Polls and Pews: complexity in self-identity

The ongoing polling research done by Pew on religion in America has been a major touchstone in understanding national trends, but new research by Pew further affirms how difficult it is to get a sense of what religion means in this country, and how impossible it is to capture a picture of that.

Photo by Emmanuel Appiah

By changing the method of polling from one primarily based in phone interviews to a system where a panel of pre-selected people fill out online surveys, the pollsters are realizing that people are more likely to represent themselves as “religious” and “church-going” to a person on the phone than they are when privately answering on their own. It is objectively funny that people would lie about being a part of a religion which condemns lying, but Pew points out that it isn’t necessary a lie. Someone who says they are “moderately religious” one day might, because of circumstances or how the question was asked, say the next that they are “only slightly religious.”

Of course, actual church attendance is a more empirical metric, and we should be able to hypothetically track actual attendance versus self-reported attendance. This gets a little sticky too, though, as the research notes:

“[…] when respondents in a telephone or face-to-face survey overstate how often they go to religious services, they may not be consciously telling a lie so much as projecting a self-image that is important to them. They may be saying, in effect, “I’m the kind of person who goes to church every week” rather than, “Without fail, I actually go to church every single week.” When answering the same question online, without the subtle psychological impact of speaking to another person, respondents evidently give answers that are closer to their actual behavior.”

Pew Research Center

Which is to say, people’s identity doesn’t necessarily align with their actions. Is someone who self-identifies as church-going but never actually goes to church actually a church-goer? A simple quantitative question becomes a complicated metaphysical puzzle. If anything, the enterprise of the 21st century has demonstrated in sharp relief the many complexities of identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily that someone would misrepresent themselves to a pollster because they prefer to give an answer that is socially desirable. The problem is that the person doesn’t recognize this answer is at odds with their behavior, and that matters of self-identity are unassailable. Instead of simply writing off a non-church-attending person who identifies as church-going by saying they are lying, we must accept that some actually identify as church-going, maybe even if they don’t actually attend church at all. The fact that they don’t enter into the building doesn’t change their self-image as a “church-goer,” and presenting them with the facts shouldn’t change it either; they simply see themselves as “church-going,” even if they don’t satisfy the generally accepted reality of that term.

There is a way in which this is simply a semantic argument and not a metaphysical one. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that a person’s self-identity has a material change on the reality around them, but I also don’t want to reduce identity down to a matter of definition of the terms. There is a real sense in which the person who never sets foot inside a church but thinks of themselves as a devoted church-goer is what they see themselves as, because, after all, who is anyone else to tell them what they are? As with all questions of identity, the conclusion is ultimately a self-identification, which means others cannot dispute the conclusion.

This also doesn’t just boil down to solipsism. Self-identity doesn’t change the fact of how often someone’s physical body enters into a worship space. But it does change how we view research, as well as how we view others: when people tell you who they are, believe them.

What is a Catholic Atheist?

A purportedly benevolent magic force who listens to our thoughts impregnates a woman against her will with a half-human/half-god hybrid that is meant to cleanse the world of sin by being violently murdered since, even though the magic force is supposedly all-powerful, having their son tortured is the only way to demonstrate the sort of “love” that will absolve the world.

It is hard to believe. In fact, most reasonable people would say that it is impossible to believe. Yet we’ve organized life in the Western Hemisphere around these beliefs for the past couple millennia. In other parts of the world, most of their histories are centered around equally bizarre myths, mostly stemming from the same historical roots.

The reason we, as a society, haven’t simply looked at the lunacy of these beliefs and laughed them off is that we have simply have too much invested in God. We’ve been asked to place our entire trust in God, to center our identity around these supernatural beliefs, to accept a version of history so deeply woven with these bizarre ideas that to reject them would be to reject our entire cultural concept of history, identity, and metaphysics. There are lots of structural, political, and historical reasons why these power structures have been put in place and plenty to say about how they have been corrupted, manipulated, and exploited, but for us humans currently living in the 21st century it is enough to say that religion saturates every aspect of our day to day lives in ways we barely recognize or understand.

