I happened across a rather strange headline today: The Rise of the Religious Left: Religious Progressives Will Soon Outnumber Conservatives. I found this puzzling given the current trends in American religion. I generally think of the religious left as the mainline protestant denominations (along with liberal members of the church of Rome), but I don’t think of them as growing. In fact, liberal denominations are still emptying out and dying a fairly brisk pace, and so any growth of a religious left must be occurring elsewhere. Accordingly, I took a closer look at the study to see exactly what they meant by “religious” progressives. It turns out that their criteria for distinguishing liberalism from conservativism on their “theological orientation scale” is threefold: “belief in personal vs. impersonal God, belief in literal vs. non-literal interpretation of the Bible, and a preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition” with conservatives holding the former positions and liberals the latter.
How shall we parse this criteria? The primary difference between a personal or impersonal God is whether this God reveals and communicates himself to us or whether we experience it in some other way such as our feelings or in patterns we observe in nature and society. Of course, we would have to exclude observed patterns that would require personal attributes like intelligence, and so this belief in an impersonal God can narrowed down to your typical American mysticism. Here we find things like the Western new-age appropriation of Karma (basically reduced to “what goes around comes around”) or the more vapid contemporary versions of “God is love” (which, as C.S. Lewis points out, generally means “love is God”–that there is divine significance to human affection.)
What are we to make of the second criterion: reading the Bible“literally?” Though undoubtedly a religious conservative by most reckoning, I myself don’t always read the bible literally—I read, for example, the Psalms as poetry and Revelation as highly symbolic apocalyptic literature even as I read the Gospels as literal historical narrative. Nevertheless, I think most people would say that I read it all literally simply because I believe it is all identical with God’s word and therefore inerrant. In other words, Americans don’t use the word “literally” literally when it comes to how we read the Bible. People generally say that a person reads the Bible literally merely if he thinks it’s actually true. Because this was a survey of the general population, we must go with this more colloquial understanding of the word. So according to this criteria, the liberally oriented religious folk are identified by rejecting the idea that the Bible is actually true. They believe it may contain nuggets of wisdom from God and is therefore worth perusing, but they must extract these nuggets from the rest of it according to their own sensibilities—whatever those may be.
The third criterion of “preservationist vs. adaptive” with respect to tradition is simpler. It mainly has to do with whether we are more likely to receive what our forebears hand over to us and pass it on, or whether we use it as inspiration for religious views that are primarily products of our own minds, feelings, experiences, and circumstances. Once again, religious liberals follow the latter path which is focused on internal, subjective religiosity rather than any standard outside of themselves. Calls of “doctrine divides” and “deeds not creeds” find themselves at home here.
I believe all of these traits of “liberally oriented theology” add up to the contemporary notion of people who are “spiritual but not religious.” They do not belong to any of the dying liberal denominations, but still think about theological matters. They have a vague consciousness of divine activity and meaning in life, but perceive that activity with minimal input from external sources. Think of it as old protestant liberalism without any of the academic rigor, history, or traditions: basically a matter of whether they attach a certain divine significance to their feelings and experiences, perhaps based on a few tidbits they may have heard about God at some point in their lives. As it turns out, there was already a word for this growing segment of the population long before “spiritual but not religious” came on the scene: Superstitious.
According to dictionary.com, superstition is “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like” as well as “any blindly accepted belief or notion.” I think this sums up “spiritual but not religious” very well. Even old protestant liberalism, which I’ve called out for being wrong & even heretical, doesn’t quite fall to the level of superstition. Though their theologians proceed from numerous false assumptions and their academics rely on terrible methodology, their beliefs and notions are still based on (poor) reasons and (false) knowledge. Likewise, people may consider conservative Christians to be wrong, but though our faith is a gift of God, our positions are well-supported by reasons and evidence that are complimentary to that faith and that have been handed down to us by our fathers in the faith. For better or worse, we have an external standard on which our beliefs are based.
The irreligiously spiritual, on the other hand, pretty much make it up as they go. For example, they may proclaim that God accepts homosexuality because they have a gay friend and feel sympathy for lesbians they knew who were picked on in school. Now, any non-religious person might give homosexuality a thumbs-up on that basis, but there is no reason at all to attach any divine significance to that thumbs-up. The irreligiously spiritual, however do attach such significance (and the corresponding “ominous significance” to any contrary position), and they do so without any reason beyond their own liver shivers. The irreligiously spiritual may believe that God really wants them to save the planet. However, they believe that simply because they think the planet needs saving. Again, any non-religious person might share that goal, and they might have good or bad reasons for doing so—that part of it isn’t superstition. The superstition of the irreligiously spiritual is found in that they attach divine significance to their enthusiasms without any objective word from God on the subject. They are superstitious, not because they are liberals, but because of they are spiritual liberals.
If this is the growing trend in American spirituality, we are not looking at a growth in the religious left, but the superstitious left. They may call this “progressive” if they like, but while Christians being outnumbered by superstitious pagans may be new to older Americans today, it’s hardly new to the Church or to the world. The renewed use of superstition as a vehicle for political power indicates that there are dark days ahead, but nothing that Christ hasn’t carried His Church through before.