Note On Disbelief in Disbelief and the “Interrogation of ‘the Nones'”

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.


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17 comments on “Note On Disbelief in Disbelief and the “Interrogation of ‘the Nones'”

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  1. …why would the hypothetical poll respondent follow the stated views yet still claim to be a Buddhist? Or are they defining Jesus *as* a form of Buddha? (or maybe they just smoked a lot of buddha…)

    Anyway, that there is a give & take within the society between what someone believes or not & what the prevailing assumptions are shouldn’t be seen as a revelation (not to say you’re treating it as one). There are such things as levels of rejection, priorities, and throwing ones full weight of offense at every.single.divergence. from their own individual view is a great way to make life miserable — and possibly short.

    I’ve described my own view as being an “odds-based atheism” in the past, and I haven’t shifted enough since to say it’s not still correct. Ideally, if I could, would I remove “in god we trust” from the dollar? Yes, I would. Does it piss me off that it is there to the point where I turn down cash? Even if it said “to his lord and savior Jesus Christ be the glory!!” on it, no. I need the money.

    • As for the Buddhist-for-Christ, it was just an intentionally absurd example of divergence between statement and actual state of belief. My grandfather’s church – it was literally “his” church in that he founded it and assembled its doctrine – preached a number of different things as tenets, including bodily resurrection, that Christians are guaranteed resurrection in some perfected version of the bodies they lived in prior to death. Suppose I found this belief unbelievable, but still liked my grandfather and other things the church preached. So I could call myself a member of the church despite not believing in one of its supposed fundamental and defining tenets. I could disbelieve the church’s own stated belief about the importance of that belief. The church or my grandfather might consider me not a member, on that basis, and I, disbeliving in that basis, might continue to believe myself a member. Then the pollster calls me up, and I proudly report that I’m a member. To say I’m not a member, you have to assert your own belief that, say, a church knows better than its particular members who’s a member. That’s also a belief.

      According to the Nazis and, I believe, most Jews, I’m a Jew because my mother was Jewish, even though she was non-practicing, and even though I was more or less raised by the wolves as far as religion is concerned. However, when the Nazis knocked on my door and I carefully explained the facts to them, they wouldn’t care about that, mainly because they had a racial (ethno-national or pseudo-biological) concept of Jewishness, but also on some relatively higher level because they also considered that very attitude of non-investment in racial identity to be symptomatic of the Jewish-cosmopolitan social disease and how even and especially secularized Jews corroded racial vigor. They’d feel fine about removing me from society not just because I was Jewish, but because I would never be a good German and would always be infecting good Germans with my subversive Judaic mentality.

      I myself feel no obligation to take on as my own either the Jewish or anti-semitic definition of Jewishness. If someone asks me if I’m Jewish, my first impulse is usually to say “no,” but that just means “not Jewish like the Nazis meant, nor Jewish like the Jews say, nor Jewish in the way most people think of Jewish,” but philosophically I do not begin with the assumption of a coherent and sustainable distinction between authentic Jewishness and authentic Christianity and authentic Buddhism. I want to check all of the boxes.

  2. Just a note on “honored in the breech” . Sister Norbert would haunt me from the grave if I didn’t mention it.

    Anyway, I think the Venn diagram of religion, spirituality and ethics would have quite a bit of non overlapping space.

    Patricia Churchland put t nicely

    It seems probable that humans have been on the planet, with much the same brain, for about 250,000 years. For most of that time, until about 10,000 years ago, there was nothing like organized religion. Undoubtedly, such humans has social practices for resolving disputes, reconciling after disputes, caring for others, carrying out trade, and so forth. These may not have been articulated as rules, but were picked up by the young as they imitated those around them. So social behavior, moral behavior, preceded formulated laws and organized religion, by about 200,000 years or so.

    Some sense of Abrahamic religon may indeed be becoming a world culture in the sense that liberal (your sense) capitalism is, but I think this again, has a lot of nonoverlapping space.

    • On honored in the breach, thanks to you and the Sister for the heads-up. I meant the common usage, but will avoid it henceforth, or perhaps honor it in the breach by sticking to the bard’s.

      Don’t agree necessarily on the true divisibility of “religion” and other spheres – depends on a philosophical definition of religion vs ethics, also not sure where “spirituality” comes in, if it does.

      Cribbing here, must review, but In Hermann Cohen’s model, religion and ethics both have “shares” in each other, though ethics orients itself toward the relationship of human being to human being, religion of human subjectivity in “correlation” with the Eternal, but it turns out that the first relation is meaningless without the second, and vice versa, so they become like two maps of the same territory, Law being the effort to conjoin them (the divine law revealed in prophecy and integrated with human life, though I need to review his discussion before imposing my own gloss on it and calling it his.

    • Was running when I started prior comment – don’t mean to cite Hermann Cohen as though you should just accept his authority. I think the unitary conception – ethics is religious, religion ethical, both are spiritual, sectors can be divided for analytical or administrative etc. purposes but represent perspectives on the same whole, not actually autonomous realms, etc. – is easier to support, and that it takes a great effort to keep them separate, or to keep everyone’s eyes on the fiction of their separateness.

