The Anxiety Over America’s Shifting Spirituality

The Anxiety Over America’s Shifting Spirituality January 20, 2012

A recent essay by Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches, and a post by fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark, shone new light into a phenomenon that I’ve pondered for a long time now: the general anxiety over America’s (and more broadly, the West’s) shifting spiritual practices and demographics. Michaelson, taking note of a recent anti-Yoga hit-piece in the New York Times, blasted a certain tendency to “ridicule any non-Western, non-rationalistic, non-neurotic spiritual practice.”

“How ironic to criticize spiritually-minded people for indulging themselves, when what’s really indulgent is to coddle the fear of anything that might disturb the status quo, might actually attack the neurosis and doubt that make a successful reporter tick. Don’t lose your edge, that’s the important part. Don’t ever give in to—dare I say it—opening your heart.”

Michaelson goes on to equate this rationalist prejudice with “the fears of a Santorum or a Bachmann.” Which brings me to Clark’s post, which links to pieces discussing Public Policy Polling’s 3rd annual TV news trust poll. It found, as it did in previous polls, that while liberals and independents trust a wide variety of television news sources, conservatives tend to trust just one: Fox News. While this study says interesting things about political polarization and epistemic closure, I think it also says interesting things about religion and spirituality in the United States. For Fox News also plays on the anxiety concerning the shifting sands of spirituality, but does so in a manner quite different from the snobbish ridicule of a New York Times, for them its about a culture war between Christianity and the forces of secularism. See, for example, their coverage of Buncombe County Board of Education’s policy on distributing religious materials. While most outlets focused on Ginger Strivelli, a local Witch who challenged the distribution of Bibles, the Fox News piece emphasizes cultural change and upheaval.

“Traditionally, that “grand experiment” has involved Judaism and a handful of Christian denominations. But as non-traditional faiths spread into new communities, longstanding customs such as prayer, Christmas plays and Bibles that once went unquestioned in public schools are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. “Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, not on Wiccan principles,” Bobby Honeycutt, who attended public schools in Weaverville during the 1970s, said. “Our children have access to more non-Christian print material in the libraries and online than they really do Christian stuff,” he said.”

For someone who believes a move away from Christian principles is a vital threat to America’s power and stability, passages like that must only reinforce their worry. So in different ways, these mainstream media outlets from across the political spectrum continue to feed this anxiety, one that is then exploited by canny politicians.  So many stories involving non-Christian faiths or practices, when analyzed, just feed into this larger meme.

And on, and on, and on. As religious minorities continue to press for equal treatment, as more and more Americans engage with practices perceived to be outside the accepted cultural boundaries of normalcy, so the anxiety ratchets up. How Pagan is Halloween? How Hindu will Yoga make you? Should you even vote for a non-Christian? Who does this anxiety serve, and why is it being peddled so fiercely by so many? It all comes down to fear of a post-Christian planet, a world where the West is no longer dominated by one religious or cultural context.

Back in August of 2011, I wrote about statistical models and studies concerning the slow decline of Christian dominance, and how as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people. While this shift will hardly see Christianity’s statistical dominance toppled any time soon, it does mean a future where compromise and coexistence will be emphasized over top-down hegemony.

“The future isn’t about dominance, but about coexistence. Many faiths and philosophies sitting at the table, instead of one (or two) faith groups telling everyone else what the agenda is. The numbers are shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order. The near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents, but they’ll soon lose their unified monopoly on social and political agendas. Alongside the accepted Christians-Catholics-Jews tri-faith understanding that emerged in the early 20th century will be the Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, practitioners of indigenous religions, and yes, Muslims.”

What can we do? While there’s little that can be done to stop the anxieties that come from slow and massive demographic changes, we can demand accountability and balance from our media outlets, engage in outreach and interfaith dialog where it is appropriate, and work to ensure that the boundaries between Church and State hold firm. At the end of the day, we have to understand that this anxiety is really a testament to how influential religious minorities in the United States, and in the West, have become. As trade unionist Nicholas Klein said in 1918: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” We are no longer being ignored, the time of ridicule and attack is at hand, but as visionaries we know that the time of monuments will come.

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46 responses to “The Anxiety Over America’s Shifting Spirituality”

  1. “…longstanding customs such as prayer, Christmas plays and Bibles that once went unquestioned in public schools are finding themselves under increased scrutiny. “

    Ok, I’ll give him the Christmas plays, but since when were Bibles standard fare in public schools?

