Everybody’s Secular, Everyone’s Religious

Review: Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious, By David Dark (IVP Books, 2016)

What you mean when you say secular depends on whether you’d apply the term to yourself. That hasn’t always been true. Traditional Catholic doctrine uses the term to designate the non-sacred: the vocation of a monk or nun is sacred, and the vocation of a plumber or politician is secular. Others use it to suggest a space in which religion is meant to be excluded — a “secular public square,” for instance.

But today’s common and complicated usage is as a label synonymous with “non-religious,” part of a binary — complicated, because what side of that binary gets privileged depends who’s talking. Some conservative evangelical Christians, for instance, have developed entire curricula for teens around learning to combat “secular humanism” — a humanism devoid of faith. On the other hand, a sizeable percentage of American Jews self-identify as secular: twenty-two percent, according to a 2013 Pew survey.

David Dark’s fourth book Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious makes it pretty easy to guess his thoughts on this use of the word. “I’m not trying to encourage anyone to begin self-identifying as religious,” he writes — or secular, presumably. “That’s as futile and redundant a move as calling yourself political or cultural.” Everyone is religious, in Dark’s calculus; it’s just that religion itself looks different today in the West than it did for our great-grandparents.

Dark — who grew up in a conservative Christian family and is now a member of a Presbyterian church — is a connoisseur of culture high and low, giving air time to Dr. Who and Philip K. Dick, Flannery O’Connor and Wendell Berry, Tom Waits and Hillel the Elder, the Jesuit priest and activist Philip Berrigan and Catholic journalist and activist Dorothy Day. They’re all part of his “attention collection” — “my book of common things, my working palette of lifelong recognitions” (perhaps some more than others — Dark, who is married to the Christian recording artist Sarah Masen, has named two of his children for Berrigan and Day). A person’s attention collection are the things that remind her to look at the world with care and live more consciously, and that is what Dark is after.

As part of that, he’s deeply concerned with the labels we use for one another, since they affect the way we interact with one another. “I am arguing that we should cease and desist from referring to others as religious,” he writes, “as if they’re participants in games we ourselves aren’t playing, as if they’re somehow weirdly and hopelessly enmeshed in cultures of which we’re always only detached observers.” That directly challenges the common use of “secular” — either we’re using it to say we’re not playing the religion game, or we use it to warily gesture toward those who aren’t playing the religion game.

In this way, Dark would likely turn the assertion some people have been fondly reiterating for a few decades — “I’m spiritual, but not religious” — on its head. Not all of us are very spiritual; some of us are too practical, or find that our temperaments get in the way of feeling emotional or mystical connections with some presence beyond. But all of us, Dark maintains, are religious. I’m religious, but not spiritual.

If everything constitutes religion, then, what is religion? Dark earned his Ph.D. in religion at Vanderbilt and is now an assistant professor in the College of Theology at Belmont, and the book is published by an evangelical Christian press (IVP Books, an imprint at Intervarsity Press), which may tempt readers to think this is a stealth move on the level of the old evangelical adage: “It’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship.”

But no. As a scholar of religion, Dark — who has written what must be the gentlest, most winsome, most poetic books on the topic — is more interested in convincing us to expand our definition of religion entirely, and to thus reorient how we treat one another. He wants us to see the danger of labeling others: “It often seems to me that calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is largely to deal in curse words,” he writes. “It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it only speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body.”

Through the lens of his own story, and while often poking fun at himself, Dark suggests it would be better to recognize that all of us are religious, which is to say that we all subscribe to some kind of “controlling story” into which we place ourselves — “a tying together, a question of how we see fit to organize ourselves and our resources, a question, we might say, of how things have been tied together so far and of how they might be tied together differently, a binding, an unbinding and a binding again.” My religion consists of my influences, my deepest touchpoints, the traditions I choose to follow, the people I choose to emulate, and, above all, the rituals in which I engage — “We do what we believe — maybe it’s a relief to even say it aloud,” he writes. “And we don’t do what we don’t.”

Dark’s definition is less about dogmatism and more about practice and tradition, less about belief in a discrete personal higher power and more about the way we connect to the world beyond ourselves. He makes space for all sorts of ways of thinking about religion that don’t have much, or anything, to do with traditional institutionalized religion, even though he freely admits his own Christian beliefs and practice.

“There are at least as many [religions] as there are people,” he writes.


There is another, growing way of using the term secular, too — the greatest proponent of which may be the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose tome A Secular Age has made waves in the fields of religion and intellectual history. In the book and elsewhere, Taylor proposes that to say we live in a “secular age” (in what he calls the “age of authenticity”) really means that in our time, uniquely among most times, all of us in the West have the option to choose our religion for ourselves. We are presented with many options — some organized, some not — and we can collect our religion from among many influences available to us: traditional religions that belong to our culture, practices borrowed from others (yoga, meditation), faith in science, the feeling we have when we listen to a great record or look at a beautiful work of art. It’s a work in progress. “Whether we spy it in ritual, symbol or ceremony,” Dark writes, “religion isn’t something one can be coherently for or against or decide to somehow suddenly engage, because it’s always there.”

