(Un)surprisingly, Religion Persists

Sean Sanford

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What does it mean to be religious? Given that most responses will invariably draw upon the concept of religion, i.e. “to follow a religion”, I follow with, what is a religion? After several years of graduate education in the field of Religion (aka Religious Studies), I still find it funny that the discipline has not settled upon a definition.  There are many from which to choose, from classical and contemporary sources alike, but none has provided sufficient breadth for the variety of human experiences that we refer to as religious (or at least none that researchers can agree upon!).

Many of us would assume that any such definition implies faith in a divine being, or perhaps is marked by a set of moral imperatives. In many cases we would be right. In my own Catholic tradition both are true. Nonetheless, examples abound of religious practices, beliefs and communities that would prove such a definition lacking. Whatever religion may (or may not) be, there is a tendency in some – particularly Western – cultures to suggest that religion is in the very least, that which is not secular. Religious and secular, secular and religious. It is, for many, simply accepted that such distinctions do indeed exist, no less than up or down, left or right, and is no doubt a product of our traditional fascination with dualistic thinking.  The fact that secular(ism) is usually defined in an equally nebulous manner, namely as that which is outside the sphere of religion, should give pause to the assumption that the secular-religious divide is somehow natural or uncontested. In modern, liberal (small “l”) societies the assumption of a neutral public space in which matters of faith are considered private is often a given. Some would argue that such a space is fundamental to democracy, or individual rights, or even the rule of law. Yet, despite its currency in contemporary thought, the acceptance of the division between, or definition of what constitutes, religious or secular is very much a subject of debate among scholars of religion.

I recently had the good fortune of attending the annual American Academy of Religion conference in San Francisco.  This conference is notable for a number of reasons, not least of all the fact it gathers over ten thousand people committed to the study of religion. Drawing from the disciplines of theology, religious studies, sociology, history and anthropology (to name a few), the gathering is both one of the largest academic meetings in North America and a fascinating opportunity to listen in on some of the most important conversations in the field. The fact that the conversation participants include clergy, lay-believers, agnostics, atheists and every other religious identifier imaginable only enriches the experience.  Among the many topics a few stand out as particularly vital and received much attention. I dare say that foremost among them is the acknowledgment that the “secularism thesis”, an idea deeply rooted in the Western intellectual tradition since the Enlightenment, is in fact, seriously flawed.

The short and simple version of the secularism thesis goes something like this: Religion is how primitive people explain the world they live in. Modern societies are advanced by science and industry. Hence, the only rational faith is a faith in progress. Based on the logic of these assumptions, it is a truism that as cultures advance, people will abandon religious faith or in the very least a belief in the supernatural/divine.  This thesis has been widely held among Western intellectuals for most of the past two hundred (or more) years. It is has achieved particular prevalence in Europe but has adherents throughout the world. Amusingly, it was espoused by many of the founders of the academic discipline of religious studies! The problem with the thesis, at least according to the majority of scholars in the field today (religious and non-religious alike) is that it’s wrong. The expansion of religious communities over the past two generations, in the global South, in the former Soviet republics, the rise of the Evangelical and Pentecostal movements around the world, the growth of Islam, Mormonism, and New Religious Movements (NRMs), just to name a few, has astounded researchers. John Hinnells, a well-respected British scholar who has worked in the field of religious studies for many years, readily admits: “In the 1960’s many of us forecast that religions would gradually decline…we were wrong!”[1] As the data continues to discredit the thesis, academics turn to the question of why? My purpose here is not to expound upon the various avenues being explored for an answer, rather, I would like to suggest – for those of you who have stuck with me thus far – that for those of us who self-identify as religious, the answer may not be all that baffling.