  3. I believe that it is possible to define spirituality, not just in respect to what people think it is, but regarding what it really is. Ken Wilber has written many good books on the subject of defining what spirituality is from the most objective perspective possible, and he suggests that we think of spirit as Creativity itself. Spirit is–to use a word favored by spiritualists–“causal.” It causes what is. That’s what it does. Creative causality is its function and scientists do not know what is behind the causation of life–what causes a molecule to become a cell, or cell to become an organism. So spirit is the cause. But even if we accept causation as spirit’s function, or Spirit’s function (going along with the capitalization of Creativity) to really know what something is, we have to be able to compare and contrast it to the other things or non-things in its category. So we know what air is because it is not the other elements: earth, water, fire, and ether. Spirit is the category of Levels of Being–the category of Active Intelligences. It is the highest of the levels of Being–above Soul, Intellect, Ego, and Mind levels, (or, to use a different, more Western categorization: the Soul, Mind, Emotional, and Physical levels). So someone who is spiritual believes in a causally active intelligence, and actually, that objective, mature, rational, and clarifying awareness of what spirituality is can and often does actually disincline spiritualists from identifying with a religious institution and even when it doesn’t do that–in the case of folks like Thomas Mertons–the person’s connection to the institution is dynamically contentious. In other words, they know the church (or whatever) is full of shit. They connect with it anyway to further important missions like feeding the poor.

    • Appreciate that – was more wondering what pollsters and just plain folk mean when they say “spiritual but not religious.” I think you’ve mentioned before that Wilber confesses to being a Hegelian or neo-Hegelian. The scientists when they may seek to define life are life seeking to define itself, or spirit coming to know or re-appropriate or re-internalize itself. Any particular determinations will always be partial or reductive determination since the whole would include the determining and the life that can respond to and re-absorb the determination. In this sense the scientist as essentially living being is already what makes the molecule become a living cell. We are “spiritual” to the extent we are at all, under this idea of spirit, but I think what the pollster/imaginary average person is thinking about is people imagining themselves in contact with or relating to or enveloped or guided by mysterious forces that they may not be able to name.

  4. Btw, if you haven’t seen it, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams is a Herzog masterpiece. One of the scientists in it makes some great points about human spirituality and one of things he says is that “homosapien” is a bad name for us because it refers to “the man that knows and we don’t know very much.” He said what we’re good at is being spiritual, so we should have called ourselves “homospiritus.” He said our interest in spirituality throughout the last 40,000 years is the most consistent main aspect of what makes us human, and what took place in the Chauvet Caves for 20,000 years (before it was naturally closed) evinces that fact. It is amazingly beautiful and the artwork also blows the whole idea of how art evolved out the window. Because Spirit is Causal and because Spirit is in everything, anything and anyone can spontaneously express an “elevated” spiritual art and it shouldn’t surprise us that early humans were capable of illustrating space in imaginary depth, and imaginary movement, and every other kind of imaginary relational-oriented supposed modernism.

  5. Good post. I’m not sympathetic to the historical-idealist approach, but there’s lots here that I think is exactly right.

    The case of the self-identified Buddhist who adheres to fundamental doctrines of Christianity gets even trickier than you indicate here. If one is uncomfortable making normative claims about Christianity or Buddhism — and it’s pretty standard for professional historians to try to study what is without making claims about what ought to be — then one cannot simply dismiss this person. He or she is not simply wrong. If individuals have the right and the authority to self-identity, and if religious are to be defined not as ideals but as they appear in actual human history and practice, then this person has to be taken seriously. Even though our categories for considering this person are problematic.

    This can be seen pretty directly in the way cultural historians have tried to deal with Jamacian Jews, Nation of Islam, syncretistic Catholics, etc.

    The limitations of the polls are visible exactly here, of course. I think they can be treated as evidence, but one has to work really hard (like you’re doing here) to keep clear about what they are evidence of.

    • In a way I am questioning whether “individuals have the right and authority to self-identity.” I acknowledge, of course, that they do have a political right and authority to self-identity under our system of government and under any system of government which I can imagine myself affirming for myself, but if an individual is incompetent to exercise that right, then he has a very qualified version of the right: I may presume to know, without seeking to enforce the knowledge via punishment or proscription, that the self-identity of the nominally-Buddhist-Christian is less meaningfully Buddhist than incompetent, and that he’s also a very peculiar kind of Christian.

      So people have the right to flawed or incoherent identity, but that’s like saying they have a right not to have an identity. If a particular individual has a self-contradictory or split identity, then there is no “one” with a right and authority. He or she is the sovereign over her individual mental and corporeal territory, recognized by her fellow sovereigns – you and me – but she doesn’t actually rule: Her personal government says Buddhist but her “populace” says Christian. She should have the right and authority, we may agree she must be considered to have them, but concretely – as we know, but she apparently can’t or doesn’t – her right and authority are compromised. As soon as she externalizes or seeks to realize her right and her claim of authority, then our formal acknowledgment will fall away, and Buddhists, Christians, the vast majority of observers (those not similarly incompetent), and possibly even pollsters and cultural historians will declare her identity nonsensical.

