Something has bothered me in recent years about the idea that society is becoming less religious, and therefore more secular. Many polls and their data agree that the fastest growing religious identities now are the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation or identity, and the “dones,” those who have rejected whatever religious affiliation and identity they once had.
It’s not the fact that conventional religious affiliation and identity are on the wane that bugs me most. There’s no arguing with data that show how membership is aging and dwindling in most mainline and other Christian denominations, what David Zahl calls “Big-R religion” in his book, Seculosity: How Career, Technology, Parenting, Food, Politics and Romance Became Our New Religion, and What to Do About It (Fortress Press, 2019). Polls almost universally indicate that “…confidence in the religious narratives we have inherited has collapsed,” Zahl writes. Exceptions might be Muslims and the Amish, some of whose numerical growth is demographic. “What they fail to report,” Zahl adds, “is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming [italics his]. We may be sleeping in on Sunday mornings in greater numbers, but we’ve never been more pious. Religious observance hasn’t faded apace ‘secularization’ so much as migrated. And we’ve got the anxiety to prove it. We’re seldom not in church.”
With those words, Zahl puts his finger on what has bothered me most about the conventional conversation on the allegedly decreasing strength and role of religion today. The world is not really becoming less religious and more godless, and, therefore, secular, Zahl believes. We’re becoming more religious about things we have long thought of as godless and secular. We are increasingly fervent and evangelistic about what Zahl labels “replacement religions.” These “replacement religions” can be as zealous, hierarchical, autocratic, judgmental, exclusive, abusive, demanding, hypocritical, costly and intolerant as the Big-R religions they are replacing can often be.
The fastest-growing religion (in America, at least) then may be “seculosity”, Zahl’s catch-all term for “religiosity that is directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly, rather than heavenly objects.” These earthly objects of aspiration and adoration include busyness, entertainment, leisure, health and fitness, romance, parenting, technology, work, justice, ideology, politics, food, and more. The earthly object of “seculosity” is, as in “Big-R religion,” a sense of our own “enough-ness,” but more in the eyes of our peers, than of any deities. This leads to a competitive one-up-man-ship that Zahl calls “performancism.”
The objects we pursue through “performancism” can be good things. But they become idols demanding various forms of human sacrifice in exchange for meeting the same needs and desires that “Big-R religion” strives to address, like meaning, justification, hope,love, virtue and “enough-ness.” But they never provide what they promise, nor can they. Touting goodness but lacking grace, these virtues-become-idols turn can be at least as merciless in their demands, domination and destruction of people and of other virtues, as Big-R religion has often been. Because these replacement religions are so profitable for the corporate bottom line, there is no escaping “seculosity’s” non-stop evangelism. Whether we’re online, watching TV, shopping, eating out, at a game, in school, or at the movie theater, “We’re seldom not in church.”
Seculosity is superb at analyzing and exposing the gods of today’s market-and-media-driven “replacement religions.” Fortunately, however, Zahl does not descend into any judgmental and merciless sneering of “infidels” that often accompanies both Big-R religion and the new religions of seculosity (“More fit, trim and limber than thou…more busy and indispensable than thou….a better parent with better children than thou…more appealing and attractive than thou,” etc.). He writes instead with sympathy, as one who shares our anxieties about our worth and our “enough-ness,” which drive us toward “performancism.” Zahl writes not as a critic but as a friend who shares our fear of not matching up to the competitive and increasingly stringent standards of secular righteousness and the condemnation of others for it. There is even a wonderful chapter, entitled “Jesusland,” describing the ways in which merciless, competitive, market-and-media-driven, horizontally-oriented “performancism” has invaded Christian churches, both conservative/evangelical and fundamentalist ones, as well as liberal/progressive/peace-and-justice churches.
Seculosity is not saying anything all that new nor different from what the Bible, St. Augustine, Martin Luther and other saints and sinners have said about the inherent, insuppressible, shape-shifting religiosity of human nature, and its often self-defeating and misguided directions. Anabaptists have long recognized nationalistic, tribalistic and militaristic forms of secular religion for what they are. But Zahl has done a wonderful job of updating what Augustine, Luther, Menno Simons and St. Paul have said for the current era, and its current manifestations, under their anti-religious, secular camouflage.
Though Zahl writes openly and unapologetically as a Christian, his diagnosis and prognosis of the malady of “performancism” is written to be inviting, accessible and useful for all. Like a good doctor, Zahl also offers a prescription, which includes “grace” and “heaven.” One definition of grace for Zahl is that, “nothing that needs to be done hasn’t been done already” for us, and by God. This means that we can accept that we are all fellow strugglers who, of course, lack enough “enough-ness” to achieve our own justification, and who don’t need to, anyway. Such a realization should draw us together, not drive us apart. As for “heaven,” a religion of grace, rather than of “performancism,” would help us come to peace with the fact that the “enough-ness” we often seek with such fear and frenzy in both “Big-R” and secular religions is not to be found here and now, in people like ourselves, nor in anyone else in such a world as this. Grace requires surrendering control, or the illusion thereof, even to the point of accepting death as the final, most total, though most frightening, surrender of control. There is grace in such surrender of life to death, but only if there is also hope and trust that enough “enough-ness” is yet to come.