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Imagine the following conversation:

Adam: I just heard how you helped the couple down the street. You're quite the gentleman!
Bob: Please. How stupid do you have to be to think I'm a gentleman? A "gentleman" is member of the aristocracy, someone who couldn't be bothered to give a poor couple like them the time of day. You're a gentleman, and you didn't do anything to help them, did you?

An odd response, to be sure. But now imagine that Adam did, in fact, mean "gentleman" as an insult, despite being a gentleman in the literal sense himself. The scenario doesn't seem plausible, does it?

Now try the following conversation, which you can find a version of in what seems like every other major news story's comment section:

Adam: Your ideology is a religion: it's illogical and you're all a bunch of fanatics.

: You have to be a moron to think that. A "religion" is an ancient set of superstitions, like how you believe some space zombie is going to take you to heaven after you die. My position is based on reason and science.
You see this played out again and again: someone, generally a conservative Christian but occasionally a liberal and/or an atheist, accuses someone else's political views of amounting to a religion: the religion of global warming, the religion of environmentalism, the religion of the free market, the religion of veganism, etc.

This is somewhat understandable when an atheist is making the accusation, but it's strange when a devoutly religious person uses "religion" as a pejorative. Yet that's such a common phenomenon that when [personal profile] ecosophia talks about the "religion of Progress" everyone tends to assume he's using "religion" as a snarl word. We did so even when he was the head of a religious organization!

What makes this bizarre state of affairs make sense is that America, despite appearances, is in fact an irreligious, if not anti-religious, society these days. Consider how Christians or Jews who refuse to work, play, or shop on the Sabbath are viewed not as admirable guardians of forgotten piety but as as quaint relics or even unreasonable fanatics -- and this by others Christians and Jews! And that's just one example. Genuine religiosity is generally distrusted as dangerous, antiquated, and unreasonable. (Not without some cause, but that's beside my point.)

Also consider how many Christian sermons nowadays are little more than political messages seasoned with mentions of Jesus and hell. Even among the nominally faithful, there's a sense that there are better things to do than cultivate a genuine relationship with their gods.

My suspicion, then, is that this distrust is not just among skeptics or the general population of "cafeteria Catholics" and other lukewarm believers, but among devout religious conservatives. I think religious conservatives often unconsciously hate their own religiosity.

I think this for two reasons: it explains much of the over-the-top and aggressive religiosity one often sees from such folks, and it explains why when they do leave their religion they often become some of the more aggressive atheists. (The joke is, "Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.")

The over-the-top and aggressive religiosity -- from gaudy displays of faith to hostility toward atheists and those of other faiths -- can be understood as a kind of "doubling down" on their faith. Have you never been in a situation where some part of your life wasn't working, yet you weren't ready to give it up? There's a good chance you "doubled-down": rededicated yourself, spent more money, put more time and energy into forcing it to work. I know I've done that with various parts of my life.

The transformation from aggressive theist to aggressive atheist follows the even more familiar path: the return of the repressed. Having repressed the sense that their religiosity was a hindrance (because it wasn't working for them) and an embarrassment (because it separates them from feeling normal, something such folks tend to desperately want) to them for so long, when they finally express it they tend to overcompensate.

Our society's irreligiosity is something that will doubtless change as we go forward and Western civilization enters the period Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity. Until then, the unspoken conflict between our surface religiosity and our inner irreligion is likely to continue producing absurd consequences, and spiritual seekers trying to find a community where piety is genuinely appreciated are likely to find the problem fairly vexing.


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James Jensen

September 2017

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