Losing Our Religion—Is That Possible?

Steve Wilkens

A vegan, an atheist, and a cross-fitter walked into a bar. We know this because they each announced it to everyone in the bar within two minutes of entering.

Virtue-signaling, such as we find in this joke, is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it seems to have become more common in recent years. However, this joke may hide a deeper truth. The northern hemisphere, which is supposedly becoming less religious with each generation, may not be as non-religious as we think. Instead, we may be observing the growth of newer secular religions, in which leaving Christianity represents a rejection of one religion in favor of a new one, even if that secular religion doesn’t show up in the index of an introduction to religion textbook. If this is the case, I think it would be wise for those who are preparing for, or are in, Christian ministry (and every Christian for that matter) to condition their calling with the premise that human beings are inherently religious. In other words, is it the case that we can never really abandon religion, but can only change our religion?

A few years ago, I was invited to be a scholar-in-residence at a small Christian college in Kansas. During this time, I met with the entire faculty on several occasions to offer suggestions on how to integrate faith within their academic curriculum. In one of those sessions, I asked them whether they thought college students of our time, the population leaving organized religions at the highest rate, would be willing to offer a public witness to their religious convictions. For example, would they wear distinctive clothing in public that readily identified them as members of a particular religion? Would these college-aged religious adherents devote significant expense and time to make pilgrimages to a centralized place of worship? While at their temple, would they sing and chant collectively with great vigor to give witness to their religious commitment? What is the likelihood that these religious devotees would give a robust public expression of their faith to outsiders?

Most of the faculty, as I expected, thought that this sort of religious expression was highly unlikely among a majority of college students. At that point, I flashed a PowerPoint of the University of Kansas Jayhawk on the screen and told these scholars that I had not simply attended a basketball game the previous night. I had witnessed the fellowship of ecstatic worshippers (they, of course, won) at the high holy place of KU basketball—The Phog. It had many of the trappings of an enthusiastic religious gathering, replete with ritualistic actions and chants known and shared by the insiders and a fervor that crossed all ages in attendance that we often think to be more characteristic of a new convert. My nephew confessed to getting cold chills every time the pre-game video of the Jayhawks’ past glories was shown.

To be clear, I’m not trying to throw a wet blanket on being an avid sports fan. If KU basketball is on TV, I’m watching it. And while atheism is a non-starter for me, I’m not throwing shade on veganism or cross-fit training, though I’m not a practitioner of either. In fact, careful concern about what we eat, a rigorous physical regimen, or ardent sports fandom can be good things. However, that is precisely the problem. The danger of any good thing is that it can become our ultimate thing—a religion that competes with Christianity.

A dozen years ago, a colleague (Mark Sanford) and I wrote a book entitled Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. We talked about how postmodern tribalism, scientific naturalism, individualism, New Age philosophies, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, and the therapeutic culture offer metanarratives that govern the lives of many in our world. On occasions when I thumb through the pages of Hidden Worldviews, I’m still pretty happy with what is in the book. However, if I were writing the book today, two things would be tweaked. First, new “isms” have emerged or strengthened to the extent that we would need to find some way to address them. Hyper-partisan politics, environmentalism, and social justice movements, for example, can and have become metanarratives that direct the lives of some people. The second change is that I would put greater stress on the fact that these were not just worldviews. For many, they function as alternative religions to Christianity.

One reason for wanting to stress the religious dimension of these worldviews is that they often do the same things that are features of a religion. Of course, this comes with the usual disclaimer that it is notoriously difficult to come up with a definition of religion. After all, systems that have no God or gods (e.g., Confucianism), are pantheistic (e.g., Hinduism), believe that the natural world is inhabited by divine realities (e.g., animism), or are monotheist (e.g., Judaism) are all usually described as religions. However, the great scholar of religion, Ninian Smart, identifies seven dimensions of religion: ritual, the emotional, narrative, doctrine, the ethical, structural/institutional, and the material. Moreover, he also notes that many secular philosophies also have these elements, and uses nationalism as an example. Rituals such as national anthems, the emotional feelings of patriotism, the narratives of great national heroes, and the doctrines of self-determination and freedom are all elements of nationalism. Following from this, the ethical component might be envisioned in respect for the laws, while the structural/institutional dimension is found in the pomp of the highest offices and confirmed in the material dimension found in magnificent government buildings. Again, the point is not that these elements are bad in themselves, but placing them within the context of the various dimensions of religion illuminates the possibility that they can morph from a healthy form of national pride and commitment into the secular religion of nationalism.

At this point, a couple of observations are in order. First, people rarely “walk the sawdust trail” to consciously convert to a secular religion. Instead, such religious inclinations are absorbed rather than adopted. This leads to the rather odd situation in which one may be an adherent to a religion without even being aware of it. The second observation is that Christians are not immune from these secular religions. They are so omnipresent in modern-day society that they seep under the church doors. Thus, without an awareness of these secular religions, those who are confident in their commitment to the God of the Bible may become practicing polytheists who worship Mammon, Freud, science, the good old USA, ourselves, or any one of the other secular idols.

