Essay 3: Realms of Faith in America
“My religion is different from anyone else’s,” a friend recently confided. He explained that it was personal and did not need the authorization of any organization to be valid. He has joined the “None of the Above” movement. I would argue that he may have religion but he does not have A RELIGION. Unless he can identify with a tradition he is missing something, including a supportive religious community. But the problem in the United States is bigger than the issue of exercising personal preference in designing a belief system. That freedom exists, of course, even in organized churches with rigid doctrines; every member’s set of beliefs is unique.
Religion is the beliefs and practices of people that give them a shared sense of connection to the transcendent-sacred and thereby to each other. The purpose of religion is to bridge a gap between the holy and the mundane. Religion-in-general is detached from particular narratives and is personal, perhaps even private and secret. “A religion” has achieved a committed following. This essay is about the difference between a religion and religion-in-general.
Religions of the world have various characteristics in common:
A CORE NARRATIVE All world religions and most regional and ethnic religions have a story or collection of stories about one or more primal divine-human encounters. This central story may have literary attachments such as hymns, poems, wise sayings, and especially stories of more recent divine-human encounters that reiterate the first encounter.
RITUAL Religious practices also re-enact that encounter and make it current. These enactments are designed to be peak experiences of the religion’s central issue, a salvation issue involving a transformation, enabled by a primary intermediary. The Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and Zoroaster are such intermediaries, as are Moses and Mohammed (in a somewhat different sense). Ritual re-enactments engage participants emotionally, intellectually, physically, and socially. The ritual implies a suspension of time, an alternative living reality, symbolic transcendence, and physical commitment. This central ritual is repeated in life-passage rites and in regular services.
DOCTRINE Creeds, rules of discipline, and central theological statements are refinements of a religion’s core narrative to derive specific truths that impact personal and community life. Some doctrinal statements are meant to be essential for membership in the religious organization, while other religious organizations merely have an implied doctrine that is intuited.
COMMUNITY Most religions have organized religious societies of adherents. Those societies may be natural communities, e.g. “everybody who lives around here.” Christianity adopted the Roman mystery religions’ practice of a long impressive orientation and initiation. Depending on how the religion is comprised, most societies have local associations that are part of a larger organization. These local societies in most religions erect special places for the conduct of their rituals and as gathering points for social events. Within those places one space at least is designated as particularly sacred, although that may be just when sacred activities are being conducted there. If the organization is old enough, some of these places become heritage sites with special significance. Most religious societies also have important leaders, usually designated as teachers, whereas key persons from the past are noted for their affinity with the divine. There is a tendency in religious societies to form sub-groups to render particular service, and for ranks of membership to develop. These ranks often undertake specific disciplines.
To be clear, “a religion” (rather than religion-in-general) is a society with rituals based on a core narrative that illustrates or defines that society’s understanding of the divine-human encounter. Briefer, “a religion” is a group of people, whereas “religion” is what the group has and does.
It would be worthwhile if there were agreement about some such non-controversial delineation as this. Instead, modern history is rife with arguments and wars about whether this or that religion is “true” and valid. Renaissance Europeans were surprised to find full-fledged religions in civilized lands they newly explored. There was quite a flap when Jesuit missionaries began to describe how fully developed Buddhism had become. Buddhism had sophisticated scripture, a core doctrine of salvation (i.e. enlightenment), a central figure bridging the gap between the sacred and the secular, complex rites, and a society of believers who lived disciplined and restrained lives. Buddhism even had a celibate rank of priests, as all respectable religions should have, the Jesuits reported.*
On the other hand, well into the 19th century, English imperialists refused to accept Hinduism as anything but primitive superstition and heathen idolatry. The effort to eradicate Native Americans (First Nation groups) from their ancestral lands and lifestyles was fueled by the prejudice against indigenous religion. The same dynamic applied to the treatment of aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, and Polynesians in Oceania. Some anthropologists still insist on using the term animism indiscriminately.
However, confusion about what is “a religion” and what is better called spirituality or just “religious” becomes an important civil issue when a particular religion gains official status. It is important to delineate between realms of faith, and this becomes difficult in secular cultures and nations.
The 19th century was a time of major religious innovation in America. Being without a state religion, nothing officially prevented the development of sects, cults and denominations. Most of them faded as did the New Harmony community in Indiana. Some became part of mainline religion, as did the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Others, like the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Seventh Day Adventists, prospered after gaining traction and respect.
The confusion in the USA now at the dawn of the 21st century is ridiculous. The USA has taken a broad view of what a religion is – to the extent that Scientology is classified as a church even though its founder was really seeking tax-exempt status and Scientology lacks all indicators to be a religion rather than a spirituality and personal improvement program. In the same way, “ministers” of the Universal Life Church gain tax exemptions despite having no established practices, social organization, or scripture. Their web-site declares that any beliefs or none at all are fine with them. Ordination is free, but they charge for a certificate. A Doctor of Metaphysics diploma costs $35, no questions asked. County clerks in Illinois report that marriages officiated by ministers of Universal Life Church outnumber those of any traditional church.
When anything can be a religion, no distinctions are possible. The USA has arrived at this point. Franklin Graham has absconded with his father’s prestige to presume to speak in behalf of American Christendom in the effort to de-legitimize Islamic religion in the USA. He’s getting away with it among the extreme right who fear the loss of their patriarchal white Protestant cultural position. Meanwhile, a movement is gaining momentum to extend religious privileges to individuals (to discriminate on the basis of religious loathing) without reference to declared affiliation with any organization or particular religion. Separation of church and state has become refusal to distinguish between what is a religion and religion-in-general.
[Next essay is this “Realms of Faith in America” series will be “Folk Faith” in July.]
*[Thanks to Eva Pascal for this research insight.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.