — and you had better be on the right side” virtually overnight. One thing that worries and depresses my friend is that there seems to be no basis for a conversation about why we believe what we believe. The assumption now seems to be that your beliefs don’t have to cohere, or even cohere within a religious tradition; it’s expected that you pick and choose your beliefs, so you will be held responsible for affirming those that the Church of What’s Happening Now declares to be bigotry, or outmoded.

I told my friend about how difficult it is to have a meaningful conversation about religion because nobody takes religion seriously, not even most religious people. I used to get into arguments with Catholic friends over Catholic teaching, which I defended (even after I left the Catholic Church). It would drive me nuts because I would build an argument based on official Catholic teaching … and get nowhere. Though identifying as Catholics, these folks felt not the least obligation to yield to the teaching authority of the Catholic institution. They believed that because they were Catholics by birth and baptism, whatever they wanted to believe didn’t make them any less Catholic. It was impossible to have a meaningful discussion with Catholics who didn’t feel bound by the basic teachings of the Catholic Church. No connection to the traditions or the thinking of the Church.

Wieseltier’s right: truth and falsity on these questions really don’t matter to Americans anymore. What matters is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is the universal solvent of religious tradition in America.

UPDATE: I can well imagine that this concern is baffling to secularists and to religious liberals, who don’t see change within a religion as potentially problematic. This, I think, is because there is a fundamental divide between religious progressives and secularists on one side, and religious traditionalists on the other. Traditionalists really do believe that religious truth claims are objectively true, and binding. That’s not to say we can’t modify our understanding of particular doctrines and practices somewhat, but it is to say that we should only do so with great care and after much deliberation. For traditionalists, religion is about what the eternal God has to say to man. For progressives, religion is what temporal man says about God.

UPDATE.2: Great comment by Political Atheist:

There is something truly unprecedented about how people in affluent societies like our own feel free to manipulate, or as Daniel Bell put it, “ransack,” religious traditions for their own ends. It usually did not occur to people in the premodern past, when they did something wrong, to fault the theology or moral value system and endeavor to correct it so that their deed could then be regarded as faultless. I’m not saying that people were necessarily more moral, indeed, they were far more hypocritical than we are, but our war against hypocrisy has been so total that moral norms themselves have become a kind of collateral damage.

Religion is not only a system of beliefs and values, but also a means for human beings to relate to the past. My chief problem with atheism is not that it leads to amorality, but rather that it leaves the individual stranded in the present, bereft of the intellectual and spiritual means to relate to history and to the lives of those who preceded him or her. The loss of religion leaves people unable to connect their own time to history, and so they lose sight of what is possible and what is not possible in the present. They also become unable to understand how precarious their freedoms and enjoyments are – I seriously doubt whether moralistic therapeutic deism can withstand an extended period of economic hardship. Much of what we recognize as freedom is only possible because of an expanding economy and a ballooning debt.

Religion provides a model for action and behavior – the resurrection of Christ is a figure that underscores how the past lives on in the believer who takes Christ as his or her model. Those who lose consciousness of the past live in an intellectually impoverished condition, unable to recognize and appreciate the virtues, as well as the vices and frailties, of those who came before us and who achieved far more than we have. It is only by imagining the lives of great men and women that we have any hope of rising above ourselves and above the mediocrity that is endemic to the modern condition.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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