Sunday, January 08, 2012

Losing Our Myths

I’ve just re-subscribed to the Chronicle of Higher Education (and I have no idea why I let it lapse, it feeds my brain in all the right spots) and have been enjoying a backwards read through my favorite section of the publication, The Chronicle Review, sort of The New Yorker for college educators (oh, relax already; I read The New Yorker, too).

Anyway, in the November 25, 2011 edition of the CR, Pitzer College sociology Professor Phil Zuckerman’s “Taking Leave of Religion” (subscription required) article describes a growing trend, apostasy. He writes that there isn’t a lot of research on apostasy or the leaving of one’s religion. He interviewed 87 apostates about why they became non-religious.

Quoting from The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey, he notes that 16% of Americans are religiously “unaffiliated” and 17% claim “none” as their religion. These numbers are significantly higher than in previous years. And one of Zuckerman’s predictions is that these numbers will continue to increase. [Geeky fan side note: he doesn’t mention how many Americans listed “Jedi” as their religion, but I checked the survey, and Jedi isn’t listed. It’s bigger in other countries, like in the UK.]

Zuckerman’s writes that what he learned in doing this research is that “Religion is not universal or necessary.” CG Jung wrote about the psyche’s transcendent function, which many people cite as a reason for religiosity, but this can of course operate outside of organized religion or any form of theism. During my years of mythological studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute, there was often a conversation about “people falling away from their myths (religions)” and wondering what would replace that lost faith. Zuckerman is saying that we don’t need anything to replace them and in fact “many [non-religious] people prefer it that way.” More generally, though, from a mythologist’s point of view, a lot religion doesn’t have to be replaced by another religion or religious practice, specifically. We tend to talk more about another mythology replacing a lost religion, and not all personal mythologies are religious, but they do inform a personal worldview.

I know this where I should be prompted to write a lengthy explanation as to why I’m an atheist, but it’s really not so complicated: I’m a scientist and I’m a lesbian. I’ve found that while one is a profession and the other a biological feature, neither is compatible with being a Baptist (the religion on both sides of my family). Or religious. End of story.

I have a good friend at work who comes from a Catholic family, is sternly non-religious now, but has to deal with an overly-religious mother (and truly Irish Catholic, her mother is an Irish immigrant). I lent her my DVD of Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God” -- a one-woman staged monologue about her quest for religious knowledge. When she returned it, our conversation was full of some of the hilarious punch lines (“Have you READ that book?” “Deepak Chopra is full of shit!” At least the Scientologists know to give you a personality test before telling you about Xenu, the intergalactic overlord.”). Then there’s Sweeney’s impressions of her slightly dim mother, “This doesn’t mean you’ve stopped going to church now, does it?”

Interestingly, when I was out this morning getting a Los Angeles Times Sunday newspaper, I heard an NPR story that featured quotes from the current batch of Republican Presidential contenders and their supporters talking about President Obama’s war on religious freedom. I don’t want to go into all of the reason why I find the notion ridiculous, but check out the story if you’re strong of stomach and can handle the kind of reasoning that pushes why religious-based health charities should not fund contraception or that LGBT rights is the biggest threat to American religious freedom today. Going back to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey, 56% of American adults who leave or switch their religious affiliation cite being “Unhappy with teachings on abortion/homosexuality” as a reason why they made the change.

All right, I’ve got to go and prepare for a daylong class I’m teaching in about a week. Be sure to check out Phil Zuckerman’s terrific list of 65 Songs for Atheists and Agnostics.

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