Death, Statistics, Happiness – what else?

[Apologies for the pics - having a bit of a meme-fest at the moment..]

This post begin by considering some new stats, but ends up far away, considering some issues around death and happiness..

As many have noted, the Pew Forum report has given us some interesting stats about religion. I reblogged Per Smith writing about it recently.  The actual report is HERE.  The report summary notes:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

Lots has been said about it. I don’t intend to add to the ‘is the end of organised religion in the US’ hysteria. It isn’t – the figures seem quite unambiguous on that score.

What is more interesting is just how many identify as being members of a religious group – but then go on to identify as ‘not religious’ (SBNR of course). As Smith notes:

 The largest group in the “spiritual, not religious category” are Protestants. In fact only a third of the people in this category claim no religious affiliation at all. So what does “not religious” mean to those who are linking their own identities to religious institutions and communities? I’m tempted to interpret those who are both Christian and “spiritual, not religious” through the sentiments expressed by the creator of the

(in)famous “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.

I think not only of the ‘Hate Religion, Love Jesus‘  meme, but the claim I read recently: “Jesus was spiritual not religious”. What both these share is that they actually seem to indicate being religious, but not like that..  A look at the Bible seems to indicate just how much Jesus was religious / interested in religion (Matthew 5:18 anyone? Or his vision of a different sort of religion in James I? Or read lots
Leaving aside the theological coherency of these claims, what makes people note their membership of a broader group – but reject the acceptance that membership brings some notion of behaviour or authority with it? Is this what is happening here? I am a Catholic , or Protestant, but I am also my own person: I get the collective identity, but without the collective way of living? We can only speculate – but let’s do that..more here – from people who I might disagree with a lot on, but they know their scripture..)

A cynical view might be that the  the ‘rise of the nones‘ is actually the rise of the ‘me’s’? Although we might still want group identity, we won’t be told what to do. ‘We are members of religions, but we aren’t religious‘ – means religious, but not like that.. Where that stands for authority and tradition.

But what is new is not this attitude  – but the way of talking about it. Religion has always had scope for personal views too- but that was part of being religious, not of standing outside in a spirituality-only hinterland. The spiritual but not religious (SBNR) seems to believe that they are standing apart from religion, when the critique they bring forward has been part of religious traditions for millenia.

So what?

Hopeful atheists  might consider the anti-religious religiosity (which styles itself as SBNR) as transitional- as the death throes of all faith. That religion is fading, and this is part of that  – those not ready for SBNR, then atheist , over generations. There is no evidence for this. We may even see a  strengthening of some types of belief among  the SBNR, as others weaken. Only time will tell..

what we do we make of the NR of SBNR when at least some of the same people also ARE R! Goes against the most basic principles of Aristotelian logic that says something can not be both a and not-a..

Mind you, we might argue that a certain portion of the SNBR group would eject all logic as oppressive and is quite happy to accept contradictions..

We should note the SBNR has been culturally persistent. Those who moved to MBS, or new-age thought i the 60s or 70s have’t moved en masse to atheism.It isn’t acting like a transitional phase. More to the point, while those who identify this way may claim to reject religion, their beliefs and attitudes don’t place them outside religion, but very much in a long tradition of religious non-conformism. Be they Deists, Protestants or a whole variety of shades of mystic, these people have disputed what religion should be like: how personal, or authority-based, or based on subjective experiential claims. These are very much the SBNR approach – taking from different traditions, selecting some aspects and jettisoning others. Building a new, personal form of religion, drawing on some aspects of some religious traditions, seems to be the basis of SBNR.

So, the claim that this is waymarker en route to atheism is highly questionable. One might speculate as to why when people reject religion, they feel an attraction to ‘non-religious religion’ in this way.

One could point to the way atheism is presented in our culture. You might argue that atheists are presented as arrogant and smug (no comment there..), but more interesting is the widespread styling of atheism as scary, shallow and amoral. Despite evidence of morality being often independent of one’s metaphysical beliefs, we still find those who think you can’t be “good without God”.

This might be a partial explanation, but I think we also perhaps need to consider another. This is one I rehearsed last night with a really engaged group at Dartington: that a fuller acceptance of atheism requires a fuller reckoning with the inevitability of our death. I was also trying to link this to ideas of happiness, and where it might actually be found.

