Shopping for Religion

Posted: March 6, 2007 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

The religion of one’s parents has historically been the single most important predictor of what sort of faith one takes in life (beyond childhood, that is). Continuity and tradition pretty much meant that if one’s parents are <insert religion here> that that’s what one would be. What value does religion have, then, when so many people select their religions from amongst so many options, like one denomination or another is just a different make or model on the shelf or showroom floor?

I first learned about Messianic Judaism, or Jews for Jesus, back in college. It seemed to me an oxymoron and a serious conflict to abandon one faith for another, especially one so closely tied to ethnicity. A few historical dramas have also made me aware how the Nation of Islam had its moment in the 1960s and beyond, attracting converts primarily from the radicalized black community. Little did I realize that conversion from faith to faith, sect to sect, denomination to denomination was one its way to becoming the equivalent to changing clothes. Of course, it doesn’t help that almost all successful religions have a strong evangelical streak: everyone will take a whack at converting the young, weak, and unsuspecting (not to mention complete strangers) given a chance.

I suspect that there are (at least) two forces at work. One is the rise of the individual, perhaps (I’ve yet to read it) best described by Jean Twenge in her book Generation Me. The subtitle “How Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever” reveals succinctly that the author thinks radical individualism is a mixed blessing at best, perhaps more of a curse. (There is a grand sociological analysis to be performed here; perhaps Twenge accomplished it.) The other force is the commodification of everything. The truism “you are what you eat” really ought to be “you are what you consume.” The more diverse meaning of consume captures the sense that we now identify with the products and ideologies we purchase and to which we lay claim, however temporarily.

Religion appears to be no different from any other commodity. Faith is now less about submitting to an external authority that formulates doctrine and dogma. Rather, it’s about developing one’s own belief system (what hubris!) and selecting a religion (as though one be truly necessary) that aligns with it least badly. Considering just how bad those fits tend to be, it’s little surprise that so many folks — whether they admit it or not — are agnostics, secular humanists, universalists, or atheists, none of which have much in the way of fixed doctrine.

  1. ggwfung says:

    that’s right, religion is almost inherited – from one’s family, from one’s society, And those who choose a faith – it’s probably a good reflection of personality and attitude of the individual.

    It’s a great conunundrum in the pursuit of truth – is it a personal, relative thing, or are there great absolutes that correspond with the scientific certainties that have proven so fruitful in so many areas.

    nice post


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