Friedersdorf relays a conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the evolution of religion spurred by an audience question about mixing and matching elements of various faith traditions, and even if you can be religious without believing in God. Leon Wieseltier was skeptical of such trends:
“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.”
Professor Molly Worthen, another panelist, expressed a related concern. “Call me old fashioned, but yes, I would say, to be a good Catholic you have to believe in God,” she said. “There’s a problem with the hyper-individualization of Millennial religion. The advantage of an institution is that it forces you into conversation with people you might not agree with. It forces you to grapple with a tradition that includes hard ideas. It forces you to have, for at least part of your life, a respect for authority that inculcates the sense that you have something to learn, that you’re not reinventing the wheel, but that millennia have come before you. The structure of institutions, for all their evils, facilitates that. And we may be losing that.”
Wieseltier posited that it’s being lost because Americans are trying to bring to their religious experience the same level of customization that they expect when shopping. “They treat their tradition as consumers–or let’s say, consumers with loyalty to one store.”
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.