NPR's Little Gods

Kathryn Joyce examines NPR’s mild religion.

It might be a natural reaction, considering the “uptick”of religion-associated violence in the world, to disown faith as divisive and trouble-making. That’s the essence of the the idealistic, but false, argument made by some die-hard secularists that war is always waged in God’s name. The more common reaction is for religion to disown its violent practitioners as bad believers: bad Muslims, bad Christians who take God’s name in vain. This response gets substantial airtime these days, as left-leaning evangelical Christians chastise President Bush for “bad theology,” and Iraqi Muslims decry the bloody revenge perpetuated in their name as foreign to their faith.

A third reaction—one not explicitly acknowledged as such—is gaining prevalence in the mainstream press. It is a broader, less disaster-oriented examination of religion that seems, despite its deliberately neutral, accepting and calming tone, like a new form of activist journalism: a good-faith effort to reintroduce faith to public discourse as something non-threatening, non-crusading, non-jihadist. In short, as something different than the end-times horrors, which were transferred from Revelation to television and lately seem to be creeping off the screen, slouching closer to where we live.

Call it preemptive education, or call it wishful thinking. It’s less immediate, but longersighted. And, if on the surface it seems divorced from current events, that detachment is belied by an unspoken motive to foster understanding: a subtext as thick, and as urgently-felt, as the pre-millennial trembling that underlay the movies, music and media of apocalypse.

This is well-illustrated by the mini-series on American religion broadcast last week by NPR’sAll Things Considered, reported by Mandalit Del Barco and Barbara Bradley Hagerty: “For all the flamboyance of the 1960s, some church historians believe that now in the early 21st century is a watershed moment when the U.S. is entering a whole new stage of religious life.” Professor Lorne Dawson of the University of Waterloo explained, “It’s called believing without belonging. People are still intent on having a spiritual aspect to their life. People want to believe. But they no longer have confidence in the traditional ways in which religion was organized and delivered to them, so they’re ceasing to belong. Believing without belonging is perfect for a postmodern age—an age that tends to reject absolute truth. There’s an increasing willingness to say, ‘Well, what I believe is true, but I believe that other individuals have access to the truth as well. In fact, I think I can have my beliefs and add on to them some beliefs of my neighbor.'”

This kind of relativism is documented, and arguably promoted, in the four-part series, which focused variously on the introduction of “new religions” to America, Pentecostalism in TorontoSoka Gakkai Buddhism in L.A., and teenage Wiccas in Colorado. The stories shared several common themes. All stressed the individualistic aspects of the faiths, whether through the construction of a hybrid, “personal religion”; the isolation pagans or Wiccas often experience in the pursuit of their faith; the inherently individualistic nature of meditation and its goal of personal fulfillment; and even the discrete relations and ecstasies that pilgrims of the otherwise-orthodox Pentecostal denomination undergo at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship Church.

Most of the stories also stressed a loose, or at least flexible, interpretation of the faiths, and clearly emphasized their religious mandates for peace, tolerance, and other sensible, practical-purpose values. I.e.: Wiccas make good environmentalists; and Soka Gakkai Buddhists chant not just for prosperity, but also for the global peace that follows the creation of numerous individual, separate peaces. As Del Barco concludes her segment on Soka Gakkai: although “it may seem simplistic or naïve, [practitioners say] that world peace can be achieved, one person at a time, as individual happiness spreads across the globe.”

“Think of the religious life of America as an ocean,” NPR’s series began. “The Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Christianity are the great blue whales. Judaism and Islam are smaller but significant fish. But swimming among these dominant faiths is an incredibly diverse range of smaller, less-known species. Sociologists say about 20 new religions pop up each year in the U.S. Some survive. Some live only for a season…And once in a while a fringe group goes mainstream.” Like that “little sect called Christianity.”

If it is wishful thinking to highlight these largely peaceable, but smaller faiths as alternatives or just as good examples, it may be a necessary fiction, like Michael Ignatieff’s call for the world to follow the ahistoric, but crucial, “fiction” of universal human rights. If this is the case, NPR has done more than respond to increased public interest with their series. It has given a good example for the media to follow. Like the religions profiled, their example concerns individual responsibility—shown by their decision to air such an ostensibly irrelevant series—and a dedication to an idea that may prove itself a fiction: having faith that the negative ways religion is being used in our world can be changed. Fictional or not, the necessity of such a belief is clear.

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