      The main argument I want to make, though, is that this difference between what the cultural historian thinks or believes when he confronts the claims of the B-for-C (or the Jamaican Jew et al) for cultural historical purposes and what the committed believing Buddhist or Christian probably thinks or believes is also the difference between the dichotomous liberal worldview and a unitary worldview. The former accepts any vow because it doesn’t attach any meaning to it: Significance in this sense is insignificant to it. The latter view seems to require a relationship between the vow-as-signifier and what-the-vow-signifies: Signification must be significant. The cultural historian’s neutrality is also the liberal neutralization of belief, a meta-belief or belief about belief. If, alternatively, you believe it matters very much what people, especially you, believe, then… it matters very much to you what people believe, even if, presumably in the cases of the utterly apathetic None and the pure liberal scientific cultural historian, what they believe or claim to believe is that what people believe doesn’t matter.

      And the last thing I’ll say for now is that I can imagine a discourse dissolving the differences between the B-for-C, the B-for-B, the C-for-C, and the None-for-nothing, not by denying their significance but by taking them radically seriously, but I don’t expect that the believers can or will wish to hear or participate in that discourse. I expect they will discover obligations to resist it to the utmost, this side of the end of time.

  6. To me, the issue of atheism goes most directly to what CK has been questioning so well about belief. Is there a difference between God and No-God? If not, then definitely atheism is like the snake that eats its tail, and even if there is a difference, then atheism still might be the snake eating its tail. I understand agnosticism. I understand people believing that something can’t be known. Like Richard Feynman, I believe that energy is unknowable. It can’t be separated from any other thing, so it can’t be compared or contrasted with anything, so we can’t know what it is in the way we normally know things. I also appreciate the Buddha’s position. He did not actually weigh in on the question of whether God exists. He just didn’t think it was helpful for us to spend time with the questioning. We have bigger, more fundamental problems to work out and the question distracts us. But someone believing that not only is it impossible to know whether God exists, but that the person actually knows that God doesn’t exist is problematic in the exact ways that CK has pointed out, and in respect to arrogance. I find it much more arrogant to go against what science has recognized about our brains’ natural inclination toward theism and declare a knowing about God not existing, then to go along with the more natural idea that God does exist. That can be debated, but it feels like that to me.

    • Strauss agreed with you on the arrogance.

      I think we have to concede a difference between God and No-God, but we have to be careful about presuming to understand it correctly. For instance, if the universe constructed under a theistic system and the one constructed under an atheistic system turned out to be identical – which can be taken as the false claim of the Antichrist – then we’d still be left with the differences between acting on the presumption of no-difference and acting on the presumption of difference, or being right or wrong about the non-difference, and I think we’d end up where we started again under a transposition of terms. Alternatively, there would be some who would take “God = No-God” to mean “ah-hah! – therefore God is” and others who would take it to mean “ah-hah! – therefore God isn’t,” and then there’d be people like me seeming to say “Both” and getting eye-rolls at best.

      The idealized perspective – Cohen expressed it best, I think, and I will now proceed to express it crudely – is that the mistake is treating the God-concept (the monotheistic concept) as a concept like others when “God” is the word for the being like no others (and is a word like no others, and so on). Atheist and theist may unite in their derision of an approach to the question that seeks to re-define the terms of their disagreement out from under them/it, proposing the cake of cakes that you can both have and eat. It’s both too easy and utterly unsatisfactory, though Cohen also seems to claim that the dissatisfaction, like all suffering of this order, is a privilege of faith to the faithful. It was a privilege that the world shared generously in the decades following the failure of his prophecy, confirming it negatively.

  7. Well one of the few times I disagree with Strauss, the greater arrogance is to believe that there is no fundamental force that orders the world ‘the Prime Mover as it were’ , we have been here, for the blink of an eye in cosmic time,

    • I think you misunderstand. Strauss is I think very clear about the impossibility of disproof of the “existence of God,” and therefore treats all assumptions of that disproof as ideological in the bad sense. He also, however, is clear that impossibility of disproof is not the same as proof – not that “proof/dis-proof” must be taken as the authentic question or the best statement of it.

3 Pings/Trackbacks for "Note On Disbelief in Disbelief and the “Interrogation of ‘the Nones'”"
  1. […] was a passage in the note on disbelief in disbelief that was somewhat garbled or overly compressed, and that I have sought to address with some edits […]

  2. […] she would be that” seems to me a compact version of what I was trying to get at with my rendition of, approximately, breakfasting as a Jew, lunching as a Christian, dining as a Muslim, retiring a […]

  3. […] help to illustrate what we mean if we say that political identity and legitimacy are meta-concepts (like religious belief): The anarchist’s view on legitimacy or the possibly legitimate is already contained within […]

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