Sunday, January 11, 2009


I have read on more than one occasion that studies show that, among the western nations, the United States is by far the most religious.

Of course the number of times one reads an assertion should not necessarily be considered a measure of that assertion's truthfulness. I won't presume to speak for anybody else, but in my case most of my reading is on subjects that are interesting to me, written from an angle that is congenial to (or at least not hurtfully abusive of) my own point of view.

Because of this, the writers I read tend to hold common thoughts and perspectives and, since they are writing on the same subjects, often draw some of their information from shared sources or even from each other; which means that an unverified, erroneous, or false assertion made once, if it is deemed useful or interesting, is likely to be picked up and disseminated throughout the blogosphere, just as in olden times the plague crept its inexorable way from the hovels of the seething East to the barren moors of Scotland. Corrections come too late; once the error begins to spread it can no longer be contained by a lonely voice of truth posting three or four dozen comments down in the original thread, any more than the Black Death in an English port could be stuffed into a cargo box marked refused and shipped back unopened to Byzantium.

Some folks use this as a reason to criticize the modern generation who does most of its research on the Internet; and while I agree that using the Internet as one's exclusive resource is probably in most cases insufficient, at the same time I feel the criticism is perhaps tainted with a smidge of hypocrisy, since books are susceptible to exactly the same contagion of errors. On the Internet at least there is a chance to detect an error early and edit it out before much damage is done; but with a book the error is bound in perishable materials for all time. At this very moment I sit surrounded by musty old tomes many of which, we now know, are full of falsehoods: the antiquated assumptions of the tweed jacket pipe-smoking set and the obsolete science of crew-cuts and horn rims. In the bibliographies of the historical works I have sometimes amused myself, once I learn of an error (so starved do I sometimes find myself for entertainment when I am unable to indulge my grosser cravings), by going through the footnotes and identifying which of the authors sailed the plague-ship into my harbor and which merely had the ill luck of picking up his infection.

And these are only the errors we know about. Who can tell what other as-yet-unrecognized bogus junk my head is now freighted with after all the reading I have done?

Perhaps that is why (or one of the reasons why) I am so gullible and can believe almost anything, and yet can feel sure about nothing; and why science (and indeed all rational thought) has come to seem like such a scam and a shell game to me. Stable, well-balanced minds can see the tip of the iceberg of error and look beyond it to smooth sailing in the wide-open shining sea of truth; my shivering mind, gnawing its nails and cringing on the deck, can't stop fretting about the enormous mass of invisible error that may lurk unseen and deadly beneath the glassy waters. That wide-open shining sea, to me, is not lit by the blessed sun of knowledge but obscured by fogs of doubt; it is clogged with floes and the gnashing of pack ice, until I sometimes feel that, like those old whalers and seekers after the Northwest Passage, my little ship is in danger of being trapped by the winter freeze and slowly crushed to splinters. Let us hope the hold is stocked with plenty of rum to help me through my vigils in the Arctic night!

But this is an awful lot of staggering over the doubtfulness of assertions for me to finally stumble back onto the subject of this post and to say that I see no reason to question this particular assertion about the religiosity of the United States. Not because I have done any sociological or statistical research or examined the evidence in any way, but because it fits in with my existing prejudices and opinions (which is a horrid reason for believing anything) and because it conforms to my own experience and observations (which is a right and valid reason for believing things, although I do not presume to expect anyone to believe that the experience and observations of drunken slatterns carry any meaningful weight).

I suppose I should take a moment now, since it is becoming obvious to me that I'm not going to be able to get to the point (there really is one, I promise) until I get all the tangential junk out of my head, to try to explain what I mean when I say the United States is religious, since religion is one of those sprawling Russias of a noun which contains within its borders a polyglot diversity of concepts. Traditional native American cultures, Pharaonic Egypt, Republican Rome, Medieval France, Reformation England, and modern-day Saudi Arabia are all, one way or another, religious societies, yet what a gulf lies between the religion of the Ottawa shaman and the Saudi Sheik! Nor is the religious component of American culture quite like any of these others -- in fact compared to them the US doesn't really strike me as being very religious at all, but of course we are not saying that the US is one of the most religious societies in human history but only that it is relatively the most religious when compared to the other, more anemic (religiously speaking), modern western nations.

Yet I do believe my country has a distinctive, characteristically American, religious coloring all its own.

