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Protesting Protestantism: Why Religion Must Continue To Change

Posted: 05/04/11 10:36 PM ET

Easter has come and gone. It's not uncommon around holidays like Easter for religion to get a reprieve. Christians, rightly, recognize that at least Easter remains their holiday. A relative recently forwarded a rather friendly article printed in USA Today. The article is friendly, but it also carries the requisite angle. It caught my attention because it focuses on changes to religious practice in the midst of an inherently traditional holy day. People are leaving their traditions, it claims, and defining their own "church experience" many times leaving the expensive productions, fashion shows, floral displays, and liturgical pomp and circumstance behind. According to the article, it is only by doing this that the true object of Easter, Christ, can once again become the focus.

In a sense, it is a new protest against what many see as the institutionalization of religion.
Almost a year ago, I wrote an essay outlining what I see as a fairly significant shift in the way many Americans think about their faith (I blogged about some of the themes in that essay for the Huffington Post). As a philosopher, I'm intrigued by the epistemology (how knowledge is grounded) of this shift. I've become convinced that people of faith depend upon the social and practical constructs of something like the church in order to maintain a robust belief.

Of course this is no different than anything else. A Seattle Seahawks fan who never attends or watches games, doesn't own an oversized "twelfth man" jersey, or fly window flags from her car on game day soon will find, over time, that they are no longer a fan. An environmentalist who drives a gas-guzzler because he enjoys the ride and refuses to recycle because it's inconvenient may soon find his love for the environment fading. The mechanisms in our brain that sustain robust belief -- particularly when that belief is in something transcendental like the future state of the planet or an unseen god -- needs a constant and powerful bulwark against disbelief.

So this shift away from institutional religion is not trivial. The USA Today article focuses on the shift away from the institutional church proper and towards a more intimate, less liturgical model of "doing church" which emphasizes experiences and personal fellowship rather than doctrine and rules. One person interviewed for the article made the same prediction I did in my essay: the days of the institutional (protestant) church probably are numbered. She said, "We just weren't seeing any fruit, any new members, for all that huge expense of time and effort. I love Jesus and I love the church, but I think the way we do institutional church in America will be extinct before long. It will just crumble."

If this is true, how will the epistemology of faith change along with it? It's almost impossible to predict but I think certain key elements will earmark the shift.

People will depend on other people to help keep faith strong. Most of us need the support and validation of others to maintain our beliefs. In one of the many insightful passages in his The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observes,

Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life's limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula. ... in matters of immortality, everyone has the same self-righteous conviction.

The growth of the internet and electronic communication may enable individuals to leave institutions and yet still have meaningful connections with others. I'll freely admit that blogging gives me an outlet and opportunity, however small, to connect with a larger audience and gives me a sense that my ideas mean something to others. I have friends on Facebook who regularly post nothing but passages of scripture or continually link to apologetic material. These, I believe, are partially to scratch the itch that Becker observed we all share. Without loyal followers who share and affirm our beliefs, they wither over time.

Believers will depend on an authority to ensure their faith has merit. Regardless of whether one is meeting in a mega-church or a home church, some authority that gives credence to belief always emerges. It may be an individual that everyone turns to for guidance or protection, or an escalation of the importance and authority of a religious text (or a version of that text -- this year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, a translation which many almost deify), or a particular practice such as speaking in tongues or communal prayer. Many philosophers and scientists uphold reason as that authority. Regardless, epistemologically, belief needs a king and a soldier.

The "inside-outside" dichotomy will need to be maintained and may grow in importance. If institutional religion is "crumbling" I expect that a part of the justification for leaving those institutions must include the idea that one can do better. Becker used the unflattering term "self-righteous" to capture this idea (and many times the expression of this is unflattering) but it need not be as virtueless as that. Fans of a sports team need their rivals. Environmentalists need consumers. Philosophers need cave-dwellers. Scientists need artists. Corporations need competitors. Any worldview that has any significance for a person needs something to contrast against. I think this helps give ideas clear definition and helps our minds find boundaries for them. Belief needs to back up against something or it stumbles and falls over.

There will be a greater focus on the transcendent. I'm not entirely sure what form this will take -- it probably will take many forms. But I believe many believers are eschewing heavy-handed authoritarian churches. But as I noted above, this does not mean the eradication of authority. The authority will come in the form of personal worship and a more subject ethic. In a very real sense, this is a protest of the authoritarianism of Protestantism which, of course, was a protest against the authority of the Catholic Church. The "kingship of every believer" will take its fullest form in the next few generations and it will rest on a much more personal view of doctrine and practice I think.

I think the USA Today article is correct: certain facets of religion in the West are undergoing a change. I don't believe this earmarks a substantial, permanent change in the nature of the human person however. That's why I think the term "shift" is more accurate. In my view, a protest like the one we'll be witnessing in the next decade is all part of a regular cycle. Religious belief and praxis has gone through this cycle many times before. What has remained constant is the belief forming mechanisms that sustains and supports it. The specifics may be very different but the underlying epistemological needs will remain constant.

Apologies in advance to the Easter Bunny.

Portions of this post were previously published to philosophynews.com