  2. Currently my husband and I living with my parents (this will change soon) due to him being long term unemployed we were put in a position where there was no other option. My parents are very Christian people and while I respect their views and realize I’m in their home I do hear the conversations they have about how people are against them.

    The most recent conversation that comes to mind was about a particular football player. Forgive me if I don’t know names or teams as I really don’t follow sports, my parents and other family members however are very much into sports. Anyway the conversation was about how people were against this particular NFL football player because he was Christian. I’m not sure if that’s the case or not but I’m pretty sure here at my parents house it was made a huge deal of.

    I just hope in the end people realize faith is a very personal thing no matter what you choose to have faith in and because of that it should remain out of politics.

  3. Angel, I suspect that this player in question was Tim Tebow. I would never have heard of him either except that I follow GetReligion, a blog devoted to news coverage of religious topics and run by fairly conservative Christians. Tebow is a religious exhibitionist: He scribes “John 3:16” in the gunk that players put under their eyes, and kneels in prayer on the field every time he scores. It’s not out of line for someone like that to draw a certain amount of snark but I’ve seen comments on GetReligion about people who “hate” the guy. I would not be surprised if Tebow was the chap your parents were talking about.

    This reaction arises, I daresay, from exactly the kind of anxiety that Jason is writing about in this post. When only a few faiths set the agenda a chap like Tebow — moderate exhibitionist who doesn’t let that compromise his game — is a devout young man. With more than one faith viewpoint available, more than one reaction is possible, including that he’s a posturing jerk. The latter upsets people like your parents because it’s a sign (to them) of the erosion of religion.

    I’ve gone on at length here because what you report fits so precisely into the subject of today’s post. I hope you can maintain your compassion for your parents — this is suffering, even if it arises from narrowness of mind — and that you and your husband will soon be able to change your circumstances. Best of fortune.

  4. The Roman Catholic Pope [says], “beware ‘powerful new cultural currents’ that run counter to ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ and are ‘increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.'”

    Is this the pot calling the kettle black?

  5. I welcome all religions, all ideas that lift others. many many faiths teach the same principles of do no harm treat others as well or better than you want to be treated, and respect others lives. why is this so hard to understand ?

  6. The chart of mystical/religious experiences is fascinating. In fifty years, nicely contained within my adult lifetime, we have gone from a nation less than a quarter of whose population has had such experiences, to one in which half have, and the trend continues upward. We are winning.

    That doesn’t mean we can relax our efforts, but we should act in confidence that those efforts are directed against the losing side.

    We can’t relax because we are in the midst of a backlash from the losing side. The most visible present agent of the backlash is Rick Santorum but he’s far from alone. You, Jason, have exposed the workings of the backlash in various posts here, especially over the last year. Hang in there, and blessed be.

  7. Accountability and interfaith dialog are a lot more possible when everything isn’t shrouded in religious and political identity wrappers.

    Then maybe the following will lose their umph:

    Either you have a Christian moral compass or you have none.

    Pluralism is the road to anarchy, anti-intellectualism, rampant immaturity and moral decay. (E Pluribus Unum…what’s that?)

    The Forces of Good™ vs. The Forces of Evil™ dualism makes everything about religious identity and internal and external enemies…and that’s good. It gives everything such clarity.

    Family values, as the axis of morality, are best brewed from a slow boil of dominionist loving hate, Judeo Christian Nation revisionism, democratic ‘more equal than thou’ equality, misogynistic women-centric sexism, heterosexism (a.k.a. homophobia), secular creedism, unbelievable hypocrisy and great honking doses of black and white thinking.

  8. Where’s the snobbish ridicule in the NY Times yoga piece. Seems to me like balanced article about the fact that a lot of people have had injuries doing yoga. Should that not be written about?

  9. Quote Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches:

    “Fourteen paragraphs are devoted to Glenn Black, a yoga teacher and physical therapist who explains How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, while zero paragraphs (not one!) are devoted to an opposing voice; someone, anyone from the yoga or medical communities who has a different point of view. Shockingly for a New York Times piece, Black is never challenged on his views by Broad or by anyone else.”

  10. I belong to a Yoga mailing list, and they have been discussing that article at length with the same complaint. In their view, it seemed as if the problem was a lack of formal regulation on what it takes to be qualified as a yoga instructor, letting many unqualified individuals take on the mantle of teacher.

