Thursday, January 15, 2015

Beyond belief!

My talk at Shanghai University was a blast. (I almost feel guilty sometimes that I get to have such fun. It was nice to find a brand-new sculpture of deliriously shiny chrome guys just freaking out for joy just off the Shanghai University campus to capture my mood.) 

The talk was entitled "Theater and Ritual: Worlds of "Make-Believe" but theater and ritual turned out to be just part of a larger argument about how we should think about religion in the wake of new research on all the ways religion isn't about "belief." I set up the problem with recent studies of the American religious landscape, ranging from survey ignorance of one's own tradition and moralistic therapeutic deism to the "fake it til you make it" character of practices described by T. M. Luhrmann by way of SBNR and religious "nones." Can we make sense of all this without falling into categories of ignorance and self-delusion? I suggested that "lived religion" responds to these challenges but devoted the talk to my more far-flung experiments with new models: religion and theater, religion and fashion, and the online recipe network model too! (Along the way I also told the story of mizuko in America to give a transnational dimension, attention to ritual, and a reminder that religion engages serious issues - this, too, told as a "bottom up" story.)
Religion winds up being a community of people asking similar questions, testing and trading believable responses (not all or most of them in the form of beliefs), collaborating in various complicated ways as they produced and performed a livable world - you know what I think. The Q&A was illuminating, too. Was my approach Durkheimian? Was I just discussing "folk religion"? Or "civil religion"? Is belief harder than it used to be? What were my students like, and what did were they supposed to get out of the Religion & Theater course? What were my thoughts about the alleged "deprivatization" of religion described by my erstwhile New School colleague José Casanova? And did I think society could survive without religion? I fudged all those questions, of course.

And then, after everyone had left, a young woman in comparative linguist asked: "We know that there is no absolute truth. I sometimes find myself believing something, and also believe the opposite, and I am torn in two. What do you think I should do?" How would you answer that? I first set aside the question of absolute truth, and commended the "fake it til you make it" approach - if there's a community that seems to you to be moving in a promising direction, join it and let it shape you. If you think there is absolute truth, however (and who says there isn't?), this will be harder: what if you chose the wrong tradition? In that case, try to find other people asking the same questions you are. In any case, whatever you do, don't do it alone. Where did that come from?

I can't resist including a picture of a most unusual statue of Isaac Newton the grand boulevard at the center of Shanghai U. What to say?

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