Pearl Jam & American Religiosity: Having Faith In No Faith…And the Freedom to Do So.

ImageSurveys prove that a continually, increasing number of Americans are choosing to be non-religious, irreligious, or areligious.  A Pew Research survey (just to name one of many) found an increase in those categorizing themselves with no religious affiliation, those intentionally not seeking a religious community, and those deciding to attend their religious community less. This data can be alarming for many who consider religion the moral crux of society, but the statistics can be hopeful by many who perceive religion to have dominated the American landscape for too long. 

In a newly published book titled Varieties of Personal Theology: Charting the Belief and Values of American Young Adults, David Gortner discovered a lack of religious influences upon young adults’ overall personal theologies (or worldviews).  This work is interesting especially for this topic because it relies heavily upon interviews conducted with emerging adults before September 11th.  Thus giving us some insight into the same generation (Generation X?) maturing into young adulthood at the time when the music of Pearl Jam was most popular.

So how does one who is not religiously affiliated perceive faith, religion, or morals?  Pearl Jam’s new album discusses disaffiliation from religious institutions in the first song “Getaway.” 

The song opens comparing religious groups to leaking boats in an approaching storm.  In this midst of these inadequate rescue vessels, Eddie Vedder states, “But I found my place and it’s alright…I got my own way to believe.”   Interesting enough, in this song, every boat (all religious perspectives) are full of holes.  

Additionally, the song does seem to suggest that if someone chooses to religiously practice, they are free to do so as long as they do not infringe upon others: “If you wanna have to pray, it’s alright/We all be thinking with our different brains/Get yours off my plate, it’s alright/I got my own way to believe.”  The emphasis on subjective religiosity and individual freedom are important values for many from Generation X and Millennials (as well as others, but younger generations seem more concerned with freedom of [no] religious expression).

As a matter of fact, the chorus beckons:

It’s Ok

Sometimes you find yourself

Having to put all your faith

In no faith

Mine is mine, and yours won’t take its place

Now make you getaway.

There’s a rich reflection found in this chorus.  Is placing faith in no faith simply not committing trust to any religious institution/community/doctrines? Is this arguing for the complete privatization of religion (i.e. do not attempt to proselytize)? Further, the last line is very interesting.  Is Eddie Vedder suggesting that more people should make their getaway from religion? Or those that would want to pressure the religious nones into religious affiliation should getaway? Or both?

But, do not think that lack of religious affiliation leads to a lack of reflection on life’s purposes, meanings, and values. That’s next.


Distrust of Anything Public

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan defunded a large portion of the governmental social services provided to poor and marginalized persons in the United States. His philosophy was that the government should not be offering social services, but that private nonprofits could, indeed, do a much better job at developing persons out of unemployment, drug abuse, etc. Specifically, he looked toward religious communities to provide these services. (Thus organizations like HOTEL INC were created.)

Then, in the 2000s, President George W. Bush, during his tenure, increased funding for faith-based nonprofits in the social services industry. This funding relieved some of the restrictions which forbade faith-based organizations to proselytize or push their own faith agendas. This has led to many conservative Christian groups being activated with government funding, even to the extent that there are increasing numbers of faith-based prison systems (mainly in Florida – Jeb Bush, and Texas – George W. Bush).

Since desegregation in the 1960s, Christians (namely white and conservative) have increasingly left the public school systems to attend privately funded religious school or homeschooling ventures. And now there are arguments that these private schools should receive funding from the government.

Additionally, many conservative Christians are calling for a defunding of anything government related to economics. This call ranges from defunding more social services to unemployment benefits to lower taxes on the richest in our country. (Defund everything except support for the military or faith-based organizations.)

Three large sectors – social services, education, and economics – are under attack by conservative Christians. Why? What is the great mistrust of our government? And why now? While many older conservative Christians have gained from being employed by government agencies (educational and military), enjoyed the interstate systems and public parks, and made money from government initiated opportunities, why are they rallying around a common cause to trust the private sector over the public? Thoughts?

The Beginnings of Religious Institutions?

The idea of a universal impetus for the initiation of religious institutions has been widely discussed (Durkheim, Freud, etc.).  These have ranged from the momentous (read ridiculous) totem narrative by Freud, concepts of the institutionalization of numinous experiences by Otto, or as a mechanism for social conditioning by Durkheim, just to name a few.

But a new hypothesis has recently been presented that has got me rethinking the beginning of religion.  I’m part of a faculty reading group that began discussing David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  The book is an anthropological examination of the historical and contemporary ideas of debt. The topics explored are vast but mainly focuses on the embedded social notions of economics and debt in modern civilization.  Graeber questions:

What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?

[As someone who loves anthropology and loves less economic theory, the book is absolutely fascinating and is a great read.] 

In his research, Graeber suggests, in a round about way, that religious entities started as “societal debt management” (my phrasing, not his).  The proposal highlights various religious scriptures regarding the idea of debt (i.e. debt to God, debt to ancestors, debt to society). Thus the notion is religion was initiated as a mediator of economic situations by attaching transcendental beliefs to daily exchanges.  Just think about how the statement “You owe me X” is modified when one says, “God said you owe me X” or even “God demands repayment.”  This could be taken further into social classifications systems such as “God said your value is X and you owe society X because of your position.” 

The interesting thing that Graeber states is that almost all religious traditions concluded that debt is somewhat absurd and cannot be repaid.  For instance, what would we repay God(s) even if we could? Additionally, ideas of economic and social justice would also come into play in this conversation.

I enjoy thinking about the beginnings of religion; however, I’m not a proponent of the idea that all religious entities started due to one overall reason.  Yet, Graeber offers a fresh hypothesis that must be considered. 

The Negative & Positive Effects of Religion

As someone who is continuously critiquing contemporary religious institutions in the United States (and across the globe), I find it healthy to counter my disillusionment with most religious organizations by working towards positive interfaith collaborative efforts.  Whereas, this is my objective, I will be co-teaching a course this semester on the very topic of interfaith collaboration.

The course is utilizing Eboo Patel’s work Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America as its primary text. Patel’s insights should provide keen insights from a practitioner’s perspective.  Additionally, we will be discussing more theoretically the role of religion in the public sphere.  Authors include Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornell West.  I’ll be posting some updates in regarding the topic here.  Stay tuned.