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Musing on Syncretism in the US - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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December 13th, 2009


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02:16 am - Musing on Syncretism in the US
Here’s a fascinating poll about spirituality in the US . In addition to religious people more commonly attending more than one type of service, we also have interesting mixtures of beliefs:
Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation -- that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening." This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year's survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).
I find this both interesting and hopeful. I think personal spirituality can be a very good thing, but I distrust organized religion, because it is so often a tool for controlling the thoughts and behaviors of others. What this shows is that many Americans are doing what only makes sense to me – cobbling together their own personal spiritualities out of bits and pieces of other ideas, rather than taking any single set of ideas as their own. I’ve never remotely understood how anyone could follow any existing religion whole-cloth, in large part because it makes far more sense for me to mix together spiritual bits and pieces to better fit my own feelings about the world than to attempt to make my ideas fit into any pre-established path. In any case, it’s also interesting to note that this sort of syncretism is significantly more common among people 49 and younger, but isn’t all that much more common for people under 29 and for people 30-49. Not unexpectedly, liberals are somewhat more average to embrace a mixture of beliefs than conservatives, but mostly such beliefs can be found all across various social and political spectrums. The presence of mystical experiences among people who do not follow any specific religion is also fascinating and hopeful. While I don’t object to non-militant atheism, it’s equally clear that most people are never going to become atheists. However, if personal spirituality and widespread syncretism spread, then religiosity seems far less likely to be a harmful social force.
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From:alobar
Date:December 13th, 2009 01:36 pm (UTC)
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I am guessing here, but I suspect about 2/3 of my Tarot and Palmistry clients consider themselves to be Christian.
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From:mindstalk
Date:December 13th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
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I’ve never remotely understood how anyone could follow any existing religion whole-cloth, in large part because it makes far more sense for me to mix together spiritual bits and pieces to better fit my own feelings about the world than to attempt to make my ideas fit into any pre-established path.

Would you say it makes far more sense to mix together scientific bits and pieces to better fit your own feelings about the world?

Following a path makes sense if you think there's something like an objective spiritual reality and some path mostly apprehended it. Of course the diversity of paths may undermine the latter idea to anyone who looks around, but still, pick-and-choose can be rather counter-intuitive.

I ran into this when going to UU discussion circles. Most of them weren't Christian, many were spiritual, believing in this or that. I pointed out that they were alien to me, seeming to have a bunch of independent binary toggles: belief in reincarnation, or life force, or God as Love, or inherent dignity, etc., that they seemed to subscribe to in any possible combination, so tolerance made sense to them.

Whereas I had a consilient worldview, and couldn't readily believe in a significant soul or astrology, because so many things would have to be shoved around to make room for the idea. (If strong evidence came in, things *would* be shoved around -- that's what happens. But not before such evidence comes in.) So semi-militance makes sense to me: I believe the world is such-and-such for reasons, and if I'm wrong I'd like to know about it. Given a set of evidence and loose priors, there's one Bayesian conclusion about the world -- which may well be a probability distribution over specific conclusions, down to "not enough evidence to say", but generally the various possibilities aren't equiprobable in the distribution.
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From:heron61
Date:December 14th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
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Following a path makes sense if you think there's something like an objective spiritual reality and some path mostly apprehended it. Of course the diversity of paths may undermine the latter idea to anyone who looks around, but still, pick-and-choose can be rather counter-intuitive.

I understand what you're saying, but (at least from my PoV) given the subjective nature of spiritual experiences and of spirituality in general, I don't believe that this sort of objectivity is possible. Leaving that aside, I suppose that my feeling has a lot to do with the fact that I see spirituality as being about each individual's personal relationship with whatever spiritual reality or realities that they interact with, and there's something distinctly impersonal about accepting any pre-existing spirituality.

