Among the curiosities of our era are its simultaneous trends toward convergence on the one hand and divergence on the other — toward both polarization and conformity. Toward a dull if soothing sameness among people right beside widening estrangement.
In economics, for example, we confront the paradox of rising internal inequality embittering affluent societies like America in an age marked, from a global perspective, by the greatest increase in equality ever seen between rich and poor peoples. Fact is, the rise of the developing world’s middle class may have come in part at the expense of the rich world’s blue-collar working stiffs — or so a new generation of anti-trade protectionists insist.
Culturally, meanwhile, globalization, not least the worldwide digital communications commons, hasn’t eliminated deep differences of custom, taste and mind-set. In fact, some foundational differences are growing wider, both among and within societies.
Take maybe the most basic idea about the nature of existence — belief or unbelief in God. The Pew Research Center’s intriguing surveys on religion around the world have, as I’ve noted before, documented the waning of religious zeal in Europe and America — while showing much of the rest of the world growing more religious, and more ardently and conservatively religious at that.
Basically, as the Muslim portion of world population climbs (toward 30 percent by 2050, Pew says), global Christianity is replacing lukewarm Westerners with pious traditionalists in Africa and Latin America. Meantime, the relative population of agnostics, atheists and other unreligious folk is rising sharply in the U.S. and Europe (to around 25 percent) — but falling in the world as a whole.
And of course, unbelief isn’t spread evenly throughout Western societies, but is concentrated among college-educated leadership elites. The difficulty of forging mutual understanding across cultures may only grow in a world crowded with people inspired by such very different notions about what matters most in life.
Within American society, meanwhile, fast-growing divisions along religious lines are among the tectonic forces pulling the culture apart. So it’s useful — and even mildly reassuring — to have a new Pew report last month digging deeper into the question of what in the world (or beyond it) Americans really mean when they say they believe (or disbelieve) in God.
It turns out the religious position of a surprising number is a little like what Mark Twain once described.
“I’m a Presbyterian,” Twain said. “I don’t go to church — but it’s the Presbyterian church I don’t go to.”
Some 80 percent of Americans tell Pew researchers they believe in God. But upon further questioning it turns out only 56 percent mean “God as described in the Bible,” while 24 percent have faith in “some other higher power or spiritual force.”
Similarly, of the roughly 20 percent who say they don’t believe in God (claiming to be “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular”), nearly half say they also believe in some “spiritual force.”
In short, while barely over half of Americans still hold a traditional belief in a personal God who can act in the world, the large majority of the rest have faith in a less defined something-or-other behind the physical world — something like what philosopher William James meant by “the more” or what Star Wars’ George Lucas meant by “the force.” Or, less sympathetically, something like what Christian apologist C.S. Lewis dismissed as an ever popular “subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads.”
This means that only 10 percent of Americans claim to be full-blown atheists. They deserve respect. To believe with seriousness that no hidden order or purpose whatever lies beyond the material world is to shoulder a weighty challenge in finding meaning in life — a challenge that has preoccupied many a tragic hero of philosophy and literature.
Lewis faulted nothing-in-particular faith in an “all-pervasive spirit” for being too easy compared with honest unbelief, or with faith in a living deity who makes specific demands. Hazy spirituality is “congenial to our minds,” Lewis wrote “not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is … the most primitive of all religions … . So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind … . Yet … each new relapse into this immemorial ‘religion’ is hailed as the last word in novelty and emancipation.”
Maybe. But it’s more optimistic to hope that if the growing ranks of religious “nones” are in fact mainly people who believe, however hazily, in “something more,” perhaps they and traditional believers will be able to sustain a mutually respectful community with many shared values more successfully than one might have feared.
And yet of course there is a deepening political dimension to the religious divide. Today’s political disagreements have become harder to compromise partly because ever more of them reflect bone-deep disagreements about human nature and even the meaning of life.
And here again, there’s a complicating twist in the landscape of division that might one day lead to unpredictable change.
Pew’s data confirm that Republicans are much more likely to believe in the “God of the Bible” than are Democrats as a whole. But Democrats are divided among themselves by a kind of religious schism.
Only 32 percent of white Democrats today profess traditional belief in God. But fully 61 percent of nonwhite Democrats hold those beliefs — much closer in this to Republicans’ 70 percent traditional faith.
In recent decades, the Democratic Party has undergone a much-discussed transformation, from a party centered on the white working class to primarily a coalition of well-educated white professionals and an array of minority groups. One little discussed result seems to be this internal racial/religious divide.
Obviously, so far white and nonwhite Democrats agree on more than enough worldly issues to obscure these religious differences.
But one of the things unbelievers have the hardest time believing (and treating with respect) is how durable and consequential religious convictions can be.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.