There was an article published in 2012 on the religiously unaffiliated, and, at the time, on another now-dead blog, I pulled an excerpt, with a brief comment. It is more deserving of your attention than this post. I offer it here as something of an afterthought to an earlier post on R. Hütter on the loss of the Church as a distinct public, and even a Thanksgiving-Day conversation that I had with one of my cousins, which was about the media of perpetuating cultural distinctives and anchors and what things we hold up as valuable mirrors for self-understanding, whether individually and communally.
The history of American spirituality reveals that our commonplace understanding of spirituality—as the individual, experiential dimension of human encounter with the sacred—arose from the clash of American Protestantism with the forces of modern life in the nineteenth century. While religious conservatives fought to stem the tide, giving rise to fundamentalism, religious liberals adapted their faith to modernity, often by discarding orthodoxies in favor of Darwinism, psychology, and comparative religions.
The majority of today’s religious “nones”—those who claim no religion but still embrace spirituality—are engaged in the same task of renovating their faith for a new historical moment. And typically, they draw from this same liberal religious toolkit. Today’s unaffiliated, like the liberals of previous generations, typically shun dogma and creed in favor of a faith that is practical, psychologically attuned, ecumenical—even cosmopolitan—and ethically oriented.
This liberal spirituality, as it has evolved over time, has been deeply entwined with media-oriented consumerism. Of course Americans of all religious varieties have been deeply influenced by consumerism, but media and markets have particularly shaped the religious lives of those without formal institutional or community ties. The religiously unaffiliated might not attend services, but they “do” their religion in many other ways: they watch religion on TV and listen to it on the radio; find inspiration on the web; attend retreats, seminars, workshops, and classes; buy candles and statues, bumper stickers and yoga pants; take spiritually motivated trips; and, perhaps most significantly, buy and read books.
Liberal Protestantism won the cultural battle as the sacred anchor for the public culture, and evacuated itself as a distinct public in the process, vomiting its ethos and its members into the larger national consumer group — and industries (publishers, online social networking tools, workshops, &c.) took over the role of supplying both the continuities and the reformulating replacements for the older (post-Reformation Mainline Protestant) order. As the article says near its conclusion: “Even as religious affiliations decline, religious books sales continue to rise, as they have steadily for more than a half century.” Perhaps nothing signals the truth of this more than the annual industry of Jesus material at Christmas, whose consumers, I would guess into a vacuum, do not clearly overlap with any Church-going populations.