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Have Religions Become Irreligious?

Are Catholics, or members of any religious group who pick and choose what church teachings and decrees to follow, still Catholic? The question goes to the heart of ethnic and religious identity, which is at the root of much of the conflict in the world today.

Irreligious martin lefevre 2There is a desperate attempt to preserve the name without the nomenklatura. American commentators in the mainstream media, who by definition are mouthpieces for the status quo, are saying inane things like, “Many Catholics are spiritually inclined people paying primary obeisance to their own consciences, their own senses of social justice.” That’s like saying, ‘we’re still communists, but we don’t follow communism.’

There was a time, not that long ago, when “paying primary obeisance to one’s own conscience” would get you excommunicated. The vaunted “fluidity” of the Catholic Church, and religion in general in the West, raises the question: When does belonging to a religion cease to have any meaning?

Stripped of cohesive, compulsory belief systems, what does it mean to belong to a religion? Does it become a social club, merely a ‘fluid’ source of one’s identity?

When I was young, it was generally recognized that if someone was a ‘cafeteria Catholic,’ picking which church teaching they would follow and which they would not, they were only nominally Catholic. Now, if someone identifies themselves as Catholic, or Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist or any of the other spinoffs from the Roman Catholic Church, or for that matter if they identify themselves as Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, so they are.

Let’s say declaration is the deciding factor. The question then becomes one of identification and identity. In the past, people identified with particular groups, whether ethnic or religious (usually both together) because that’s what defined them as a person, and reflected their ties to a given people and land.

That was always a problematic dynamic, leading to conflict and war over the millennia. In the world today, identification has degenerated a source of fragmentation and disorder. Yet conservatives and progressives alike uphold, indeed revere identification as the foundation of the individual and society.

Progressives are naturally hailing the recent referendum in Ireland as a sign of progress. And it is remarkable that 62% of the people in an overwhelmingly Catholic country have approved same sex marriage.

But as with the issue of religion writ large, same sex marriage raises deeper questions about the viability of age-old institutions.

Demanding equal rights, and more specifically, nondiscrimination on the basis of race or sex (be it heterosexual, pertaining to patriarchy—still the rule in the Church—or sexual orientation) is one thing. State sanction (a word that means both threatened penalty and official permission) of marriage, be it heterosexual or homosexual, is another.

In short, the State should not be in the marriage business at all in my view. Marriage is as two people define it, just as religiosity is as the individual discovers it. Civil unions across the board would produce the same safeguards.

Church and State have become irrelevant, whether to the inner life of the individual, or to partnerships. Of course, churches and the wedding industry, the stage on which all the absurdity plays out, might dry up if intelligence in both areas prevailed.

The tension is between the perceived need to preserve institutions as a source of identity and social cohesion, and following one’s own conscience and path of inner Irreligious martin lefevredevelopment. But can one be a Catholic, or whatever, and not identify with Catholicism, or whatever?

Put another way, can one be religious, in the true sense of the word, and identify with a religion?

I don’t feel it’s possible. One might still feel some affinity for the rituals, churches and people in one’s locality, but belief systems and identifications fall away with actual religious experiencing.

Most people who drop or eschew organized religion become either atheists or ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Both are false choices, if atheism is defined as holding reason and rationality as the highest principle, and spirituality is defined anything anyone wants it to mean.

Dogmatic atheism is just the flipside of dogmatic religion. Even non-dogmatic atheism, which sees reason as the highest principle, and rejects religious experiencing, throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is like Jell-O; it takes the shape of any container one pours it into. Ending the observer and time, and wordlessly experiencing the numinous, means no more to the spiritual-but-not-religious set than it does to atheists.

The point is that religions don’t exist anymore, except as either empty shells or dangerous throwbacks. Whether one identifies with a particular religion is no more relevant than identifying with a particular tribe, or a glorified tribe—a nation.

Identification with any group has become utterly divisive and fragmentary. And that’s essentially irreligious.

The root meanings of religion derive either from religare, “to bind fast,” or from relegere, “go through again.” Another possible origin is religiens “careful,” opposite of negligens. Do those meanings strike a chord within you, as they do in me?

Martin LeFevre

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