This ability to pick and choose, Taylor submits, is really what we might mean by a “secular” society. We don’t have to decide about a transcendent or cosmic purpose at all; the goal is not to serve a deity, but to maximize a feeling of purpose here on earth during our lives. The secular age, per Taylor, is “one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, it falls within the range of an imaginable life for masses of people.” It’s not that people couldn’t do this in the past, but the lack of societal constraints now allow us to convert, de-convert, pick up beliefs and practices with religious fervor and discard them, all without seriously fearing for our lives or position in society.

This smorgasbord approach to religion has led to a measurable dissociation from religion, especially among young people. Last November, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that between 2007 and 2014, religious “Nones” in the U.S. — those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, whether atheist, agnostic, or coloring outside traditional religious lines — not only grew as a group, but became increasingly “secular,” by which they meant that this group has dropped many traditional beliefs (in “God or a universal spirit,” for instance) and practices (prayer, regular religious attendance).

There’s been plenty of fretting amongst the traditionally religious about this trend, especially because Nones comprise the largest single group (35%) of Millennials, and make a strong showing among Generation X (23%), Boomers (17%), and Silents (11%) — all numbers that increased markedly between 2007 and 2014. But Dark notes this phenomenon approvingly: “The rise of the Nones — not that it’s possible for a human being to be such a thing — is a positive turn that recognizes we are each the sum of many affiliations, more than anyone can possibly keep track of.”

To Dark, not designating some people as religious and others as non-religious — instead owning up to the fact that we all look somewhere for meaning, purpose, and sense in life — actually frees us to be more honest about where we’re coming from and what we have in common:

If we’re going to deploy the religion for all it’s worth, we’ll have to put everything on the table. We won’t limit ourselves to talk about divinity or strange opinions concerning life after death; we’re talking about what’s been normalized, learned behaviors and social formations, the shape of our enthusiasms, the ways we order our worlds, what we’re hoping for in everything we’re up to and the prickly question of what it is we genuinely decree essential — basically, the alarming realization of who we really are, that dramatic fact that rises to the surface in each of us for all to see, slowly and surely, a few days into the zombie apocalypse.

Traditional religions maintain a pantheon of divinities, saints, and heroes adherents are meant to emulate and even worship, and look to sacred texts and traditions for direction on how to live and navigate existence. And that impulse, to locate oneself inside a tradition and look outside ourselves for guidance is hardly restricted to the religious — it’s just a human impulse, Dark writes. “Religion happens when we get pulled in, moved, called out or compelled by something outside ourselves.”

Dark’s reframing of religion is a parallel argument to Taylor’s reframing of the secular, and with the increased disconnection of Westerners from traditional religion, it seems more and more important for the health of our public discourse. Yet it’s interesting to note that organized religion hasn’t gone away at all — a point made all too clear by the rise of radical Islam. But you can just flip on the TV. During that same seven-year period over which the Nones grew, there was been an observable spike in representations of religion and religious characters as more than mere caricatures on TV: The Americans, Rectify, The Good Wife, Jane the Virgin, Daredevil, Fargo, House of Cards — I could go on for a long time, and the trend shows no signs of slowing. Similarly, interest in cults has grown, with shows like The Path and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

If you really want to see our growing interest in religion, probe beyond the obvious representations to shows that are plumbing questions religions have traditionally sought to answer — stories that are becoming part of our national “attention collection,” to borrow Dark’s term. HBO’s The Leftovers may be the most celebrated of these, a story that borrows its premise from some Christian traditions’ concept of the Rapture, but not in a Left Behind way. Instead, the show uses this event to spark an exploration of grief, belief, and doubt that reaches far beyond a simple plot point. One can easily read our new national obsession with true crime shows, both fictional (True Detective) and not (Making a Murderer, The Jinx), as a re-examination of the complicated nature of guilt, innocence, and justice — something that has surfaced in TV abroad as well, in self-consciously religious shows like Broadchurch (U.K.) and Les Revenants (France).

That these depictions and questions are popping up on our screens and in our stories just as we’re becoming less tethered to organized religions both underlines and complicates Dark’s argument. On the one hand, we plop down in front of the TV to explore religious questions; on the other, we are telling stories that might introduce us to one another. Of course, most of the traditionally religious characters on American TV are still Christian; for instance, as Alyssa Rosenberg argued at the Washington Post recently, we’ve got a long way to come in presenting Muslims in non-stereotypical ways.

But if we can no longer rely on previously accepted texts and touchpoints borrowed from traditional religion as a culture, these stories that examine religious concerns in new ways might signal something good for discourse in a secular age. And if I struggle against the idea of suggesting that I’m religious, perhaps it signals that I’ve already made a judgment about the “religious” — or, on the other hand, I’ve judged that the “secular” aren’t worthy of the label.

But “[y]ou’re always telling your controlling story,” Dark writes. “Or to borrow a phrase from Jesus of Nazareth, we’ll be known by our fruit.” The fruit of our labelings hasn’t been great. Perhaps re-evaluating how we speak of the religious — and of the secular — is a step in a stronger direction. “The words are there,” Dark writes, “but the actions speak louder.”

Film Critic at @Voxdotcom | http://www.vox.com/authors/alissa-wilkinson