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To Ross Douthat, Hooray For Heretics

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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's new book, Bad Religion, has been getting a lot of attention lately. It would not be fair to comment on a book I haven't read, but I can say this: I love the subtitle: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

Judging from reviews and interviews, Douthat doesn't think it's good that we are a nation of heretics. I think it's great. Here is a typical dictionary definition of heretic: "One who dissents from an accepted belief or doctrine." Most dictionaries add something like this: "especially one who publicly dissents from the officially accepted dogma of the Roman Catholic Church." Only orthodox believers would argue that objecting to conventional religious dogma is a bad thing, especially in the case of a religion dominated by a hierarchy of monastic men. But there is more to the notion of heresy than theological disagreement. The word heretic derives from the Greek hairetikos, which means "able to choose." If that's the underlying meaning, what could be more American than heresy? The early settlers braved the treacherous seas to practice their heresies in peace. The Founders installed the right to heresy in our founding documents. But why stop there? Socrates was a heretic. Galileo. Martin Luther. Jesus Christ himself, for God's sake (if you'll excuse the multiple entendre). To the extent that religion evolves, it's largely because heretics rise up against prevailing dogmas.

According to one reviewer, Ross Douthat "laments the departure from what he calls 'a Christian center,'" whose glory years he places in the 1950s. Well, that nice stable "center" was as illusory as the nice stable suburbs, nuclear families and sexual mores of that era. Hearts and minds teemed with unrest, at home and in the churches, and the baby boomer children grew up and voiced it. Heresy was inevitable, and in the 1960s we became better "able to choose" in both senses of the term. Not only were we allowed to choose our spiritual orientations -- or lack of them -- without fear of serious retribution, but we also became capable of choosing wisely and sensibly. Thanks to revolutions in communication and transportation, we had unprecedented access to a wide range of alternative world-views -- secular philosophies, variations on Judeo-Christian theology and, most important, Hinduism and Buddhism. Eastern ideas broadened us, and the methodologies of meditation and yoga deepened us. For the first time, vast numbers of "heretics" were "able to choose" authentic spiritual paths without surrendering their freedom of thought.

Millions of us began to reject religious tribalism, once-size-fits-all salvation formulas and truth claims that do not stand up to science and reason. They declared that doubt is good, that questioning religious authority is smart and exploring alternatives to conventional belief is virtually essential. In this they were supported by wise spiritual leaders who encouraged free inquiry, with the caveat that it be undertaken with rigor, discernment and humility.

The result has not been spiritual anarchy, as many critics contend, but an open market where seekers take responsibility for their own spiritual lives and make informed choices. Contrary to the fears voiced by traditionalists, most of the cohort of unaffiliated heretics known as spiritual but not religious, or "nones," do not reject authority as such, or spurn spiritual guidance as such. They reject authoritarianism and seek guidance from an array of sources, not just the one assigned to them by virtue of ancestry or geography. And they are, as a group, no more superficial or narcissistic than the folks who occupy pews in conventional houses of worship -- maybe less so. As someone once said, sitting in a church does not make you spiritual, any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.

This decades-long surge of "heresy" is a quintessentially American phenomenon, and I believe it will prove to be a turning point in our history. Conservatives like Douthat, who pine for a mythical version of a church-centered postwar world, might lament that, but I say thank God for heretics. They broaden our minds and deepen our spirits. The challenge will be to make sure this age of anti-dogmatic spirituality does not produce its own rigid orthodoxies, which will only have to be smashed by future heretics.