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The Religion of No-Religion

How to Order by Richard Smoley

We are, we are told, a religious people.

The polls, pundits, and media all say we are. According to statistics, 97% of the American populace believe in God. (Though one could well ask if these are the same kind of statistics that say 97% of the populace can read and write.)

Certainly there's much evidence for our religiosity. The Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants dominate the pro-life side of the abortion debate. "Spiritual" books ranging from The Celestine Prophecies to Hal Lindsey's apocalyptic The Late, Great Planet Earth sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies. And political figures from Pat Robertson to Hillary Rodham Clinton insist that their motives for entering the fray of public life are spiritual ones. Yale professor Harold Bloom even claims that the "real" American religion is Gnosticism.

But I think that we are not at heart a religious people at all.

There are ways in which we appear religious. Some sectors of the nation - the Bible-toting South, say, or the Mormon Rockies - show the powerful influence of certain churches, as do various ethnic groups. And even as a whole, Americans definitely look devout compared to, say, the French or British. But then these are probably the least religious societies ever known to humankind. In this issue's interview, author Karen Armstrong calls the British "a godless people": only about 5% of the population go to church on Sunday. Apparently the genial, state-supported Church of England has done a better job in producing an irreligious society than did 70 years of strident atheism in Russia.

So the U.S. may, from certain angles, look like a nation with a profoundly spiritual character. But from other perspectives it doesn't. If you define a religious nation as one that has any coherent and consistent spiritual heritage at its core, or one for which religious principles rank at least as high in the consideration of public welfare as, say, economic ones, then we are scarcely religious at all. The President swears on the Bible at his inaugural, the money says "In God We Trust," and that's about it. Looking at American public festivities, an intelligent alien might conclude that we adore a trinity consisting of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and Frosty the Snowman.

That is not to say that we lack religious roots. Prime among these is Puritanism, eloquently described in this issue by Alison Hawthorne Deming. In various mutant forms, Puritanism remains the closest thing to an underlying American religious sensibility. I mean not only the celebrated work ethic, updated into today's "workaholism"; our deep-seated sexual prudery; or the assumption that we, being God's elect, have the duty of showing the rest of the world how it should live. I'm referring also to the Puritan conscience, which survives in our guilt about everything from eating too much fat to our political impasses. (One theologian at Harvard, that most Puritan of Puritan institutions, recently blamed the failure of health-care reform on "the sin of collective egotism.").(1)

If superficially we've lost the old Puritan dourness, we retain it under the skin in our general inability to enjoy life. For us recreation is a commodity that has to be purchased in the form of trendy gadgets or concert tickets. Indeed Americans often feel guilty about not having fun - and what could be more Puritan than that?

But our Puritanism is a habit, not a creed; the Calvinist God is as dead as Zeus or Moloch. One prominent form of religion that isn't obsolete is what could be called "frontier religion." Settlers spilling over the Appalachians after the Revolution found that they soon outstripped their supplies of various civilized accouterments - including clergy. This isn't surprising: the well-bred ministers from the old Eastern seminaries were unlikely to forsake serene New England or the tidewater South for the rough-and-tumble wilderness. Stirred by the enthusiasms of the Great Awakening - the religious revival that swept the American colonies starting around 1740 - and John Wesley's Methodism, which emphasized a personal relationship with Christ instead of doctrine and liturgy, the American frontier gave birth to a new form of Christianity, one emphasizing personal commitment on the part of the individual and personal charisma on the part of the preacher. (Even today many denominations feature teenage preachers with little formal training, relying instead on their natural presence and eloquence.)

In this religion, the Bible came to occupy a prominent place, since it was the only book many people had. But because of the lack of educated clergy, people often read the Bible with little awareness of its historical (or spiritual) context. The Bible existed, not as a mere book - however sacred - but as the only book. This situation still prevails today in many parts of the country. Several years ago, when I was house-hunting in Tennessee, I was struck by the large number of homes I saw that had a Bible but no other books.

These features go far toward explaining today's fundamentalism. As Harold Bloom points out, in this domain "the limp leather Bible" is venerated more than it is read, and read more than it is understood. Anyone who tries to offer some sense of its historical or theological context is dismissed as a "modernist" or "higher critic." And the idea that the Bible could have any meaning other than the literal - that its symbolism might carry a deeper psychological meaning, particularly in texts like Revelation - is similarly rejected. After all, how can you recognize symbolism if you don't know what it is?

The dogmatism and anti-intellectualism of frontier religion has seeped into the American consciousness at large. (Puritanism, by contrast, is dogmatic but not anti-intellectual.) If, apart from a few rabid proselytizers, we remain diffident about talking about religion, we will launch into grandiose pronouncements about politics or social policy at the drop of a campaign button. (And no matter what the ideology, the point is always the same: everything would be great if people just agreed with me.) As for anti-intellectualism, one only has to spend a few minutes with any of the outlets of mass culture to realize that this strain of the national sensibility is still going strong.

