Religious Americans?

In reading books by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have cited on numerous occasions in these posts, I delight in the fact that she and I agree so much with one another. This, of course, leads me to conclude that she is a brilliant woman, since brilliance is defined as “in agreement with oneself.” In any event, we do agree about so much and I have learned a great deal in reading her books. She insists on one point, however, that strikes me as simply mistaken and I decided to write this post pointing out just where I think she went wrong.

Himmelfarb insists that America is the most religious nation on earth — or certainly in the West, at any rate. She cites de Tocqueville as support who, when travelling in America in the nineteenth century, was struck by the religiosity of so many Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that the American Republic rested on religious faith. As he said:

“Religion is the first of [America’s] political institutions because it was the prerequisite of both freedom and morality — and thus of republican government itself. . . . [Freedom] considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. . . . At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

The problem is, of course, de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 for nine months and while his book was extraordinary — and still is — it may not be totally adequate to describe the state of things in this country today. But, more to the point, de Tocqueville and Himmelfarb both neglect to define what they mean by “religion” and this causes problems. Himmelfarb seems to mean by the word simply church and synagogue attendance which is higher in this country than it is in many European countries, especially France. As it happens, though, fewer than 40% of us report that we attend church regularly – and critics insist that this figure is inflated. In fact, attendance in church among the young has lately fallen off drastically and the vast majority of the “millennial” generation – born after 1980 – claim no church affiliation whatever. But, regardless of these figures, church attendance does not determine religiosity, especially in the age of mega-churches that serve our favorite coffee laté and provide us with television sets on site to fill our empty minutes when we are not browsing in the bookstore for souvenirs. Indeed, many churches are nothing more or less than social clubs where folks go to meet and greet one another for an hour or so of a Sunday in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.

But it behooves me to define what I mean by “religion.” When I was  freshman in college back in the dark ages I wrote a seminar paper on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a religious work. The first question out of my seminar leader when I sat down to defend the paper was “what is religion?” I looked aghast. I gaped, I was stunned. I thought everyone knew what religion is! So I struggled and tried to bluff my way, which did not serve me well. Accordingly, I now seek to make amends for past failures and will define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.

Contrast today’s notion of what it means to be “religious” with the medieval world in Europe in which church was the center of most people’s lives, with daily attendance (sometimes twice daily), prayers in the evenings, and total dedication to making one’s life on this earth a preparation for the next one. In that regard, I do think Lucretius’ book was religious and his “entity” was Nature, which he sought to love and respect and, as far as possible, become one with. In doing so, as a Stoic, he was convinced that, with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world. For the truly religious, there is profound mystery in the world and it gives meaning to their lives.

In that regard, there do not seem to me to be many religious Americans. The data suggest that the traditional churches are closing their doors or seeking to conform to the pattern of the non-denominational churches that focus on fellowship and good feeling, demanding as little as possible from the parishioners and continually reassuring them that they are loved and are among the happiest and luckiest people on this earth. In a word, those churches that do manage to fill their pews do not demand “respect and reverence” for the God they profess to worship. Certainly not sacrifice. Parishioners, for the most part, do not center their lives around the church and its teachings. Indeed, the churches demand very little of their worshippers at all. They seek, rather, to make things as easy as possible for the congregation so they will continue to attend and help pay for the new roof.

I exaggerate, of course, but I seek to make a serious point: the claim that Himmelfarb makes about the supposed religiosity of the American people rests on flimsy evidence and flies in the face of the fact that so many “religious” people in this country have tended to resort quickly to violence, elect self-absorbed morons to political offices, and are caught up in the self-as-God movement which places the focus of their lives on themselves and not on something greater than themselves “out there” in the world. I conclude therefore that Himmelfarb was mistaken — at least on this topic.

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Greek Lessons

It seems odd to suggest in this sophisticated (?) day and age that we might learn something from people who lived centuries before us and who were in some respects quite different. But, then, in most respects they were not so different and despite the centuries that have passed, there are lessons to be learned. After all, during the “classical period” that only lasted a few decades, Athens, especially, produced some of the greatest minds that the world has ever witnessed. And they spoke to us, providing us with the wisdom, creativity, and brilliance that launched Western Civilization.

Later, Plutarch wrote his Parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in order to show that history repeats itself and to teach young men how to live by witnessing the lives of the greatest of those who went before them. It was a given that we could learn valuable lessons by bearing witness to the lives of the great. These men were the heroes of the age and the ones who were looked to in order to help get one’s bearings in an increasingly confusing world. Today, we have our athletes and warriors. So did the Greeks and the Romans, though their heroes tended to be more …. heroic.

Consider, for example, one of the oldest works ever written down, though it was originally passed down orally from the old to the young. I speak of Homer’s Iliad. It tells us about the extraordinary warrior, Achilles, who has his prize taken away from him by Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition to Troy.  He pouts and sits sulking in his tent while his comrades are fighting a losing battle. Finally, he allows his best friend Patroclus, to don his armor and go forth to lead the Greeks into battle. Patroclus dies and Achilles is finally determined to fight and, being the great warrior he is, he turns the tide. In the process he kills the greatest warrior on the Trojan side, Hector. In the end Priam, Hector’s father, comes to Achilles and begs him to allow him to take Hector back within the walls of Troy and give him a proper burial. Achilles agrees.

In Achilles’ development throughout the course of the story, we see him going from childish petulance to anger, to rage, to courage, to compassion. In the process, we suspect, he learns the greatest of the Greek virtues: temperance — or self-control. In fact, this concern with temperance is echoed in  Greek dramas where we discover that temperance is held up repeatedly as something priceless in itself, though very hard to achieve. Without it, without self-control, the Greeks realized that men and women were invariably headed toward tragedy. The Greeks admired wisdom, courage and justice. But above all else they admired temperance. Later, the Stoics in Rome made it the centerpiece of their world view.

If we contrast this with our world view a great many things jump out. But the largest, certainly, is our lack of temperance. The notion that we should restrain ourselves and exhibit a calm demeanor while others around us are losing their minds shows others that we just “don’t get it.” Our mantra is “it’s not good to keep things bottled up.” Those who do are viewed as “uptight.” This is the age of letting it all hang out, exhibiting our emotions for all to see and holding nothing back. We see it all around us, especially in those athlete-heroes I mentioned above. In the eyes of many it is what sports is all about. The athletes set the tone and many of our leading politicians have started to follow their lead, exhibiting outrage, hatred, and contempt, raw emotion, at every opportunity — some more than others.. And they are not held in contempt: they are admired for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to healthy emotions. On the contrary. It just seems to me that we should hold something back, even if to create an air of mystery. And self-control, coupled with careful thought, is important if we hope to work our way out of the morass we seem to have fallen into.

Achilles sulked and exhibited rage, though he learned important lessons from his encounter with Hector and his exchange with Priam. He learned to be compassionate and to control his emotions. Those are the lessons we seem not to have learned as we simply wallow in a sea of our own uncontrolled passion. It is not admirable. But more importantly, it leads to tragedy. The Greeks knew that above all else.