I suppose that's one of the ways I rationalize my own scientific beliefs with my rather eccentric spirituality - for me, the only objective reality is the objective reality of science, and all spirituality is by it's nature highly subjective (which doesn't mean that I don't firmly believe in the effectiveness of the magic I do).
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From:queerbychoice
Date:December 13th, 2009 10:46 pm (UTC)
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I don't know what "militant atheism" means to you, but what it means to me, I approve of. And although I agree that most people currently alive are never going to become atheists, I don't think it's impossible that a majority of people at some other point in time, in a significantly different culture than ours, could be atheists.
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From:xuenay
Date:December 14th, 2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
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My response is pretty much going by the definition in Wikipedia: Julian Baggini defines militant atheism as "Atheism which is actively hostile to religion", which "requires more than strong disagreement with religion - it requires something verging on hatred and is characterised by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious belief. Militant atheists tend to make one or both of two claims that moderate atheists do not. The first is that religion is demonstrably false or nonsense and the second is that it is usually or always harmful".

I'm dubious of militant atheism, as it seems counter-productive. Promoting atheism is closely related to promoting science. Aggressively promoting science and proclaiming it to be in direct conflict with religion will polarize society as religious groups will in turn attack science. On the other hand, if you just quietly taught science to everyone and not mention anything about a conflict, religious people would just compartmentalize their beliefs so that they didn't interfere with the things science teaches. You'd basically get people who were technically religious, but close to none of the negative sides.

This has pretty much already happened in my country (Finland). The majority still belongs to a religious domination, but religion is considered a private thing and actually arguing in favor of something "because of the Bible" will get you strange looks and likely branded as a fanatic. Yes, there is still a Christian political party in parliament, but they're a minor player, fielding 7 representatives out of 200. There has traditionally been practically no public debate about any sort of conflict between science and religion, though that's possibly changing as parts of the populace have began to express a fear of Islam. Which is probably just going to make any clash of cultures worse, as was seen in that article heron linked some few days back. That one was also a good example of the results you'll get when the debate gets polarized, as it showed people who might otherwise have been moderates become extremists.

And yes, we should regardless still continue to provide *some* critique of religion and the fallacies involved, to shift the social consensus even further into the "religion is just a private way you look at the world, not something you can base real-world decisions on" camp. But one can do that without being overly aggressive.

(This post, about every religious community developing an unspoken agreement of which parts of their religion they can legitimately ignore, is very much relevant.)
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From:heron61
Date:December 14th, 2009 10:23 pm (UTC)
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This has pretty much already happened in my country (Finland). The majority still belongs to a religious domination, but religion is considered a private thing and actually arguing in favor of something "because of the Bible" will get you strange looks and likely branded as a fanatic.

I greatly envy your nation's attitudes towards politics & religion.
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From:heron61
Date:December 14th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
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What I mean by "militant atheism" is essentially annoyingly evangelical atheisis. I regard any sort of evangelism (for any faith or lack thereof) beyond a willingness to discuss spirituality if someone else is interested as rude and offensive. Similarly mocking others' spirituality is something that I have little patience with - unless of course the person or faith being mocked is attempting to harm others using their faith (ie homophobes promoting "family values" and similar vileness) or is already annoying others with their own evangelism.
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From:krinndnz
Date:December 14th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
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First: I totally agree with you that more people seeking self-directed spiritual awakening/journeys/growth is an inherent good. Even if I don't agree with the outlooks that people end up at, I strongly feel that the journey of serious self-examination is positive and helps people develop into their full selves.


Joining with some other commenters - I'm an atheist with a mild streak of militancy. I'd just like to advance here the thought that the bar for "militant" atheism is set artificially low because American culture is so soaked in Christianity that anything else feels alien to the mainstream of American culture, and so "militant" is very much over-applied to other creeds.
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From:heron61
Date:December 14th, 2009 10:09 pm (UTC)
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I've run into a few militant atheists, just like I've run into a few militant theists, and my standards are pretty much the same. If someone is in my face about why their path is the best and I should follow it, then they're annoying, rude, and not worth listening to. Similarly, if someone mocks spirituality that is not obviously harmful to others, then I consider them little different from the various militant fundys shouting on street corners. However, anything less than that is (to me at least) perfectly acceptable.

I'd just like to advance here the thought that the bar for "militant" atheism is set artificially low because American culture is so soaked in Christianity that anything else feels alien to the mainstream of American culture, and so "militant" is very much over-applied to other creeds.