This coloring lies not in the authoritarian dominionism that has been a part of our religious makeup since the first patriarchs landed on Plimoth Rocke, nor in the sober conservative churchgoing of the Teutons of the middle colonies, nor in the backwoods revivalist and millenarian fanaticism of the South, nor even in the panglossian mildness of Transcendentalism and Unitarianism (here let us remember that huge swaths of people in each of these regions and faiths are exempt from the unfair broad-brush characterizations of a booze-ravaged trull), although all of these strains remain in our national blood to this day and play a role in making us the most religious of the western lands.

Rather I think it lies in the same attitude of shallow laziness that defines so much of everything else we do as distinctly American. As a people we cover our obligations by flinging out a thoughtless token gesture that costs us nothing. We establish who we are and what we stand for by sticking on one of the pretty labels mass-produced for us by the panopticon of media and marketing saturation from which, like fish slowly eaten alive by the poisoned sludge of a rust belt river, we are never able to escape.

You can see this coloring in the cracked and faded yellow ribbon car magnets that prove how much the owners support our troopsTM; in the pasty face beaming with smug piety when it shows up in church twice a year on Christmas and Easter; in the arteriosclerotic red bald spot of a disgruntled blob who fancies himself linking hands with Washington and Franklin because he just sent off an angry email to his congressman!

(It is also to be seen in the vacuous mumblings of unproductive alcoholic shrews who have turned the whole track of their lives into one interminable train wreck and now pretend that they have any business saying anything to anyone about anything, but here I discretely draw a veil)

Without knowing a single thing about this survey I am going to tie on my magic blindfold and hazard a completely uninformed and ignorant guess as to why the responses were so high in America as compared to Europe:

Because in Europe if you pose the question are you religious? to a person who doesn't pray, doesn't read the Bible, doesn't belong to a church, and doesn't spend any time worrying about the existence of the numinous or what his relationship to it should be, that person is likely to answer NO.

If you pose that same question to an American who doesn't pray, doesn't read the Bible, doesn't belong to a church, and doesn't spend any time worrying about the existence of the numinous or what his relationship to it should be, that person is likely to answer YES.

(I refer to churches and the Bible because of their cultural predominance in the West, not because I mean to slight the many people whose faiths do not include one or the other of them.)

In America we say yes because here religious is the thing to be, even for people who don't take it seriously, whereas in Europe the bloom has gone off that rose. Most of us here want to be seen as spiritual and reverent even when we're not. I'm not going to waste any more of anybody's time speculating as to why this is so or, for the benefit of those who may disagree with me, making the case that it is so. This is long enough and I am hopelessly stranded as it is.

I think it goes without saying that some people, for good or ill, take their religion very seriously indeed and I am not talking about them, nor about dispassionate atheists, agnostics, or others who will have no truck whatever with religion. I am talking about treating our connection with whatever numinous presence or presences may exist (if any do) as a disposable trifle, something we bring out when we need to entertain ourselves or masturbate our egos and then carelessly toss away; about getting our religion from the metaphysical equivalent of the discount bin at Wal*Mart where we grab all the rest of the cheap Chinese slave-labor junk that infests every angle of our lives; about our apparent belief in a star-spangled super-sized Ronald McDonald god who is supposed to shower material prosperity and eternal life on a herd of spoiled self-indulgent brats who spend all day whining in the playroom while the rest of the world sinks in a deepening sea of misery and despair.

Lest anyone think I am casting judgment -- well, I guess I am, but I pour the filth first on my own head. I am as guilty as anyone. In fact I'm more guilty than most because I know better than to be this way; but alas, it has become apparent to me that knowing better and going ahead anyway is the rail on which the little locomotive of my soul is grooved to run.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, none of this matters very much. Answering yes on that survey isn't like waterboarding somebody; answering no isn't going to put food in a hungry baby's stomach. But maybe it does matter just a little, even beyond the possibility that if we paid more attention to some things we might be a better people and create a better world. If the numinous does exist, I wonder sometimes whether at some point our careless unthinking lack of involvement might turn out to have consequences. I don't mean extravagantastic Cecil B. DeMille consequences like burning in a lake of fire for all time or provoking a demigod to come down out of the sky and start smacking people with a rod of iron, but, as befits elusive and inscrutable inhuman presences, something more subtle and strange.