A Pew Research Center study just came out finding a decline in the percentage of Americans who say they follow an established religion, and an increase in the percentages who claim to be either atheist or agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
I doubt that I’m the only one who spotted a tone of triumphalism in the resulting media headlines, such as: “Study: More Americans than ever spurning religion” (CBS); and “The Rise of Young Americans Who Don’t Believe in God” (New York Times).
But I’m not here today to fire some shots in the culture war. I’d rather just throw in a thought relevant to the question of what religion even is.
When getting down to basics on such ideas, the best reference point I have found is Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his book God in Search of Man, he suggests that “Religion consists of God’s question and man’s answer.”
God’s question is ever present, as Heschel notes:
It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills the whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued, yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?
So, if we want to try and bring it back to the more mundane Pew Research study results, we might ask: Why is there a growing minority of Americans that is not finding satisfactory ways to answer God’s question within the framework of any established faith?
There are pat answers to that question, of-course, and pat refutations of those answers that we might deliver in our sleep.
Sometimes it’s better to just leave the question out there.