What is the payoff for those who are looking forward to a life of ministry in viewing secular narratives as religious expressions? The first benefit is that it prompts us to listen in a different way. Before it shut down a couple of years ago, I would often hear the cheers and chants from a cross-fit gym two doors down from the patio of my favorite coffee shop as one of their members would strive for a new personal record. At a distance, the sounds were indistinguishable from a Pentecostal service at full crescendo. When you listen to the urgent fervor of a committed environmentalist, what do you hear? Is it someone whose primary motivation is sparked by a keen awareness of our obligation to a planet created by a loving God? Or does this individual’s impetus arise from worship of Mother Earth, mediated by a teen-aged Scandinavian priestess? Tillich tells us that religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary.” When we listen to those around us, are we properly attuned to discern when people reveal their ultimate concerns?

The second payoff of viewing current worldviews as potential secular religions is that it highlights the problem of reductionism in all of Christianity’s competitors. One thing that makes Christianity so compelling to me is that it is not just about saving our souls, as the phrase is so often understood anyway. It is about the transformation of every dimension of the life that God has bestowed on us. We are indeed spiritual beings, but we are also physical, economic, aesthetic, political, psychological, rational, social, ethical, and sexual beings situated within a cultural context. Our call as Christian believers is to draw each of these dimensions of our existence under the umbrella of God’s salvation.

Christianity’s whole-person perspective of salvation helps us understand where secular religions come up short. In short, they tend to define salvation (by whatever language and vocabulary they may use to speak of a flourishing life) by reducing us to a single dimension of life. Various forms of hedonism, whether the crasser forms of drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll lifestyle or the refined tastes of modern epicures, properly acknowledge our identity as material beings who seek pleasure, but leave no room for the spiritual dimension of life. On the other end of the spectrum, New Age types of thought rightly acknowledge that we are spiritual beings, but do so by viewing the body, not as God’s holy temple, but as a hindrance or even an illusion that must be overcome in our quest for salvation.

Consumerism properly recognizes that we are inherently economic beings. Our needs for food, clothing, and shelter are legitimate, but the accumulation of material things as an ultimate goal reduces us to the physical and economic dimension of life. Freud, who has one foot in the religion of salvation by therapy and the other in scientific naturalism, is at least honest enough to recognize that “our God Logos (Reason) is not a very almighty one.” Thus, if you seek a message of salvation in his thought, it extends no farther than therapeutic tools that enable someone to function in society, free from the forces that may lead us into neurosis or psychosis. Ironically, however, as a psychotherapist, he denies the existence of a psychē (the Greek word for soul) or anything like the soul that allows us to be attuned to spiritual matters. In short, the gods of secular religions are too small. They lack the power and reach to bring salvation to every facet of our existence. Stated otherwise, secular religions have people who are too small because the scope of the salvation they envision inevitably leaves out some God-given dimension of our existence.

The second reason for highlighting the religious aspect of worldviews is that this offers a glimmer of hope. Those who are created in the divine image may be capable of rejecting the God who brings us into being, but those of us who do will simply seek to fill that void with some other god. As Bob Dylan reminded us a few decades ago, you “gotta serve somebody.” This insight simply restates my thesis that we are inherently religious beings. However, his follow-up line—“it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord”—leaves out some important details. Serving someone or something other than the Lord may manifest itself as the worship of Mammon or Gaia. It may rise to the surface as a form of henotheism in which the God of our nation is viewed as superior to the gods of other nations. Indeed, our racial or sexual identity can be viewed as the ultimate standard of truth and goodness, so we end up serving the “tribe” to which we belong. We will always attempt to fill the “God-shaped hole” in our lives with something. Indeed, the fact that a majority of the religious “nones,” as they are labeled by pollsters, say that they are “spiritual but not religious” attests to this.

Closely related to the problem of reductionism characteristic of secular religions is the fact that they inevitably lack internal cohesion or integrity. Some of the Christians I encounter can ground their interest in social justice in a God who deeply loves those on the margins. However, I also encounter social justice warriors who are absolutely certain they know what constitutes justice. However, these same people are, ironically, often the most adamant in claiming that all moral claims are subjective. Likewise, a vestige of God’s call to us is found in the virtues we find fundamental to a good life. It seems a safe call to say that most people will agree that those who are rightly oriented in their life will exhibit such qualities as humility, love, and gratitude. However, in Hidden Worldviews we ask, “Can you squeeze humility out of individualism, which puts me at the center of the universe? Does postmodern tribalism or nationalism demand that we love those who are not like us? Where would one find room in scientific naturalism or consumerism for gratitude toward God?” The reality is that some who are practitioners of these secular religions often manifest such virtuous qualities, and when they do we benefit from them. The question is whether their core “religious” beliefs provide a solid foundation for the development of these virtues, or do they even view them as integral to their belief system.

Every year, I have the privilege of teaching an ancient philosophy class. The majority of the students enrolled in the course are majors in Christian ministries, theology, or biblical studies. In our first class session, I remind them, as future leaders of the church, that Christianity grew up in a highly diverse marketplace of worldviews, philosophies, and religions, and many of the earliest Christian thinkers were successful in showing how the Christian faith provided the most sufficient response to the religious impulse God has invested in each person. For those today who are preparing for ministry in a world with an increasing number of religions, secular or otherwise, my prayer is that you are also able to communicate the full sufficiency of the Christian faith for the spiritual impulse God has invested in each person.

Posted May 04, 2022