Embrace of, Rejection of, Indifference Toward Religion

As I was reading Michael Winerip's article this morning in the New York Times, titled "Teenagers Speak Up for Lack of Faith," on the rise of atheist (and agnostic) clubs in U.S. high schools, I was drawing parallels to the secular music scenes with which I am familiar.

It has been my perception, confirmed from time to time by studies, that rock and roll musicians, and a good number of fans of popular music, take music as their religion or spirituality, or at least as a substantial part of it. Especially in rock cultures, this frequently means an agnosticism or atheism regarding what is taken to be traditional religious belief. (For example, I posted recently about one venerable rock singer's self-description as a Jewish atheist.)

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Winerip's article mentions that there is a new legal space in U.S. high school life for atheist clubs, and in secular music culture the cultivation of music as its own spiritual, religious or quasi-religious "end" is widespread and the subject of much popular culture research. When these habitations between faith and music, whether religiously "orthodox" or atheistically "secular" or some other configuration, are the best that people can do at a given point in their lives, I encourage it intellectually, based on my theological sense for an ineffable yes to life calling everything forward.

But at the same time, I want to say to the newly-confident secular atheist clubs, whether in school or in music, that commitment to secularity itself, as freedom from religion, is not a get-out-of-jail-free-card. As philosopher of religion Talal Asad among others have argued in a series of important works, secular culture in the West has its own history and interlocking relation with religion, and arises in tandem with -- and frequently serves -- the power of modern states. This does not mean therefore that religious people "win". Only that there seems to be no religious or anti-religious position that is non-ideological, by which I mean, separate from what is possible culturally and psychologically in a given life situation.

As I remind myself and those of my students who consider ourselves religious: just imagine if you had been born in another place, not to mention another time, say Iran of the 1970s, Israel of the 1950s, or India of the 1930s, and imagine what religious positions you would be defending in our class, and what you would take to be the most pressing issues of faith and culture. So I am led to recommend thinking about and practicing religion, or rejection or indifference toward religion, with a deep and disconcerting, but in its own way, freeing, sense of the contingency of our ideologies.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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