I don't really see this at all. I know a heck of a lot of pagans, otherkin, and people with seriously non-mainstream spiritualities. I've met (and avoid) some who get all militant and evangelical to others, but most don't. The same is true with atheists that I've known. Expressing your spiritual path during a discussion or debate about spirituality is very cool, wearing a t-shirt, pendant, or whatever to advertise your spirituality is often interesting or at least informative, but not shutting up about your sprituality is not, and I see that sort of nonsense in about equal proportions of christians, pagans, and atheists (meaning that you see a whole lot more of the annoying christians, since it's by far the largest spiritual path in the US. The one bit of negative publicity that atheists have is that several of the most famous are obnoxious loudmouths (like Dawkins) and this situation is made rather worse by the fact that several of the most well known US atheists (Sam Harris & Christopher Hitchens) are obnoxious loudmouths with numerous vile political and social views. Also, there's the unfortunate association between atheists and libertarians, discussed here: "When I was at The Amazing Meeting, what was immediately obvious to me was that the movement is afraid of what they’d do without libertarians, in terms of numbers, and the problem with attracting libertarians is that you can’t offend their sexist/racist beliefs without them threatening to take their ball and go home."
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From:pompe
Date:December 14th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
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My country is likely more secular and less Christian than the US, but only about 16% - less than the US - believe in astrology. So I don't think that a falling religiousity necessarily means a revival for alternate spirituality.

Actually, as a non-militant atheist who dislikes new agers making a mockery of science about as much as fundies making a mockery of science, I can well imagine a majority nation of atheists. We're only about 30% here, but I can see us being 55%.
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From:heron61
Date:December 14th, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)
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How much of the decline in religiosity in Northern Europe is simply people not belonging to any established faith and how much of this is actual atheism?
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From:pompe
Date:December 19th, 2009 10:11 pm (UTC)
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Depends on the survey used. We don't list citizens by ethnicity or religion. Last poll I remember rated about 30% as atheists and another sizable chunk as agnostic or personal-religious. I'd say from the basis of my friends, admittedly city people of moderate education and aged 20-50, that 30% is low and that the ones not being direct atheists usually are agnostic or very fuzzy monotheistic. "Alternate" faiths are rather rare, it's not like the fuzzy-monotheists believe in astrology or crystals or runic rituals.

Note that a lot of people belong to an established faith - usually the old State Church - but don't believe in the tenets of said faith. So there's a lot of atheists in the Church of Sweden.

That said, I do believe that a falling number of people believing in orgnized religion and an increase of rational-secular values will lead to a rise in general atheism. If you have a society where the trappings and ritual of religion are fading the need to create alternate trappings and rituals aren't that strong. I think that'd be more likely in a religious society, that the people wanting to show individualism still would be attracted to the ritual and social matters the religions which permeates their society sets as standard. You know, making up "humanist" rituals of coming of age to replace the religious rituals and such.

As for me personally, I don't need old religion and I do not need an alternate to old religion. I do not see a void in me I think some sort of spiritual mysticism would fill. I don't believe in anything supernatural and I've always felt organized ritual, be that graduation ceremonies or mystic rites, to be a bit silly. I read New Age pamphlets as entertainment to see just how debased scientific language can become, and I can prepare herbs but I certainly don't believe they have properties beyond regular biochemistry and placebo effects.

I wouldn't say that I'm exceedingly rational or materialist, I simply do not understand why a secular-rational person would need to bolster her existence and self-esteem with anything else than simply being a decent person, doing a good job, having dinner with someone one loves, listening to a nice concert or take a hike in the autumn woods. The whole spiritual-faith-religion label feels so unnecessary.
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From:heron61
Date:December 19th, 2009 10:21 pm (UTC)
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I wouldn't say that I'm exceedingly rational or materialist, I simply do not understand why a secular-rational person would need to bolster her existence and self-esteem with anything else than simply being a decent person, doing a good job, having dinner with someone one loves, listening to a nice concert or take a hike in the autumn woods. The whole spiritual-faith-religion label feels so unnecessary.

From that PoV, I completely and totally agree. For me, spirituality is about none of that. I don't believe in any sort of useful afterlife or divine judgment, or really any sort of gods of the sort that most religious people believe in. What is important to me is the direct experience of the divine, which is a fairly unique and completely subjective experience.

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