Friday, March 22, 2013

Getting Your Hands Dirty

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of the "Nones", those people who claim no specific religious affiliation.  The percentage of Americans who "check the box" is about 20% of the population; that number, among young adults might be closer to 30%.  This increase in the non-affiliated has caused no end of hand-wringing among religious leaders who are wondering what can be done to attract the dis-affected.  In the same reflection, I connected the the phenomenon of the "Nones" with that of the "Nuns" (on a bus).  I wondered, about both groups, what was their attitude towards authority, since both seemed to chafe (not necessarily unreasonably) against power structures.
With the election of Pope Francis, both groups--the "Nones" and the nuns--have regained some attention.  Many Roman Catholic sisters (i.e., nuns) in the United States, having been under scrutiny over the last year for allegedly espousing ideas that run counter to official teaching.  These nuns have taken some hope in Francis' clear concern for the poor, imagining that he might understand their work a little better than his predecessor.  The others, the "Nones", received special mention in an address to leaders from many religious traditions this last Wednesday, when he "reached out to those who don't belong 'to any religious tradition' but feel the 'need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God."  He added that this last group (as well as atheists) "can be 'precious allies' in their efforts 'to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between people and in the careful protection of creation."*
In other words, the Pope was appealing for people of whatever religious stripe to 'get their hands' dirty in some common work.
All of this attention to the Nones comes at the same time that several folks seem to be revisiting Christian Smith's characterization of the dominant form of religiosity among young adults as "Therapeutic Moralistic Deism" (MTD) -- which is a "system" evident among the "Nones".  In a survey of some 3000 young people, Smith and his co-author Melinda Denton condensed the religious beliefs of these folks to five premises:

  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.**

Smith and Denton have come under some criticism for this characterization on a couple of counts.  A former Duke classmate of mine, Diana Butler Bass, has entertained quite a discussion on this at her Facebook page, and she criticizes some of the assumptions behind the MTD ascription, as well as the terminology (e.g., "What's wrong with 'therapeutic'?" or "What's wrong with 'morals'?")  Having read her critique of the characterization, as well as many other thinkers' critique of the phenomenon, I can certainly see the arguments on all sides.
That said, however, it does not take a particularly careful reading of the five elements of the "creed" to see that 'getting one's hands dirty' isn't necessarily a part of it.  I think that there's a difference between being "good, nice and fair to each other" and doing the hard work that builds a just society.  "Feeling good about oneself" doesn't translate into helping those in dire straits to feel good about themselves.
I agree with the Pope that people of good-will, from every religious (and no-religious) might be allies.  I wish him well, however, in mobilizing all of those folk -- especially those who we may have led to believe that religion or spirituality is all about "me" and not about "we".  The Nuns certainly know this; let's hope that the "Nones" will as well.  For it's on behalf of the "we" that we'll need to get our hands dirty.



**Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005), 162-63.

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