Introducing the quasi-religious


25 May 2007, 22.57 CET

David Brooks, in today’s New York Times (note: requires TimesSelect subscription):

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture.

. . .

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with God is Not Great. Nobody wants to read a book [titled] God is Right Most of the Time.

I don’t know many people like this. The quasi-religious don’t often actively identify themselves as even religious at all. That said, I spend most of my time in cities or at universities, places where the quasi-religious probably form a plurality if not a majority, but where there is implicit social pressure not to admit to religious/spiritual beliefs of any type or degree, except for those who espouse enthusiasm for Yoga, Whole Foods, and either Soto Zen Buddhism (the most difficult) or Tibetan Buddhism (the most romanticized).

I think most of the quasi-religious live in suburbs.

There are two levels of quasi-religious which Brooks subsumes under one term. The first is described by most of the essay. The second conforms to Brooks’s penultimate paragraph, especially to the creed “be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects.” This is something different. This is someone who believes that the “sect” is close to what he/she believes to be a fulfilling if not true religious practice, but for various reasons (social, vocational, lack of discipline) he/she feels that they cannot fully “belong” to the group. This isn’t quasi-religious, this is cognitive dissonance—one may even fear that this is a potential crisis.

In both cases to be quasi-religious means to accept a lack of moral clarity, except for the knee-jerk moral fad of the day. This may enable one to be successful, but it probably doesn’t engender long-term happiness or feeling at place in the world.