This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.
-Philip Larkin, from “Aubade”
It is the misfortune of many morning commuters to find themselves at the ass end of an hour, when Morning Edition turns to religion and pop music, which occupy more or less the same sphere. Today, it was religion; more particularly, that “A third of young adults in this country say they don’t identify with any organized religion.” I strongly suspect you’d have found the same results at any Oxbridge or Ivy League in 1913, but let’s just assume that away and say, yes, This Is How We Live Now.
Well, the underlying premise of the piece is that these irreligious, but not at all atheistic, young folks are struggling to find a church that accords with their social beliefs and self-conception, that is welcoming and fulfilling, that gathers them all . . . excuse me while I reach for the mouthwash. These are all people who found the Marketing and PR lacking. They want a good aspirational lifestyle campaign. They want to feel like they’re helping the environment by buying locally. Um, you know, like, they’re kind of like, maybe afraid of oblivion.
Thou hast made me, shall thy work decay? The quintessential characteristics of religion in the story are psychological rather than spiritual. Am I good person? How can I be fulfilled? These kids are just shopping for religions. No different from walking into Urban Outfitters. I just want to find a religion that expresses who I really am! But a lot of these religions, well, I have long legs and the cuffs don’t fall quite right at the top of my mock-vintage Chukka boots.
I don’t have a problem with this, really; there’s a kind of classicism to it that I enjoy, like, pick which temple deity or sibyl or seer etc. most appeals to you or most conveniently represents the values/desires/wishes/needs in your life right now and leave the gold coin/ox penis/voodoo doll at her door. But this being NPR and all, the whole thing must be trussed like a 4-lb roaster and turned slowly over the fire of social significance. What does it mean that we live in a society in which one third of young adults are religiously unaffiliated? Well, it means that we live in a society in which two thirds of young adults are religiously affiliated. I suppose you could blame it on chemicals in fracking water, or the absence of really decent scripted network dramas, or the NHL lockout. What does it all mean, NPR’s David Greene? Don’t mean shee-it.
See, the conceit of the piece is that these young people are “struggling.” No, Augustine was struggling. We’re just a little indecisive. Yo, they recognize that religion of a self-help, socially moderate, regularly (but not too regularly) practiced—a set of guidelines, shall we say, rather than a rulebook–kind is a powerful sort of social currency.
Because the people who really “struggle” with the emptiness of modern life and the absence of faith, yo, NPR has different words for those people. “Islamists.” “Fundamentalists.” “Fanatics.” “Religious extremists.” Now, As A Gay Man ©, my obvious preference is for the shopping-cart variety, but let’s not pretend that these people are looking for the meaning of life. They’re just looking for the better dividend miles program.