Religious Capital

Eric Weiner’s book, Man Seeks God, surely received a boost with an article in Sunday papers (originally written for the Los Angeles Times). In this piece, Weiner comments on the American fluidity of religion, how people pick and choose the spirituality that works for them. His observations are based on the results of a Pew Trust study that indicates about a third of Americans change their religion during their lifetimes. This is a departure from the age-old tradition of being born into a religion, something that still seems to apply to two-thirds of the American population. In his article Weiner suggests this is not entirely a bad thing, since people are consciously deciding on that to which they will commit themselves. I haven’t yet read Weiner’s book, but the situation described here has a potent underlying implication.

Religions tend to make claims based on certitudes and assertions of absolute truth. When religion becomes merely a matter of choice, has it not lost its very foundation? This may not be a bad thing, but it does change completely the essence of religion. No longer can religion be considered an inviolable truth handed down from on high if the truth is a matter of choice. Or, more troubling, perhaps we no longer seek truth. In a population based on personal satisfaction, religion becomes an extension of personal comfort. In a society where non-faith is suspect (most atheists still complain of being considered “evil” for their non-belief), people need to believe something—anything. We can’t test the truth in any empirical way, so we all have to admit to some guessing. When born into a religion, questioning is a sign of doubt. When shopping for a religion, questioning is a smart economics. Does this religion work for me? Is there one that suits me better? Is it worth the extra costs?

The center of focus has shifted from seeking the one, unwavering truth that is beyond us to seeking a belief that we can stomach. Religion is a commodity. Perhaps this development is inevitable in any society so dedicated to the free market that even common decency is labeled socialism. Is it possible for people who constantly think in terms of supply and demand to understand an absolute in one tiny sector of their lives? Choice becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Its pragmatism indicates its origins. When people can choose a religion without consequences, it should be obvious that this is a human construct. Instead, we want to believe that our religion is the right one because that’s the way we like it. Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether our lifestyle is authentic or simply a fabrication made to suit our wishes. Our treatment of religion as a product to purchase and use reveals more about what we believe than does any creed.

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