    However, there are many stories of the benefits of yoga to people with various health problems such as Fibromyalgia, degenerated disks, and other postural problems that could have provided a contrasting voice in the article.

  11. I agree , jason, we are in the beginnings of the transition to a post Christian west. I also agree we in the minority faiths must remain vigilant . Keep pushing for the America our founding fathers wanted for us . Not the Christian Theocracy our freinds the Domonionist prefer . Keep up the good work my freind , these ideas need to be heard, and the extremist crazies exposed . Thank you Kilm

  12. Up through the early 60s, when the Supreme Court started to take the establishment clause seriously with Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963).

    Even well into the present day, schools are constantly playing games to dodge the intent of that, allowing Bible distribution and “student-led” prayers and study groups

  13. Until The New England Primer was introduced in American classrooms in the Mid-1700’s, the most common “textbook” in every classroom was the Bible. Even still, the Primer was simply chocked full of biblical references. Up until the 1950’s one would be surprised to enter an elementary- high school classroom that did not have a Bible on it’s shelves.

  14. Social commentator and former alter-boy George Carlin sums it up, “Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bull*** story. Holy S***!”

  15. Thank you, Jason, for your continued hard work in making sure the Pagan community can see many sides to these stories. Thank you for continuing to hold peoples’ feet to the fire, and keeping us all informed.

  16. Actually, as the NYT article was coming out, the American College of Physicians was publishing an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine about how yoga was superior to pills for the management of chronic neck pain. I’ve practiced solo for 30 years-I can see how you could hurt yourself if you are “competing” to be the most flexible in your class, tho. Personally, if I can’t do an asana, I do the best I can with the ones I can do…

    As for the perpetual victimhood of Christianity, it’s just an emotional ploy to enforce compliance with a rigid dogmatic social order. The pope is the last person to speak….the dogmatic social order of the Catholic church brought us the Crusades, the selling of indulgences AKA “tickets to heaven”, the Spanish Inquisition ,Nazi collaboration, and decades of church endorsed pedophilia….

  17. “Our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, not on Wiccan principles,”

    Wrong, red ryder. America was founded on deism principles. The founding father were not Christian nor Jewish. They were deists. Read up on it, before you make comments that are wrong.

  18. I practice yoga primarily as a supplement to Tai Chi, but in both I’ve heard of something called the 70% rule. You figure out the farthest you can go into a posture or asana and then you only do 70% of that until you feel your body is ready to move farther.

    As for the christian refusal to relinquish the dominant position: I was just listening to an old Cat Stevens song ‘Morning has Broken.” It’s a beautiful song written by a man who found his path in Islam. Yet, I have heard this same song sung as a hymn in countless churches. What christians (in general – individually, I know many christians who are truly good people) cannot co-opt they deny, what they cannot deny they fight. But our numbers are growing, and with that a more tolerant world may yet emerge.

  19. Politicians, zealots, and people corrupted by power/material wealth never let pesky things like facts get in the way of a story or agenda.

  20. You’re asking for research and logic from people who often believe the world is only 6,000 years old. I feel that’s a bit of a lost cause…

  21. I wouldn’t say Christians ‘co-opted’ the Cat Stevens song; IIRC his conversion to Islam happened many years after “Teaser and the Firecat” was released.

  22. However, the article does not deny benefits of yoga or make fun of it. It is an except from a book about the damage that some people have had. It makes a point that yoga is now practiced by people in many states of (ill) health and people are often practicing forms that their bodies are not ready for or capable of handling. A point of the article was that yoga was not designed as something for everybody, but that in the US, especially in the last decade, it has been promoted as such. Mr Black is a yoga teacher; how can he be construed as attacking yoga in general? The author seems to be making a call for better training, and attention to the fact that yoga may not be for every body. I am wondering how many people actually read the article.