I spoke at Dartington after a weekend of Happiness events. That already, and perhaps I’m not alone in this, made me uncomfortable. A group of relatively privileged people, with leisure time, enough food, clean water on tap, luxuries, and probably the greatest life-expectancy the species has ever known: they need to be told by strangers what happiness consists of? In a world where – albeit far from many here – children die from a lack of clean water, where women live under the thumb of a harsh and unrelenting patriarchal regimes, where being publicly gay puts you in mortal danger, where people die of preventable diseases and there is starvation and malnutrition. And people gather at well-catered luxurious events here to bleat about their lives? About a lacunae of joy in their middle years perhaps?

This may be too harsh – even when our needs are met, we seem riven by existential questions. Rich men in luxury cars still listen to the blues on their fancy stereos. In the singer’s suffering they seem to find something in common – something shared – despite their radically different lives. This might give us a clue here about how the blues (and much human cultural production) seeks to articulate something more than just a response to particular time of hardship, but how it uncovers a level of what we might call fundamental human unhappiness – an existential angst.[1] So perhaps we should not be so judgemental of those who seek happiness amidst their privilege. Of those who have it all, know their good fortune, and yet still seek a ‘life-coach’ as there is “something missing”. I remember how a student connected Sikhism with French existentialism after my claim that this is what religions fundamentally are: differing responses to the existential realities that we all have to face at some point.

This doesn’t wholly get rid of my discomfort with what we might call ‘the happiness movement’, but we’ll come to that. What I want to look at is how those of us who refuse religion view death – the thing that religions rush to deny, but that is also persistently obstructed by the SBNR movements – the absolute, total annihilation and obliteration of the person at death. I am not here to dispute the issue of human mortality. I have looked at the evidence of millennia. Despite the claims of those who support it, I find it persistently poor. It cherry-picks, invokes anecdote, and varies its claims post hoc to try and match evidence.[2] I am not so arrogant as to claim we know, beyond question, that there is not something beyond the grave – but given just how long people have been dying and how little impact said post-death fate has on us – it seems a functionally safe claim. The world acts just as world would if there where nothing beyond death, we may be wrong but given the absence of information on this – we have to live as if there is nothing more: this seems the only reasonable option.

Jean-Paul Sartre takes atheism not as the end of his philosophy, but the starting point. I am not interested in arguing about life after death, about spiritual forces, cosmic energy and the like. What is, surely, more interesting is : what happens, where can we go, when we take the complete inevitability of our finitude, of our total, irrevocable mortality as our starting point? What happens then?

Some might presume that we can only travel further from joy via this path: that is leads only to despondence and misery.

What Dispirited is, in its more positive moments, is the idea that facing up to the bleak, nihilistic, brain-numbing pointlessness of life is the actually best way to work towards a well-lived life. Might we actually locate joy in our blasted landscape of post-spiritual finitude? As I argue in the book:

This is a time for true – thinking – flow, for dusting ourselves down after our rejection of spirituality and religion and deciding what actually matters, and disputing it amongst us without the danger of spiritual or religious trump cards being played. If Camus can imagine Sisyphus happy, we too can turn our shoulders to the boulder and get stuck into living.

This business is far from completed in the book. Indeed, its barely started, but what I hope is that it’s identified as the job for those who want to leave the R,  the R and not-R, and even the SBNR behind – and work out what life and death looks like for the genuinely non-R.


[1] I have written about this in the blues elsewhere..

[2] For all my life, it has been ‘on-the-cusp’ of bringing better evidence forward. Soon. Even if it does, it appears to prove only a continuation of energy, of some sort : what difference to how we live can it make?

3 comments

  1. [...] My friend Dave Webster waxes poetically, and happily I would guess, about Death, Statistics, Happiness – what else? [...]

  2. [...] mainly about issues of ‘happiness’ – some of which overlapped with my post here: http://dispirited.org/2012/10/15/death-statistics-happiness-what-else/ – and then we went on to have a really interesting discussion about death, and how atheists go [...]

  3. […] I’ve blogged about happiness before – but I had some thoughts as a result of this talk…  One of the great concerns […]

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