The Catholic Atheist is an Atheist because they cannot accept supernatural explanations any longer. They are unwilling to live in the Dark Ages when science has offered us all the tools necessary to understand the world in which we live; even if we don’t have the answers we seek currently, we know now that we can hope for better understanding in the future instead of substituting knowledge with made-up magic.

The Catholic Atheist is a catholic because they recognize the universal influence of world religions on every aspect of modern life. They know that, because so much of the good in our culture, art, and society is rooted in religious influence, that we need to understand and respect that influence if we want to retain and cultivate those things.

A Catholic Atheist needn’t be a Catholic. The word does mean “universal,” after all. You can be the type of Catholic Atheist that is true to your identity and cultural history. The Catholic Atheist also needn’t be an Atheist, per se. Although The Catholic Atheist is committed to empirical science and rejects supernaturalism, there is room for a variety of other beliefs that wouldn’t be called Atheistic, like agnosticism or spiritualism.

You may already be a Catholic Atheist, even if you haven’t used those words to identify yourself that way. You may already have deep misgivings and doubts about the supernatural teachings of the religion you otherwise love. You may mistrust your church for beliefs which today seem antiquated, or perhaps because your church has been responsible for much evil in the world. You may have never attended church nor believed in God, but you see the incredible influence of religion on the world and want to understand that influence better.

Above all, The Catholic Atheist is committed to critical thinking, measured analysis, and the search for truth and meaning. Isn’t that something we can all get behind?

What Reza Aslan gets wrong on Star Trek: The Pod Directive

Two great tastes that taste great together: who wouldn’t be excited about the appearance of one of the most well-known Muslim-American religious thinkers on the new official Star Trek podcast featuring two great comedians? Reza Aslan is, admittedly, an unexpected choice for the second episode of this officially sanctioned interview podcast, but his insight into The Next Generation’s episode on allegorical language is interesting for Trekkers and non-Trek-people alike. His idea of the future of religion, though, seems to have some holes, and not only in the context of a Star Trek future.

I recognize that a casual pop culture podcast isn’t a rigorous academic argument, and that his rhetoric was decidedly targeted towards an audience who didn’t tune in to hear him pontificate on obscure religious topics. Aslan and I share a great many opinions about the state of religion in the modern world, but his vision of a Star Trek era of religion seems off, it isn’t even reflected in the Star Trek universe as it exists, and seems to miss key elements of his own religious definitions.

First, Aslan notes that early Trek was modeled after Gene Roddenberry’s atheistic inclinations, and that the lack of religion in the Roddenberry years was a reflection of his idea that it would become obsolete.

“For Roddenberry, when he imagined a distant future, that’s the assumption that he had [that science would render religion obsolete]. No one in their right mind makes those claims any longer, because they have all proven to be spectacularly false.”

He references data that there is not, in fact, an inverse correlation between economic or social progress and religion; the move to middle class causes more religion, not less. He’s referencing the World Catholic Encyclopedia, and the span of time involved is vast. Yes, viewed over a hundred years, we see that religions have spread, but this ignores the more recent trend away from organized religion. Religious “nones” are on the rise. In America, many may identify as spiritual, but not religious.

Of course, even this recent American trend is misleading, because, across the world population, religion is projected to increase significantly over time. This is basically because religious people tend to come from religious families, and religious families tend to have significantly more children. Projecting 40 years into the future, we see how religion continues to dominate world culture. But what about 200 years in the future? And what about American culture specifically? How might growing irreligiosity in the states influence worldwide trends?

His prediction is that the global population with continue to become scientifically advanced and technologically literate, which will eliminate the need for religion to answer those questions. The divide between religion and science, he claims, has narrowed over time; that, surprisingly, the mystics from 1000 years ago are now being shown to describe some of the most theoretical discoveries that science has to offer today.

“When you look in the distant future, […] what you are going to see is not the eradication of religion, or the dissociation of religion from society, or even more the complete separation of religion and science, you’re going to see the complete opposite. You’re going to see the convergence of religion and science.”