  23. Over the years I have written and had published just over 200 articles on the Neo Pagan community. Generally I play the Devil’s Advocate in order to lend balance to the fluff that pervades Neo Paganism. In regards to the Christians, they have been bent on world dominance since their inception. They started sending out Apologists about 300 CE. Those folks in turn became what we now know as missionaries. And so the concept of fear being generated in this article is nothing new.
    The reality is that if Neo Paganism ever actually became organized, even loosely, and if Neo Pagans ever became proficient at the mystical arts, then and only then would there be a legitimate threat to the dominance currently enjoyed by the Christians.
    The reality is that if you take away the Internet, there would be no pagan community as envisioned by Neo Pagans. The majority of Neo Pagans have no clue as to the utilization of the mystical arts. And those pagans that do have a clue generally shy away fron Neo Pagan activities. If Neo Pagans want to be seen as a legitimate force, well, there needs to be a maturity level not currently seen in the current mindset. Neo Pagan folks need to stop being pretentious (reading off of a piece of paper is so naive) and should focus their energies on true knowledge. Every movement has a learning curve, so there is always hope that maturity will take the place of trying to be “it” simply because it looks cool and fullfills one ‘s personal ego trip…

  24. I agree with Marc about use of “Morning Has Broken” not being an example of Christian co-optation. The song appears in the UU hymnal (not exactly a bastion of Dominionism, to be sure) and the Unitarian Universalist Association fairly negotiates royalties with all copyright holders.

    I also agree with Marc’s chronology of Stevens’ career.

  25. The contrapositive of taking away the Internet is silly. Take away the invention of moveable type and Protestantism would not be what it is. Religions grow in the technological milieus into which they emerge, and that is reality.

  26. ‘Morning Has Broken’ was originally a Christian hymn, with words written by Eleanor Farjeon (not Cat Stevens) and set to a traditional Scottish tune that had previously been used for a different Gaelic hymn. While Christians have stolen much from paganism, this (except for, conceivably, the tune) does not seem to be the case here.

  27. What criteria are you using to distinguish those you define as “Neo Pagans” from other “pagans” (other than the use ritual scripts)? What defines a “Neo Pagan activity”, “mystical arts”, and “true knowledge”?

    I agree that there can be a lot of fluff in certain aspects of (Neo)Paganism, especially among those who recently came to these paths from a different religious background, but to discount the entire movement seems a bit short-sighted.

  28. I’m thoroughly impressed by the rationale that western culture has embraced. Somehow, it has led us to believe (all of us, dominionist and other) that the “founding fathers” were all of the same religious or philosophical bent.

  29. There are extremely few, if any, old-school pagans left in existence. Neopagans are the result of the eclectic reconstruction of dozens of pagan religions from around the world at this point. There are a few Reconstructionist pagans out there, but they are somewhat few and far between. Some simple definitions for you.

    Pagan – I practice and believe the pagan religion my parents raised me in, as they were raised in it, as our ancestors practiced it. These practices have not been merged with, influenced by, or replaced by the religious practices or beliefs of other cultures or traditions.

    Reconstructionist – I believe in, and attempt to adhere to, a pure, well-read and thoroughly studied record of a dead religion. My practice of that religion is based on what information is available, but I attempt to live and practice as the original worshipers did when the religion was active. My beliefs specifically exclude other traditions, religions, and cultures.

    Neopagan – I believe in a collection of spiritual, religious, mystical, and philosophical tenets and structures from a spectrum of religious and cultural sources. While my religious and spiritual beliefs may center on one tradition, this is influenced by and merged with other traditions and cultures. This movement is largely based on poorly researched and heavily diluted Wicca, given several decades to brew.

    Then of course there are the various traditions and types of people who only practice the mystical arts, or the varieties as above coupled with various styles of practice. Mix any of the above with practice of magic, and you have a witch of one sort of another. This really is too complex a subject to go into in a comment thread, though.

  30. I really don’t see oldline Pagan vs. neo-Pagan as being the problem. I see the problem as being a lack of commitment to one’s own life, let alone commitment to a religion. If one is disorganized in their personal life, they’ll not be organized in religion, either. We have a few very well-run organizations and a lot of “I’ll celebrate Imbolc if the Super Bowl doesn’t interfere” Pagans. We have a lot of dedicated individuals, and a lot of drumming and drinking on the weekends Pagans. “If Neo Pagans want to be seen as a legitimate force, well, there needs to be a maturity level not currently seen in the current mindset.” Oh, YEAH… but reading a ceremony aloud in ritual isn’t the problem. Being flaky is the problem!

  31. Again, this ain’t the problem… how we do (or don’t) define ourselves. The problem is people of all these philosophies and mindsets who can’t get their act together, who can’t hold a job, take care of their own kids, put down the marijuana joint or the beer can, and actually form a coherent group to accomplish something.

  32. An article was just published about the benefits of Yoga for injured war veterans, in a mainstream Texas newspaper, of all places.

