A recent Pew Research Center survey found that nearly a quarter of the nation no longer identifies itself with any particular religion. The survey corroborates a current trend among Americans away from so-called organized religion, all the while they continue to see themselves as basically spiritual.

The Pew Research survey reminded me of a story that the News Journal ran during Lent entitled, “Priests take ashes on the road,” that recounted how Episcopalian priests were administering ashes to commuters and pedestrians at subway stations and street corners across the country. According to one priest, the motivation for the church going out into the streets was to meet people where they are. It was recognized that people today are more spiritual than religious, that is, they seek God in their own way outside of formal religious institutions. When asked to give an account for why people tend to be more spiritual than religious, one priest attributed this phenomenon to the perceived intolerance that characterizes some churches (of which she did not name) as well as sex-abuse cases in the Catholic Church.

The problem here is that perceived intolerance and sex-abuse cases do not account for the contemporary privatization of spirituality. Besides the fact that ‘intolerance’ is nothing more than a leftist buzzword that is itself the epitome of intolerance, people offended by such actions could always find another religion or church.

There is something far more profound going on with the contemporary rejection of religion altogether.

Before the rise of the modern age in the eighteenth-century, the social order that constituted classically the West centered on the Christian church. Over the course of 1,500 years, the church engaged in a number of unprecedented inventions that redefined what it meant to be human: hospitals, centers for food, clothing and shelters for the poor, universities, the humanization of war, sacred art, and polyphonic music.

With the rise of the secular state, however, it became increasingly plausible for the state to take over these inventions and push incrementally the church to the periphery of social importance, consigned solely to the sphere of one’s private life. Situated solely within private life, there is nothing that renders Christianity as any more true, as having a veracity, over against any other privately held belief. Thus, objective Christian commitments embodied in the church collapse, leaving in their wake a population who is privately spiritual but not publically religious.

Intolerance and sex scandals therefore are totally irrelevant to the epidemic of privatized spirituality. Indeed, ‘Ashes on the road’ will be interpreted as little more than a cheap marketing gimmick if not accompanied by a confident reaffirmation by the clergy that the church, not the secular state, has the frames of reference that provide for a truly charitable and humane society.

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