The Case Against Mix-and-Match Spirituality

Religious institutions force members to grapple with hard ideas, to interact with different kinds of people, and to receive the wisdom of the ages.
Flickr/Svadilfari

ASPEN, Colo.—Religious believers who hope to raise children who stay within their faith tradition face many challenges, some of them very worrisome, others less so. "It's good that in America people no longer want to murder Jews, but to marry them," Leon Wieseltier told an appreciative audience Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Fellow panelist Arsalan Iftikhar, a Muslim civil rights lawyer, saw his opening. "We hope to get there one day," he said, to slightly less comfortable laughter. 

As the panelists pondered what American faith might look like in 2024, they grappled with what keeping religious traditions alive actually requires, prompted in part by an audience member who asked, "Can I be a good Jew if I don't believe in God?"

Wieseltier granted the possibility.

"Can I be a good Catholic?" the man asked.

"That's not your problem," Wieseltier said. 

Another audience member noted that while she was raised Catholic, her four children include a Buddhist, a Jew, and "two undeclareds." Alluding to research that suggests Millennials are less racist than the generations that came before them, she said, "I also like the thought that religion is evolving." Perhaps they'll survey parts of religious traditions that they like and combine them. "Perhaps they'll be less divisive," she said, "and change the whole face of religion in our society."

That worried Wieseltier.

"To call oneself a Muslim, a Jew, or a Catholic, what do the continuities have to be?" he asked. "You cannot simply erase the entirety of the religion that preceded you and call yourself a Jew. You can say that there is this tradition that is X,Y, and Z, interpret as you choose, state your reasons. It's a free country, this is the kind of Jew you want to be. What worries me is that the new forms will be so disconnected from the traditions that something called Judaism will survive but that the tradition in its richness may not. That is my deepest fear about my faith."

Professor Molly Worthen, another panelist, expressed a related concern. 

"Call me old fashioned, but yes, I would say, to be a good Catholic you have to believe in God," she said. "There's a problem with the hyper-individualization of Millennial religion. The advantage of an institution is that it forces you into conversation with people you might not agree with. It forces you to grapple with a tradition that includes hard ideas. It forces you to have, for at least part of your life, a respect for authority that inculcates the sense that you have something to learn, that you're not reinventing the wheel, but that millennia have come before you. The structure of institutions, for all their evils, facilitates that. And we may be losing that."

Wieseltier posited that it's being lost because Americans are trying to bring to their religious experience the same level of customization that they expect when shopping. "They treat their tradition as consumers–or let's say, consumers with loyalty to one store." More than other panelists, his forecast was gloomy. "On the question of what is true or false about the universe," he said, "Americans are not interested anymore."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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