Everybody worships something
Traditional faith is in decline, but it’s being replaced by “religion without religion”
Richard Dawkins, scourge of believers and self-proclaimed ‘bright’, is getting religious in his old age. He recently tweeted, “Science’s truths were true before there were societies; will still be true after all philosophers are dead; were true before any philosophers were born; were true before there were any minds, even trilobite or dinosaur minds, to notice them.” As re-tweeters pointed out, this all sounds rather familiar to anyone schooled in the Christian faith. Here’s the opening to the book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Although John’s Gospel lacks the important qualification about trilobite minds, both texts invoke a more or less mystical sense of something beyond us and bigger than us, something that might even be sacred. Dawkins would no doubt be outraged by the comparison, but I think it tells us something important about the nature of religion and belief and the way they’re expressed in many societies now.
Of course, we all know that religion is in decline. The last Census revealed that 48% of New Zealanders reported they are not affiliated with any religion, a steep rise from 30% in 2001. They are part of an international phenomenon as religion falls away in many countries, dubbed the rise of the “nones”. By comparison, 37% New Zealanders reported affiliation with Christianity, which may overstate actual Christian practice and belief as other research has found that just 16% of us attend church at least once per month. There are few adherents of other faiths either—just 2.5% affiliated with Hinduism, 1.3% with Islam, and 0.2% with Buddhism.
But underneath these headline stories, there’s are more interesting story waiting to be told, because the decline of religious affiliation doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming hardcore secularists. One 2011 study found that around a third of New Zealanders said that they, “Don’t follow a religion, but [are] a spiritual person interested in the sacred/supernatural.” Then there’s the rise of atheist churches like Sunday Assembly, which the Christchurch chapter pithily describes as “all the best bits of church, but with no religion, and awesome songs!”
Māori spirituality also has an increasing presence in all spheres of life. For example, the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial features a pounamu kōhatu, described as having “mana and mauri of its own, the water brings its own cleansing wairua …”, and there’s a similar boulder in the marae at Te Papa. There’s also widespread reference to the Māori health model, Te Whare Tapa Whā, with its emphasis on spirituality as an essential component of human wellbeing.
And there’s growing realisation that the “nones” may include a group nicknamed the “dones,” who no longer affiliate with organised religion but still believe in God or hold other religious beliefs. This “religious residue” may lead dones to act differently to nones. All of this suggests that the religious impulse remains alive and well in New Zealand, despite headline Census statistics.
Despite this, I think we’re unlikely to see a great awakening any time in the near future, not least because we’ve already seen a great awokening. The “Great Awokening” is the term first given to the significant rise in attention to issues of race and racism in the US, where “white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” This move has parallels with a prior religious “awakening,” as it is “comparable in some ways to the enormous religious foment in the white North in the years before the American Civil War.” It’s not just issues of race; the awokening also extends to a broad range of identity politics issues, like gender and sexual orientation. Of course, this begs a question—what does the (typically secular) Great Awokening have to do with religion?
Religion includes the well-known faiths, the kind the Census asks about, but it also covers a much broader range of beliefs and conduct. In fact, Stats NZ describes a religion as “a set of beliefs and practices that usually involves acknowledging a higher power, and guides people’s conduct and morals.” A more technical definition is that religions involve a “transmittable body of teachings”, “prescribed practices about an ultimate, sacred reality or state,” and “a body which guides its practitioners into what it describes as a saving, illuminating or emancipatory relationship to this reality.”
Seen in this light, wokeism looks awfully like religion, or at least like a “proto-religion” that is an expression and a fulfilment of religious impulses. There are doctrinal beliefs, for example, that society should be understood in terms of victims and oppressors, and that identity markers are a sufficient explanation of outcomes. There are inquisitors, patrolling online spaces to inflict real-world consequences on heretics and apostates who dissent from the woke orthodoxy. Those found by the inquisitors may be required to confess and do penance, through public apologies and promises to listen more, renounce privilege, and centre others’ voices. And there are mass gatherings that provide solidarity, community, and affirmation, in the form of protests (in the physical world) and looser congregations online.
And it’s not just wokeism. Shadi Hamid says this of America:
“As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”
It’s clear that as traditional religions are declining, other forms of religion are taking their place in New Zealand as well as America, from the scientism of a Dawkins, to the environmentalism of the Extinction Rebellion, to the evangelistic fervour of making child poverty history. This isn’t a critique of those causes or their aims; rather, it’s an argument that they can only be understood fully as expressions of a religious impulse, and that this should inform how we think about the relevance and the vitality of religion in modern New Zealand. Of course, these movements aren’t completely or exclusively religious, but nor are religions, at least not in the way they’re actually practised. Just like the movements I’m describing, religions are influenced by politics, ideologies, context, history, tribalism and factions, and the idealism and brokenness of the imperfect people who make up their adherents.
So while traditional religion, the kind that gets captured in headlines about the Census, might be on life support, the religious impulse isn’t going anywhere even if our objects of devotion are shifting. Dawkins has also said recently, “it is science that will save the world.” Personally, I’m not surprised by this quest for salvation. If we are, as Viktor Frankl argued, meaning-seeking beings, then we should expect that members of our species will always be in search of transcendence. Or, to put it another way, everybody worships something; the only question is what.