We’ve already seen this trend among the religiously affiliated and “nones.” Believers have been forced to reckon with their supernatural beliefs in the face of scientific evidence, just as non-believers have been forced to acknowledge that some of religion’s outlandish claims are, in a certain sense, borne out by evidence. As the amount of knowledge undiscovered by science continues to diminish, we’ll be further forced to recognize scientific answers to big questions over supernatural ones. This trend seems inevitable, and demonstrable with current trends, but Aslan loses me with the next step:

“If you ask me, ‘what will religion look like 200, 300 years from now?’ We’ll just call it science. There won’t be a difference between religion and science. That’s primarily because they answer two different questions: […] science’s fundamental question is ‘how?’ Religion’s fundamental question is ‘why?'”

What he’s describing is similar to the philosophy of Stephen Jay Gould, who conceived science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria,” that is, two separate realms of thought which don’t infringe on one another. This way of thinking hasn’t stood up well to scrutiny over time, and for obvious reasons: things in the domain of science are frequently (and historically) appropriated by religion. For instance, if we wanted to study the efficacy of prayer, would this fall in the magisteria of religion or science? Certainly if we can conduct a study, this is a scientific pursuit; if science can be used to examine all physical phenomena we experience, where does the realm of religion even begin?

If, far into the future, science is able to chip away at the questions religion has historically answered, will that make science and religion converge? Wouldn’t that imply a unified world religion? There’s only one science, after all, yet many religions. If science leads us, universally, to the same conclusion, and we all understand that conclusion in the same way, there isn’t room for any religious interpretation. This converged science-religion isn’t much of a religion at all.

He seems to arrive at this conclusion by imaging a world where “how and why” are the same question, and he asserts that the Roddenberry idea that religion might be abandoned in the future (in favor of scientific discovery) is thus false. Host Tawny Newsome briefly mentions the robust religious identities of Klingons and Bajorans before the conversation pivots away from religion. These examples are, of course, post-Roddenberry and may not adhere to the same post-religious, scientific future that Roddenberry represented. But their example is actually a great counter to Aslan’s idea of a science-religion future.

The Klingons’ robust religious belief seems supernatural only in their concept of the afterlife, which provides a powerful psychological support as they frequently (and often recklessly) risk their lives in battle. The myriad customs surrounding their relationships (lots of hand slashing and bloodletting) all seem conducive to real-world applications for a warrior society. They don’t battle because “Khaless demands it” but because they have a cultural understanding that it is honorable, their God doesn’t demand sacrifice but rewards altruism. Outside of some lip-service paid to prayers, their beliefs seems remarkable non-supernatural. Their faith isn’t at odds with science.

The Bajorans believe lots of supernatural things, but these are, in the universe of Star Trek, actually scientific truths which are beyond the current understanding of their society. Their Gods are aliens in a spacial anomaly, and while no one quite understands their technology or non-temporal existence, it is made clear that these beings are constrained by the laws of the universe in some way. This is a demonstration of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

There are so many religions depicted over the several series, like the Vulcans who treat logic as a sort of deity, or the Romulans, close biological relatives of the Vulcans, whose major difference is that they have abandoned this religion. There are episodes where science is used to dispel religious myth (Audra the Devil comes to mind), but never is an entire culture’s religion invalidated by a scientific argument. These religions co-exist with scientific truth, not only because they don’t attempt to explain scientific truths but because they codify a cultural understanding of the relationship between religion and science.

Aslan’s conception of religion is fundamentally semiotic. Consider his definition:

“[Religion is] an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors that provide a common language for a community of faith to communicate, with each other and to themselves, the ineffable experience of being.”

Which is the whole point of his analysis of “Darmok,” that semiotics influences our experience. We’ll always need a common language to discuss the things which we struggle to name, and this will be the case for as long as communication is as limited as we currently experience it to be.

Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Aslan’s “religion becomes science.” Perhaps he’s saying the same thing I am, that even once we’ve discovered all there is to discover about science, we’ll still need a way to discuss the things which science cannot describe. Science and religion always intersect, they cannot be “non-overlapping,” but our personal experience of scientific truth can be described in a variety of ways, and the diversity of religious options provide us a number of structures by which to conceptualize these relationships. Science cannot be a religion in this way, even by Aslan’s own definition, because it doesn’t attempt to communicate anything about “the ineffable experience of being.”

I see the future of religion more or less in the way Star Trek depicts it: a huge diversity of religious belief, much of it central to cultural identity, but all subservient to scientific truth. Science and religion can never converge, but they can peacefully co-exist, much as they do now in people like Reza Aslan, or in myself, a Catholic Atheist.

A final thought: imagine far into the future where we’ve not only discovered all the scientific truth the material world has to offer, but we’ve also transcended linguistic communication as we know it today. Maybe we’ve developed psychic abilities, or created technology to merge consciousness without language. Will we still have a need for religion in this future? If in the beginning was the Word, once we dispense with the need for words, does that imply the end of religion?

What happened to online church?

Are you still going to church? Virtually, I mean. Some places are holding physically distant, reduced capacity meetings, of course. Some have experimented with outdoor services, although winter is coming quickly. But the majority of churches are still holding online, virtual services. The people, though, are giving up.

The research from the Barna Group in June gave a pretty shocking picture of the state of faith in America. About half of people were still “attending” virtual church, less than a third were engaging with church leadership, less than 15% were participating in a discussion group or bible study. It isn’t a surprise that people wouldn’t immediately embrace this unusual method of churchgoing, but the shocking part about these statistics is that they are amongst regular churchgoers! That means, even within the church’s most devoted followers, membership is waning in an unprecedented way.

Personally, I was pretty committed to regular Sunday viewing in the spring and early summer. I was definitely one of the “hoppers” that the research mentions, switching freely between several services at congregations which I wouldn’t normally attend. The incredible ease of access to a variety of churches made “attending” different services fun and novel. I would switch between several live, or watch portions of other churches’ later in the day.

That has slowly dwindled, and now I find myself zipping past Sunday without even thinking about booting up a live stream. The incredible variety of online services available was also its undoing: although I enjoyed getting to experience each church’s take on virtual service early on, after several weeks I wasn’t engaged enough to continue. There is only so much novelty a virtual service can offer, after all, and by simply passively watching I wasn’t really engaging with any one church.

I wonder how much the numbers have fallen off since June. One can only assume that my personal experience mirrors a trend. One also has to wonder how this will change churchgoing in the future; it seems equally as likely that churchgoers who have fallen off in virtual attendance will happily return in person as it does that they simply become lapsed practitioners.

One thing is certain: in order to maintain worshipers, churches have to find a way to increase real engagement. Not just getting people to passively watch their productions, but engage in community in a significant way, as they would by attending. Many congregations are constantly innovating new ways to address this. The social and communal aspects of church are lost in a virtual ceremony, and these are the primary factors in retention in a normal church setting. If churches are going to continue to be restricted in their ability to hold in-person services, they will need to find a better way to simulate this communal engagement if they hope to retain parishioners in the short-term.

The one type of presidential candidate everyone hates

Many glass ceilings are being smashed with the announcement of the democratic party’s vice-presidential nominee. It is rare to have a woman as a national party’s candidate, and even more unusual to have a person of color. There’s one barrier that hasn’t been crossed, though. There hasn’t been an openly atheist presidential or vice-presidential candidate, and there won’t be anytime soon.

Research continually demonstrates that nearly half of voters will not support an atheist. Also, although trends show quick and increasing acceptance for other diverse voices including people from the LGBTQ community or people with non-white racial heritage, the needle is barely budging on atheist acceptance. It simply is politically unfeasible to self-identify as an atheist when such a broad swath of voters will disqualify you on this merit alone. A candidate is more likely to identify as a socialist than an atheist, even when they’re probably both.

It is past time for an atheist president. Getting past this hurdle of public opinion, though, will take some time.