A growing number of Americans do not follow a religion.
But chances are that the details of their lives — from their phones and their politics to their dinner plates and how they raise their kids — are still ruled by some sort of a religious impulse, says author David Zahl.
Zahl is the founder of the popular nondenominational Christian Mockingbird Ministries project, which formed 12 years ago to reach out to young adults who felt they had been “burned” by the church. His most recent book, “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It,” suggests that American culture is not actually becoming more secular at all.
It’s simply becoming more religious about more things, with people increasingly attaching their natural yearning to feel like enough to more and more things.
“If you want to understand what makes someone tick, or why they’re behaving the way they are, trace the righteousness in play, and things will likely become clear,” he writes.
Zahl, who also works for the Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, spoke to Religion News Service about the secular religiosities he sees ruling people’s lives and anxieties. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you define “seculosity” and how you see it play out in the world around you?
It’s a mashup of secular and religiosity. It really refers to what I call religious devotion or religious feeling or even the impulse when it’s directed at earthly rather than heavenly objects. But also I wanted didn’t want to ascribe belief in something divine or supernatural. So that’s why I chose the word seculosity.
Especially as a young parent, I would see codes of behavior, people clinging to something that’s righteous. There’s an orthodox way and almost like a heretical way of raising children. People were constantly at war with each other. You would see a parent at a playground correcting a perfect stranger. And it felt to me like what you would see sometimes in a church event.
So I saw all the young parents around me always get so anxious, like they were being graded all the time.
Are there other areas you see it playing out?
Certainly you see it in things like exercise. I remember being invited to a SoulCycle class, which is the classic example. We’re all facing one direction and we’re standing and we’re kneeling and there’s someone at the front who just starts spouting out witty sayings. But they weren’t just about exercise, they were about betterment and perfection. The community and the ritual that developed around exercise to me felt a lot like the small groups that I had been a part of in churches in the past.
Take something like food. Look at the emphasis on the purity of where ingredients are sourced, what’s being put into you, the way that we used to call it fasting and now we just call it a cleanse. The moral language, the anxiety around food, the fear of getting caught eating fast food — again, the judgments we wield against each other based on diet. It felt like a lot of anxiety. A lot of sense of righteousness was at stake in where people were eating and what they were eating and there was a lot of hiding. And any time there’s hiding there is usually some form of judgment or condemnation that people are afraid of.
I can go on and on. T.S. Eliot once said half the harm that is done in this world is by people who are absorbed in the “endless struggle to think well of themselves.” A lot of times we turn to these seculosities to make us feel better about ourselves but they end up making us feel worse.
Do you see the proliferation of social media and technology as exacerbating seculosity? Perhaps in the ways people present certain kinds of images of themselves online?
But I don’t think this tendency is something that’s invented by social media or technology. Church people have always felt that there was sort of Sunday face that you would put on where everyone was sort of shiny and happy sitting in church wearing nice clothes and got the sense that everything was going well. Then there was the rest of the week where you were just who you were. That phenomenon of like a “Sunday face” versus the “rest of the week face” — that’s social media to me.
It’s the gap between who you should be and who you actually are, which creates a lot of dissonance and a lot of, again, anxiety but also loneliness.
And the comparisons that people make each other jump through, it’s pretty merciless. In the church, there was a backdrop of sin and the idea that people are not perfect. Without that you just have pressure to curate and put up a happy face or sophisticated face or effortlessly sophisticated face at all times. That’s really daunting. There’s some real spiritual and emotional fallout in that.
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Source: Religion News Service