It appears to me that deep within the question of why religious identity persists are two profoundly important ideas. The first is, of course, faith. Those who are bewildered by the persistence of religion make an analytical error, namely the assumption that by “sticking with religion,” religious people are all the same, intellectually passive, or take refuge in religious authority. The reality is that religious identity is far more fluid. Most people I know simultaneously struggle with and celebrate their religious identity. Parts of it grieve them, others aspects fill their lives with joy. Sometimes we feel “all in” and at other times feel like we’re on the periphery of our tradition. And though we change, we also persist because we have hope in the possibility that the promises of our traditions are more than fantasies.  We anticipate that within the myths, scriptures, and exemplars of our forbears, we may discover insights into who we are and who we are meant to be. I, for example, have never been particularly comfortable with the word truth (especially when capitalized) to describe my religious beliefs, but I do not accept that this makes me a relativist. Nor do I accept that my unwillingness to ascribe my religious beliefs to the same category as say, math, does not mean I value them any less or think of them as inferior to “hard” facts.  On the contrary, my hope in the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth endows my life with meaning. The signs and symbols of my tradition remind me of grace and allow me to see the sacred in the mundane. My faith gives me a way to engage the fundamental mystery of being human. Maybe, as some suggest, I am nothing more than a biological organism, but I don’t experience my life that way and so I believe that there is more, and my life means more, than I am able to understand. Isn’t that one of the reasons Christmas is so special? Not only is the season simultaneously the great feast of commerce (secular) and the holiest of times for Christians (religious), but in the simple memory of a child being born, something which happens countless times a day, we are reminded that God loves us all. We literally become kinder, warmer people because we trust in the possibilities of Christmas. Believing, hoping, worshipping…each is a valuable part of my self-understanding and informs my resolve to persist.

The second suggestion is equally important, namely the idea of community. I have been blessed to experience many forms of community, most of them positive and all of them, in their own way, valuable. Nonetheless, my experience has taught me that the kind of relationality fostered by a shared religious faith engenders a depth and longitude I have not experienced elsewhere, with the lone exception of family (who frequently share religious traditions). That bonds of community, friendship, and affection would be forged in the context of shared identity is not surprising. Shared experiences, ethnicities, and interests, likewise create bonds, however, in my life, it is the unique quality of relationships flowing from my religiously informed experiences that resonate over the years and decades. My oldest friends? Those from my childhood parish. My greatest confidantes? Companions from college campus ministry. My marriage? Born after a conversation about belief in God.  Though I have never been a big fan of “praise and worship” music, I am reminded of an old Michael W. Smith song. The chorus of suggests “friends are friends forever if the Lord’s the Lord of them.” Schmaltzy? Yes! But despite my feelings about the song, the sentiment has largely proven true in my life. Ironically, it extends to relationships with those whose beliefs have changed substantively from my own over the years. At one time we shared an identity, a sense of commitment to something greater than ourselves, and despite inevitable changes, nothing can undo what we once shared.

A few years ago I was blessed to work with a group of young adults in a summer program during which they shared their stories, prayed together, talked about faith and the lack thereof, about their joys and sorrows. They laughed together, cried together, and worked (very hard) together. They formed a community and then, at the end of the summer, they went their separate ways. They scattered across the country and beyond. Some went to graduate school, others started (or resumed) full-time work, a few volunteered for a year. Beliefs have changed, opportunities for reunion have been rare, and yet the love endures. And love is the key word. Nearly five years later, when I speak with one of them they immediately ask about the others and the love is both apparent and real. They recall those moments together as something incredibly precious, something that has deeply informed their lives. They experienced a faith community akin to my own in high school and college; and those remain my most beloved friends. These relationships were born within the contested boundaries of religious traditions that nurture and challenge and, sometimes wound.  And for many of us, we have never experienced anything else quite like them.

We are a few short days from Christmas, from the implicitly miraculous, unceasingly mysterious, sometimes bizarre, and often wonderful celebration of the Incarnation. We stand in a place of unknowing, profoundly hopeful in the love of a God revealed to us in a child. The same child became a man who shared a message that life is a gift, called us to love one another, and welcomed us into a community quite unlike any other. In the warm glow of the season, that religion persists feels obvious.

Merry Christmas sisters and brothers.


[1] Hinnells, John (ed.) The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2010. p. 10. Print.

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One Response to (Un)surprisingly, Religion Persists

  1. Jan says:

    Sean, I feel so blessed to know you and be gaining these insights. Thanks for this, a great read.

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