Rod Dreher

Garret Keizer, reviewing Philip Pullman’s latest blast against Christianity, wonders if the public isn’t really largely indifferent to the back-and-forth between believers and their antagonists. Excerpt:

The commonly held notion that we are in the midst of a great public debate between atheists like Pullman and so-called believers like me is a fine construction for radio talk shows but a rather sloppy way of cutting the ideological cake. At least in the industrialized world, the more profound polarity is between those who care deeply about religious issues and those who couldn’t give a damn about them one way or the other.

You know, I think there’s more to this observation than I would like to think. It brought to mind a conversation I had recently with a friend, in which we discussed our childhood religious life. My friend said that at one point, things turned sour at their church, and he told his mom (he was a teenager) that he wanted to find another church. She adamantly refused, agreeing that things were awful in their parish, but that this had been their family’s church for generations, and it was going to continue to be. Period. The end.
My first reaction to this anecdote was negative. One’s relationship with God is too important to subordinate to concerns like upholding family tradition, I thought. (But then, I would say this, because this is the path I followed when I got to college and discovered religion on my own as an adult). But then I thought about Caleb Stegall, and what he told me when I interviewed him for my book “Crunchy Cons.” He is not happy with his Evangelical tradition right now, for various reasons, but he believes that in his family’s case, at least, it’s important to stick with what was handed on to him through the generations, and to do the best he can to restore it, or at least hold it in trust for his descendants so that they can rebuild in better times. There’s real nobility in that.
Not knowing the particulars of Caleb’s situation, I wouldn’t begin to pass judgment on his decision. But as a general matter, I think it’s a fair question to wonder about the long-term cost of sticking it out in a failing church or dysfunctional religious tradition, to one’s own faith, or the faith of one’s children. Is the lesson one passes on to them by this that one stands fast in one’s tradition, no matter what, because some things are worth fighting for, and besides, one sometimes have to suffer from one’s religion to suffer for one’s religion? Or is the lesson more likely to be an inability to relate in a meaningful way to faith at all, because of the way the faith was presented and lived in a particular parish or tradition? (As I recall, my friend said the problem in his childhood church had to do with a new pastor who came in with a novel, happy-clappy theology — Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it sounded to me like — and a megachurch-y way of doing things that rankled the congregation). Who can say for sure?
More broadly though — and here we get back to Keizer’s observation — it may be that most people involved in church or formal religion just don’t much care about these things. If people go to church at all, they go to the church they were brought up in, out of habit, or they go to one nearby, out of convenience. All they really require is a good-enough place to encounter God in community; the theology coming from the pastor doesn’t really matter to them. (I have met more than a few Episcopalians who don’t give a rip about the titanic battles for the future of their church between traditionalists and progressives; things are fine in their parish, and that’s all they care about.) Similarly, I suspect most atheists either don’t much care about the polemics of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, or are even a bit embarrassed by their stridency. Like Freddie de Boer, they are disbelievers, but they aren’t angry about it, and are happy to live and let live.
I’m not sure which it’s better to be. Well, let me revise and clarify: I plainly and genuinely think it’s far better to be intellectually engaged with the big questions of faith and meaning, and not to be indifferent to them. But it’s exhausting, and I have to confess that it would probably be difficult and unpleasant to live in a society in which everyone, atheists and theists, were as engaged as partisans on both sides. One of the most tiresome people I ever met was an academic feminist who was going on about how politically offensive some innocent phenomenon was, and I said, “You know, not everything is political.” She and her boyfriend shot back in unison, “No, everything is political!” They weren’t kidding. At a certain level, that degree of commitment — to religion, to anti-religion, to politics, etc. — risks becoming inhuman.

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