09/28/2016 01:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Abandoning the Old Gods, Manufacturing New Ones


In Neil Gaiman's award-winning novel, American Gods, a fictitious god named Wednesday bemoans the capricious nature of American worship: "This is a bad land for gods ... the old gods are ignored. The new gods are as quickly taken up as they are abandoned, cast aside for the next big thing."

Throughout the novel, the "old gods" are racked by fear and insecurity due to the increased prominence of the "new gods," otherwise known as the "gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon." Rather than adapt to changing times, the old gods bitterly cling to outdated worldviews.

While reading the novel, I considered the ways in which real-life Americans act like these fictionalized deities. Most of us have met older, religious folks with worries, fears, and insecurities comparable to those of Wednesday. Unable to come to terms with a world they no longer recognize, their situation can appear bleak. In some ways their misplaced anger is understandable, and even forgivable. But, what about non-religious, younger individuals? Do they become easily angered when their own worldviews, many of which are based on secular-scientific principles, are challenged?

When presented with information that may undermine the stability of their core values, the assumption might be that millenials are more likely to engage in productive discourse than act out of fear and insecurity. However, a cursory survey of social media outlets provides numerous instances of non-religious millenials engaging in discourse that often appears uncompromising. Are non-religious young Americans paradoxically defending modern secular-scientific views in a manner typically associated with the behavior of religious zealots? Are they attacking religious persons with a level of callousness typically associated with extreme fundamentalists?

Because the student responses in my college classrooms are often more honest, sane, and nuanced than religious discourse on the internet (and sometimes academia), I recently asked them why they seem more affected by challenges leveled against secular-scientific principles than critiques of religion. Nathaniel Mollot, an engineering major, wrote:

As it appears to be with many other students in the class, I grew up Catholic but consider myself agnostic now. Personally, religion doesn't have a place in my life, mostly because it doesn't satisfy my current needs. Because I've found the secular beliefs and values I've grown up with in school to be more useful than those learned through Catholicism, I've discarded my religion. Wow, that last part sounds really sad. But, that seems to be how the world spins for most of us youngsters: religion just isn't our thing.

Though most of my students believe religion provides a sense of peace and comfort, some think this comfort is founded on myths that cannot be reconciled with secular histories and scientific facts. As a result, some feel traditional religion cannot provide them the comfort it provides their parents.

When asked whether a materialist worldview provides their generation with a sense of purpose, meaning, and stability -- similar to the function of their parents' religion -- many had a difficult time confidently denying this was the case.

My students' quasi-religious reverence of science is evident when we watch videos like Rupert Sheldrake's TED talk, "The Science Delusion," wherein the former Cambridge University cell biologist provides compelling evidence that many of the so-called constants in science may not be as constant as previously thought. Whether Sheldrake is correct or not, some students refused to listen to an esteemed scientist because his views are inconsistent with their science. A student in one of the classes, Andrew Stieb, provided a concise summary and nuanced explanation of his class' reaction to the Sheldrake video:

We were born into world where religion was being phased out and secularism and a steadfast faith in the sciences were being phased in. Even the shows we grew up watching like Dexter's Laboratory and Bill Nye the Science Guy have predisposed us towards a scientific mentality. We were raised to question everything and accept nothing, except science. As a result, there was a palpable tension throughout the class when we were shown Rupert Sheldrake's "The Science Delusion." Many of us immediately dismissed Sheldrake as a flake or as delusional, closing our minds while immediately attempting to debunk him before his short talk even finished. During in-class discussions, it became evident many of us did not listen to Sheldrake because we did not want to listen to him. Taking his critiques seriously would force us to step out of our comfort zones and challenge our worldviews.

Now, the purpose of this post is not to make an argument for outdated religious dogmas and practices that breed ignorance and hatred. It is not to defend Sheldrake -- Deepak Chopra has already done that -- or attack scientific truths and secular values. The purpose is to lay the foundation for an ongoing series, co-created by students, colleagues, and a few special guests that explores whether seldom questioned secular-scientific norms hold up to the same scrutiny scholars apply to dissect religion.

Preview of the findings: they do not hold up very well.