All belief is first belief about belief. If, according to an argument I will be continuing to explore with reference to current events, many political problems are actually syncretic problems, then the particular meta-beliefs that predominate in a polity or that characterize opposing polities or parties may structure conflicts in ways that are in theory accessible, but are rarely accessed directly and are not necessarily easily accessible. Part of the difficulty may lie in the way that the Great Separation of church and state, religion and politics, itself expressing a set of beliefs about belief, amounts to a positive decision not to interrogate believers meaningfully.
Yesterday’s questions on this subject were inspired by a blog post and twitter roundtable published last Friday by Daniel Silliman, considering the problem of the “Nones”: the rising, younger-skewed proportion of poll respondents who report no religious affiliation. Noting that not all “Nones” are also “Spiritual But Not Religious” (“SBNR”), Silliman tentatively proposed the following taxonomy in a series of tweets that I have condensed:
1) the spiritual-but-not-religious, 2) the non-religious & non-spiritual, 3) the religious but unaffiliated, 4) the religiously affiliated who are uncomfortable w/ institutions & labels, 5) atheists, 6) humanists, 7) Asian groups that don’t fit the Western form of “religion.”
I think there is significant overlap between these categories, and the matter is further complicated by two other factors: 1) different definitions of “religious” and “affiliated” that may vary with particular religious affiliation, since different religious creeds define belonging differently, often in a manner central to the definition of the creed; and, 2) somewhat relatedly, the fact that I can wake up this morning feeling like a humanist, by lunch feel certain I’m essentially a Christian, and go to bed “reverting” to a Muslim sense of myself before finally drifting off into panentheistic slumber.
To a committed believer or non-believer that description might make me not “really” religious and certainly not committedly or religiously atheist at all. So am I therefore SBNR? Where did I say anything about possessing a “spiritual” sense of anything, whatever exactly is meant by “spiritual”? Does it mean, “feels that the world is magical or enchanted”? “Floats on a cloud of wonderment, but doesn’t know what to call it”?
Like many if not all polls, the Pew Poll that Silliman is considering tests “poll-answering verbal behavior” among those polled, not the meaning of whatever answers. How we interpret the data will in turn be based on certain presumptions – for instance, what “most people” mean or think they mean if they cop to being “Christian” or “spiritual,” and so on. In other words, the pollster presumes that, e.g., “professing to be a Christian” is an independently significant variable of interest, as it may be, but to consider oneself obligated to take the profession of faith as the most or even merely one of the most important characteristics of faith itself constitutes a peculiar orientation toward faith. If I believe that Christ is the Son of God, died for our sins, was resurrected, and provides each of us with the sole path to salvation, and then assert that that makes me a Buddhist, the pollster may from one point of view check the wrong box “Buddhist,” and from another, merely on the question of “poll-answering behavior” be checking the right one.
In the aggregate, of course, most people with that set of described beliefs would call themselves Christian, but the recognition that the state of belief may be different from statement of belief may remain significant in a different way. Once upon a time, when a sovereign became Christian, his entire nation was considered Christianized – though what exactly that meant to the people of the time is another complicated question. The priests might then be free to descend on the populace and try to bring general state in line with general statement. At another point in history, a willingness to avow allegiance to the Nicene Creed, or a refusal to deny it in favor of some other creed, might be a matter of life and death – even a condition, one way or the other, of holiest martyrdom. None-ism may be just a version of the contrary belief that duress tends to undermine the the vow – in effect, a Lockean and arguably also a high Islamic assertion, in another sense a typically modern assertion about the truth of faith (more on this Locke/Islam/modern question later). For some Christians, some Muslims, and most or all Nones, in other words, the vow under duress – whether on the rack, at swordpoint, or over the telephone – might be a contra-indication or irrelevancy in relation to faith, as their actual faith defines actual faith.
I suspect that the Nones, including almost all of the most aggressively atheistic Nones, along with quite a few respondents who claim some non-Christian affiliation, will turn out to have a broadly Christian or Judeo-Christian or perhaps Abrahamic state of belief. Many, most, or all may operate in a moral and spiritual universe defined by ca. 7 to 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, metaphysical individualism, and sacrificial communion with the infinite. I suspect further that many professed believers would, if interrogated, reveal an orientation toward many questions that would have qualified them as heretics once upon a time – not just on the level of disobedience on matters like contraception or euthanasia for a Catholic, say, but in their moral and “theo-ontological” concepts altogether.
It may be that the vast majority of the population of the United States, and increasingly of the entire world, falls within that ideological structure, even if the commandments are ofttimes honored in the breach, and even if it goes without saying that these simple commitments persist among widely varying mytho-poetic and magical-miraculous discourses and associated ritual and devotional practices. The common moral precepts among the world’s so-called great religions are such that, in a sense, we do not need the specific Abrahamic content in order to get to the same approximate moral profile. Whether these precepts can be derived from “natural law” or what amounts to a legalized naturalism in some way may not be a closed discussion, though for many serious observers it has been considered to be, just as many serious observers believe that “God is dead.”
The historical-idealist approach would be to set such questions aside until and unless they bear upon the main philosophical questions. In other words, if what we believe is what we concretely believe rather than what we may happen to say we believe, and if no one knows what is truly in the heart of another person, or even within her own heart, then we can set aside the status of miracles and the specifics of moral or religious law for the moment, and consider areas of essential agreement. More to the point for me in regard to an ongoing investigation of political theology, it may become clearer that what we call “secular” is for the most part Christian Protestant-ecumenical, something that we call Liberal Democratic Citizenship because it helps in the Holy Liberal Democratic work of conversion not to mind the signifiers too much. The key difference between religion today generally and religion before, as also between the Nones and the Somethings, may therefore be an idea or attitude about the statement, secondary to the state.