A new study out of the University of Chicago shows, in its words, a “modest” decline of belief in God globally, with dramatic variations among individual countries. I don’t want to argue about the value or non-value of surveys attempting to pinpoint whether God has a constituency problem—but I do want to make a point about the terminology it, and we, use when talking about belief and non-belief.
The survey notes that 60.6% of Americans agree with the statement, “I know God really exists and have no doubts about it” while 3.0 agree with the simpler, “I don’t believe in God.” Writing at The Nation, Paul Waldman refers to the remaining 35% as the “believing-ish category,” noting that it’s even higher in other Western and/or highly developed nations (90% in Japan). Even in the countries with “high” levels of atheism and “low” levels of belief, the changes in belief don’t correlate exactly. More people are expressing atheism, yes—but more people are also expressing doubts within faith, while asserting that they continue to believe. How else do you explain America’s 80.8% who agree with, “I believe in God now and I always have”? At least a fifth of the population, that is, has “always” believed in God—but retains doubts. This is not the “believing-ish,” but a faith that reserves the right, in the moment, to doubt.
Deep in the comments of my last post, CK MacLeod points out that raising the question of post-Holocaust Jewish faith is, in fact, raising the question of post-modern faith more generally:
The impossibility of this justification [of a post-Holocaust theodicy – JLW] corresponds to the non-existence of God and the instability of the human being within post-war/post-modern thinking. The god concept that survives and operates within this new context remains unthought, because to think it would be to think that which it could never justify, but must.
This, if I understand it correctly, is a stronger version of Buber’s eclipse of God: if any form of the divine exists, it exists entirely hidden. Any God that exists can be neither known nor seen, except, perhaps, in the negative space. And if we continue to believe, it would follow, then we cannot ever truly (or perhaps even partially) know what it is in which we continue to have faith.
After Auschwitz, faith means there are times when faith is overcome. Buber has spoken of “moment gods”: God is known only at the moment when Presence and awareness are fused in vital life. This knowledge is interspersed with moments when only natural, self-contained, routine existence is present. We now have to speak of “moment faiths,” moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of the burning children blot out faith—though it flickers again. […]
This ends the easy dichotomy of atheist/theist, the confusion of faith with doctrine or demonstration. It makes clear that faith is a life response of the whole person to the Presence in life and history. Like life, this response ebbs and flows. The difference between the skeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, not certitude of position. The rejection of the unbeliever by the believer is literally the denial or attempted suppression of what is within oneself. The ability to live with moment faith is the ability to live with pluralism and without the self-flattering, ethnocentric solutions which warp religion, or make it a source of hatred for the other.”
If you need evidence that one doesn’t have to spend afternoons considering the Holocaust to reach these conclusions, look no further than Kyle Cupp:
The hermeneutics of suspicion reveals the possibility, if not always the reality, of false consciousness; and the possibility of false consciousness means that what I call my religious faith may be something other than authentic religious faith, either in part or in total. It is possible that what I call my faith experiences are in truth the result of digestion, bodily chemistry, neurosis, the fear of death, or the desire for meaning in the face of meaninglessness. I cannot know my faith with certainty. I cannot say for sure what it is, and so cannot be certain of any of its claims. I may merely be participating in the historical creation of “God” as an onto-theological tool for making sense of the universe and giving to the appearance of order the illusion of substantial foundation.
I’m in the dark about my own faith, but I welcome that darkness, because faith itself, even if it is what I hope it is, must remain a journey in the dark, a walk in the clouds of unknowing.
None of these statement would fit into any of the categorizations of belief or non-belief offered by the study. But this does not indicate a deterioration of faith, a watering-down into that of the “believing-ish.” Nor is it the clear-cut and well-defined faith of pre-modernity, or even the self-conscious giving-over of oneself to faith of Franz Rosenzweig’s Modernism. (Post)Modernity is like sampling the fruits of Hades’ gardens: it is impossible to fully return once one has done so; the very act becomes a chosen, acted act and therefore of the very place it seeks to escape. Believing in post-modernity, whatever the starting point or cataclysm at its core, will look different than prior modes of belief. When and if it doubts, it does so not because it is ill, but because of the rigor of its self-examination and self-questioning. It tries to prove and to disprove itself—this latter, perhaps, sometimes even more strenuously than the former. Doubting, in such a belief, is no longer the temptation against faith, but a necessary aspect of it.
I find myself incapable of saying, “God exists”—only that I believe God exists.