Okay, I’m gonna tell this joke again. Two old lady school teachers from the city felt they had become too urban, so they decided to drive to the country and find out all about it. There they were, toodling down the road when a question arose. They stopped and hailed a farmer to come from off his tractor and help them out.
“We’ve just been looking at that cow over there,” they explained, “And we wonder why it doesn’t have any horns.”
“Wal, ladies,” said the polite farmer, “There are several reasons why a cow doesn’t have horns. It might be polled, meaning it just never grow any horns. Or it might be ornery, so the horns might have been cut off. But the reason that there cow has no horns is because it’s a horse!”
It was a category mistake. I bring up this helpful joke to point out that Mitt Romney and all his commentators are making category mistakes about religion.
First, they think that anyone who is not affiliated with an institutionalized religion is not a believer -- not religious. To be religious is to join an institution. I belabor the point because it is so often missed. If the person believed something, we think, why wouldn’t he or she announce which set of religious beliefs he believed in so we would know “what” he is? Making this assumption means that a person who is not an announced affiliate of a defined religion (ethnic, historical, organized, of a particular socio-economic style) then must be an “unbeliever” and not religious.
Religion is a herd instinct. Okay, that’s too pejorative, but it’s a group project, we assume. And most denominations, I say as an ordained minister formerly serving congregations, see the point of religion as organizing the biggest group, so they’re invested in this idea of competitive branding, like toothpaste or detergent. They do a lot of market research to understand how to attract more congregants. “Success” is measured by head counts. Get those cathedrals full of people! If possible, FAMOUS people! Powerful people!
But what if beliefs are unique, individual, arrived at by one’s own reason and not requiring a group consensus? The assumption is that every unaffiliated person must be “secular” -- that is, not having any beliefs at all and possibly be actively AGAINST religious affiliation. Of course, in this country we have the idea that a lot of people are generic Christian, with free-floating ideas that more or less agree with the majority, thus creating a kind of civic-religion-by-default consensus. Not, “This is what I believe,” but “Yah, I guess so.”
The next assumption is that religion is defined by having a “God.” If you don’t have a God, you aren’t a religion. This is because the Big Three Abramic religions, which are mostly what we Westerners know, ARE organized around their notions of God. These religions come from tribes in a Patriarchal world. (For a while there was an effort to convinced everyone that if we had a female God, we could have Matriarchs instead. That’s pretty much bygones now. Except for the presidency. Not Mitt’s problem.)
Most of what we know about other religions is taught to us by Christians or Jews, who see everything in their own terms. Native Americans quickly learned to fit their old beliefs into these categories: God equals Napi (but only the good side) and Jesus equals Star Boy (who came down from the sky but had to return). Probably the oldest religions of NA were more Asian, like their genes. Asian religions concentrate on one’s family (especially ancestors as in Shinto) or on harmony (like Tao) or on acceptance (like Buddhism) -- in quite different ways from Western concepts. Confucius, of course, wisely advised to get along with the government, in his times an emperor. A government is a competing institution, which some countries solve by merging the two. Then the religious institutions are no longer a restraint on the government institution. Things are calm.
Back to America. What about all these unaffiliated people out there washing around in their love of money and leisure, their resistance to authority, their unwillingness to tithe since they’re already paying taxes? Are they worshiping in a new religion: “secularism?” Or sometimes it is labeled “Humanism,” meaning that humans had better get around to understanding themselves and improving the world instead of abusing their knee bones in prayer to a nonexistent -- or maybe just nonresponsive -- God. My father was a “prairie humanist” whose birth family barely survived drought and depression. His “church” was ag co-ops, his cathedrals were grain elevators. It worked better in a rural world.
I suspect there IS a new religious consensus forming in the world -- AROUND the world, not just in one country. It is not the worship of science or science-as-church, but it is very much shaped by the new scientific knowledge about things like solar wind, the genetics of bird flu, plate tectonics, DNA studies, and so on. It is also much informed by our sense of loss, of the world slipping away from us. So far the balance has not tipped between total despair and some sign of hope or salvation. Here and there are small groups working like religious missionaries to pitch sustainability, organic farming, sustainability, wind and solar energy, equalization of income, the improvement of universal education and so on. But there has not yet appeared the central, convincing, surefire point of focus.
Will it ever? I wish I knew. It might not happen in my lifetime, but the discussion is growing more intense. One of the central realizations is the constant flow of time and the change it makes, but it’s hard for religions to just say, “Go with the flow.” I mean, the Tao does, but even their impulse, like ours, is towards the familiar, the dependable, the traditional. A house we can keep. A family that stays together. A landscape that doesn’t die around us. Love that abides.
These are the cravings that gave rise to Mormonism in the first place. Whether it is a vision that works anymore can only be answered by individuals.