Much of the secular world has focused on problems of traditional organized authoritarian religion, but has had little concern for the equally problematic modern religious orientation toward the self. Religion for most is but a thin veneer over what is really a pragmatic, inward-facing life.
In The American Religion, critic Harold Bloom sees religion in the United States as unique in embodying a type of Gnosticism centered on personal experience: “The God of American religion is an experiential God, so radically within our own being as to become a virtual identity with what is most authentic (oldest and best) in the self.” As R. Lawrence Moore points out in Selling God, religion in America is indeed a commodity of the self. Entering the twenty-first century, Moore observes that the “boundaries separating one faith tradition from another that once seemed fixed are now often blurred; religious identifications are malleable and multifaceted, often overlapping several traditions.”
Ultimate authority for religious meaning and truth come today not from institutional authority, science, and reason, but from inner existential and experiential voices. The locus of meaning has been driven into the well of direct experience and the authority of individualism. And so religion, always a meaning-making story, is only authentic today if it is our story; the “sacred” is that which is sacred only to us; and religion is true and meaningful when it emanates from our own experiences. This emphasis is termed “Sheilaism” in Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen’s book, Habits of the Heart, after a woman who exemplified this trend of self-absorption, which critics say thwarts the building of community. Says Sheila,
“I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”
In this enigmatic, “fuzzy” theism, which is intuitional, variable, and individualized, “God” adapts to the situation. God is, at times, merely “an energy” in the universe, at other times this concept morphs into the creator God or is framed in terms of the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, and mostly possesses the uplifting characteristics of American optimism and reassurance.
Oprah Winfrey is an enthusiastic voice for this brand of worldview, and when Oprah sells a religious outlook you know it will have mass appeal. The mantra today is, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” keeping it just vague enough not to offend others while providing an image of moral piousness.
The word “spirituality” does have deep, naturalistic meanings even for many humanists, but the word sells well to an American audience because it becomes a Rorschach test for everyone’s view of what is emotionally important to them. However, in the end it neither informs nor communicates, and most importantly, it skews religion toward a God of everlasting inwardness.
Humanism, in contrast, honors individual conscience and inner evocative experience, but imbeds and tests those meanings and purposes in the greatest democratic communal enterprise: science. We know that our ability to delude ourselves must be checked by reason and open-minded critical thinking. We know that our own ability to delude ourselves requires that we listen to the voices of others in the spirit of free inquiry and courageously change our views when they are proven wrong.
To look deeply means some might have to give up a giddy self-referentialism. Most Americans give in, either to theocratic control or listening exclusively to their inner voice, both of which are faith-based, ultimately lazy ways of thinking. Humanists, in contrast, seek progressive truth in union and solidarity with others. The path of humanism is a tougher one, but a truer one buoyed by the joy of joining hands with others in the ongoing search for truth and meaning.