I was fortunate enough to spend time at Chautauqua in western New York a few weeks ago. If you’ve not been, you might think of it as a summer camp for adults who listen to NPR. Morning and afternoon lectures, concerts, theological discussions and book clubs. It began as vacation spot for Methodist Sunday school teachers and has grown into a place that embraces thoughtful dialogue on the entire spectrum of human thought and behavior. No surprise then that one of the speakers I heard was a professor of secular studies – did you know there was such a thing? The following reads like a school report, I know, but I hope, if it isn’t already all old news to you, that you find some of it as interesting as I did.
Phil Zuckerman, a professor of Sociology and Secular Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California spoke in the open air Hall of Philosophy at Chautauqua about the causes of secularism in America. And I took notes. It’s a topic that comes up at every church-related meeting, musical or otherwise, that I have ever gone to. The question, that is, of how to “compete” with the secular society that provides far more entertainment and distraction than a church could ever hope to. He named 7 things that he has observed as main causes of our increasingly secular society:
1. The religious right – religious conservatives who find ways to exclude different ways of thinking and being, creating a culture of anger instead of love
2. The scandals of crime and cover-up in the Catholic Church around pedophilia
3. Women in the work-force, faced with less time for home and family, suggesting that mothers have been the primary drive behind getting families to church
4. A societal acceptance by younger generations of homosexuality, making the church’s teachings on this, until very recently, divisive and mean-spirited
5. The attacks on September 11, 2001, which reminded people in a dramatic fashion about the power of religion – any religion – to do great harm
6. The frequency with which religion is lampooned on television sitcoms and fake news shows
7. The internet. In fact, Zuckerman spent the most time talking about the internet’s corrosive effect on church-going. As we all do, people use the internet to answer their questions, and once online to get an answer will also see many sites devoted to disputing whatever it is they’re looking up. The internet, he believes, increases our exposure to hypocrisy as well and helps to form a community of doubters. Community being the important word in that sentence.
This is just a report. You might disagree with some, or all, of his assertions. Zuckerman did note that the U.S. is among the most religious of all industrialized western societies. But research shows this is because we also have the biggest difference between rich and poor. When that disparity is less, such as in many Scandinavian counties, religious affiliation is also less.
He made a few more points I found interesting. Spirituality, he suggests, is a step on the road to individualism. The “spiritual, but not religious” segment of society that we hear so much about – and which, honestly, we might feel part of sometimes – is missing that communal aspect of church (perhaps finding it elsewhere…like the internet?) which many of us value. But this Professor of Secular Studies did hold out one note of hope for those who do value religion. He believes that there are two things humans hunger for – rituals and a sense of heritage – which are not supplied by secular pursuits. They are found, however, in those churches that choose to honor and celebrate their heritage and rituals.
Next week: Another report from a very different Chautauqua speaker, the President of a Bible college in Atlanta.