    So much for “wrecking your body” because the focus of the article was on getting combat vets to accept Yoga as valid physical training and a daily workout, rather than its image of fluffy new age spirituality (sorry, Yoga practitioners, but that IS how Yoga is viewed by many…). The piece mentioned all of the health benefits of Yoga, as well as a way to relieve stress in a positive manner.

  33. The first time an attempt was made to remove them from the classroom was in the US Grant Administration, pushed by President Grant himself!

  34. I think the “problem” you’re seeing is the inevitable result of the new rising generation of Pagans taking their places in the community, having their voices heard, and making their opinions known. The fact that the new generation is willing to question, experiment, and organize in ways that come most naturally to them. It is also the first generation in human history for whom the Internet and all other forms of modern media are much more the norm so there is much greater understanding and use of tech to its fullest potential. Whatever form the community develops in to its definitely going to be a very different place than it has been for the last generation for many reasons, tech familiarity being only one of them.

  35. NeverMaker, none of your definitions is the least credible unless each of them would be accepted by the people using the label.

    Your definition of NeoPagan utterly fails this test. It is insulting, and reflects a clear weakness on your part of being unable to talk about NeoPagans without putting them down. As long as you do this you will be fairly regarded as a petty partisan with snark for brains.

    Try setting aside whatever beef you have with NeoPagans, and crafting a definition that the people who claim that label can respect.

    This is homework you assigned yourself by presenting yourself to the public as a purveyor of definitions. The sooner you get cracking on it, the sooner you will be accepted the way you want.

  36. You are right, there is a failing in our view of the Founding generation as a philosophical monoculture. It derives from the reflex to deify that generation.

    The late UU author and minister Forrest Church wrote a book, “So Help Me God,” on church-state conflicts among the Founders. It contains, for example, stuff about John Adams you won’t find in that mini-series about him.

    Summarily, some Founders believed with Jefferson that religion was another one of the freedoms natural to free men; others believed with Adams that religious virtue was essential for a society to make secular freedoms work well. Both sets of belief are reflected in politics today.

    Just FYI, photography could have been discovered by the Revolution; the necessary chemistry was available. I’ve heard it specualted that, if we had photographs of the Founders the way we do of Lincoln they would seem more human and harder to deify.

  37. I would agree except for the last point. We do have photos of Lincoln and yet here in Illinois at least, he is revered with a status at least equal to that of a demigod. No kidding, there are buildings and institutions every bit equal to any ancient temple which have been raised to Lincoln and a mythology which glosses over many human or even unsavory traits of his. We have good detailed photos of him, and let’s face it, he was as ugly as a serial killer’s heart, but we still deified him!

    Still, I think you’re onto something, but I think to truly humanize someone well past living memory of them, audio or even video is more potent. With just photos, or even more so paintings and statues, you end up with abstract representations on which it is easy to project our own modern ideas and voices.

    Yet even that has its limitations. We have volumes of video and audio from Martin Luther King, and even a good stock of firsthand witnesses, and yet he too has been deified in a sense. He’s become elevated to the status of a saintly, almost messianic being who we know only for a few key phrases on racial justice. His work against Jim Crow segregation is now politically “safe” and in vogue. No one outside of serious scholars on the matter ever read or hear his words on economic injustice and his challenge of America’s imperial power.

  38. To quote you, I agree except for the last point. I’m a Unitarian Universalist Pagan, and folks at my UU church — including me & my wife — are quite aware of the work King was doing when his life was ended, and we’re not scholars on the matter. Our MLK Day service lifted up the Letter from the Birmingham Jail and did not mention the Dream speech.

  39. Kenneth wrote:
    We do have photos of Lincoln and yet here in Illinois at least, he is revered with a status at least equal to that of a demigod. No kidding, there are buildings and institutions every bit equal to any ancient temple which have been raised to Lincoln and a mythology which glosses over many human or even unsavory traits of his. We have good detailed photos of him, and let’s face it, he was as ugly as a serial killer’s heart, but we still deified him!

    um…so? why is the deification of some of our most influential leaders a bad thing? Many of the ancient heroes did terrible things, were mean, crude, crass – yet they are still revered. Just because we are closer temporally to these leaders, doesn’t mean they are not worthy of veneration.

  40. Hell the were still using reading text books full of bible stories and having class prayer in elementary school in the rural north flroida town I grew up in till the early nineties.
    One of the teachers actually got involved in a law suit over the prayer.

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