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New kids on the religious block

17 August 2011

In the US, Christianity islosing out to secularism, says Harriet Baber

EVERY year, a professor of religion at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, asks stu­dents on his introductory courses to invent their own religions. Working in groups, they have concocted a wide variety, in­cluding Dessertism, which preaches the stomach as the way to the soul, and Zen Boozism, a religion in which “alcohol lubricates the pathway to self-expression and self-discovery.”

Most of the religions that students invent, Professor Prothero observes, are fully compatible with each other, and make few moral or intel­lec-tual demands. Predictably, students “want to experience joy because of their bodies . . . and they don’t want to be told what to do with those bodies, or with whom.”

My personal religion is a cocktail of aestheti­cism, pedantry, and obsolete hippy-youth culture, concocted from largely Christian ingredients. Its goal is ecstatic union with the One.

That is what I expected the Church to deliver. Growing up unchurched in the past century, religion was, to me, something exotic and spooky: dim lights and incense wafting through a church door; intricate metaphysics and elaborate rituals; mysticism.

Professor Prothero’s students — and mine — never seemed to have had even an inkling of such things. They saw Christianity as a system of rules for belief and behaviour, enforced by adult auth­ority. Quite reasonably, they want no part of it. As consumers, they want religion customised to their liking.

Leaders of dying mainline Churches are con­temptuous of consumerism: they promote “pro­phetic witness” — which, predictably, has few takers. Evangelicals, who are not averse to sales­manship, do a little better, but their religious product is not to everyone’s taste. Who wants a dull Sunday-morning talk-show? Younger Ameri­cans in particular have not been impressed by the sanitised and invariably outdated versions of youth culture that churches produce in the hope of winning them over.

Americans aged 18 to 29 are in every respect less religious than earlier generations were at their age: 72 per cent of them, it is suggested, say that they are “more spiritual than religious”; one in four identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular”. Within a generation or two, the United States will be as secular as Europe.

But perhaps when Christianity has become exotic and outré, it will be reinvented as spir­itual-ity. After Evangelicalism has burnt itself out, and Buddhism has become a stale orthodoxy, then perhaps some 23rd-century celebrity, looking for image-making esoterica, will rediscover Chris­tian-ity. Then the chic will take it up; and, soon after that, the masses.

Spiritual seekers will explore the theology of the Cappadocian Fathers, searching for the wis­dom that their remote ancestors looked for in Khalil Gibran and the Kabbalah. And they will seek out churches — if any are left — looking, as I did, for liturgy and transcendence.

Economists assure us that the market does work — even if only, as John Meynard Keynes observed, “in the long run, when we’re all dead”. In the end, superior products beat junk; so Christian­ity will triumph over Dessertism, Zen Boozism, and all the other spiritualities currently on offer. We can only pray, pace Keynes, that it happens while we are still around to enjoy it.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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