The third major element in our national psyche also has its religious roots, this time in the Deism of the Enlightenment. Here the ideas of the innate sinfulness of mankind and its imminent judgment by Christ were replaced by a belief in rational inquiry and scientific progress. To this day, as Ronald Reagan used to say when he hosted "GE Star Theater" on TV, "Progress is our most important product." We have to believe that there will be a better future; the increasingly plausible possibility that there will not makes us feel tremendously insecure. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz perceptively noted that since the advent of nuclear weapons "the North Americans have lost their optimism."(2) Perhaps this was the first time we felt truly vulnerable to destruction from without; or perhaps we came to have our first inkling that the blessings of science and reason might not be unmixed. For all that, we still believe in progress - or we tell ourselves we do. Isn't that the American Dream?

Moralism, dogmatism, and a belief in progress - these remain permanent legacies of the American heritage. But although they're rooted in our religious past, they are not fundamentally religious impulses in themselves. Atheists and agnostics can possess them just as well as any believer. Often, in fact, the secular humanist seems to believe in progress much as the Christian does in the Second Coming.

Is there anything, then, that can be called an "American religion"? Harold Bloom claims it is Gnosticism, but he gives such an odd misreading of Gnosticism that his views are hard to credit. For example, he believe . . . that God made them. Their deepest knowledge is that they were no part of the Creation, but existed as spirits before it, and so are as old as God himself."(3)

This bears no resemblance to any fundamentalist teaching that I've ever seen (and Bloom cites no references to back him up). Rather it is his own view, concocted from the comfortable seclusion of Yale and having little to do with anyone else's beliefs, conscious or unconscious. If fundamentalists are Gnostics, then everyone's a Gnostic. But then, as you know, Gnosticism has become a kind of conceptual Silly Putty of late, stretching and bending to fit all shapes and picking up the image of whatever funny papers you stick it on.(4)

Thus, while Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, and a host of other religions will remain influential in American life, there seems to be no real American religion as such, at least not beyond a mild-mannered civic faith where God is like a Founding Father - benign, remote, and decorously represented on our money - or perhaps a form of insurance. As Claude Levi-Strauss remarked about American missionaries he encountered in Brazil's Mato Grosso, "For some, becoming a missionary was like taking out an insurance policy. Once they were certain of their own salvation, they thought there was nothing more they need do to prove themselves worthy of it."(5) What, after all, is being "born again" for many people other than a guaranteed ticket to heaven?

I speak jokingly, of course, but there are serious issues at stake. As the nation becomes more diverse and its spirituality more centrifugal, we are finding ourselves left with little more than the profit motive to serve as common ground. Can we come up with any alternative?

This leads me to the subject of American Indian religion. I bring this up charily, knowing the tumultuous emotions it arouses (and June Huang deals ably with these in her article here). For my own part I have almost no direct experience of the American Indian path, and the mass-market versions of it seem to me dubious in the extreme. All the same, there are reasons even for non-Indians to examine Native spirituality.

In 1930, C.G. Jung wrote an article for an American popular magazine curiously entitled "Your Negroid and Indian Behavior."(6) Though one can only imagine what kind of uproar it would have caused if first published today, it nonetheless remains insightful. In it Jung argues that the human psyche possesses not only a racial stratum, but a stratum that is connected to the land itself. "Man can be assimilated by a country," he writes. "There is an x and a y in the air and the soil of a country which slowly permeate and assimilate him to the type of the aboriginal inhabitant. . . . The spirit of the Indian gets at the American from within and without."(7)

This "spirit of the Indian" can show itself in different ways. "Playing Indian," "going native," and other such things are the grossest versions, and it's no wonder that these manifestations often deeply offend the Natives themselves. Can we members of the dominant culture incorporate "the spirit of the Indian" in a way that is legitimate and authentic?

American Indian Movement activist Russell Means has been one of the most vociferous opponents of the white exploitation of Native spirituality. I once asked him what he felt whites could learn from Native American spirituality. "It can be summed up in one word," he replied. "Respect."

Respect seems to be to American Indian spirituality what love is to Christianity or enlightenment is to Buddhism. It is predicated on the belief that humanity has a place in the cosmos, with certain rights and duties, and that it's our duty to occupy this place without overstepping our bounds. In this sense, respect is the opposite of hubris, which in the Greek literally means something like "outrage."

Obviously this concept can be applied to a vast number of areas; people drawn to the Native path often link it (legitimately in my view) to environmental questions. My concern here is somewhat more limited. In the spiritual realm, respect must first and foremost consist of tolerance: one must have the humility to realize one doesn't have all the answers and that there is good reason for, if not accepting, then at least putting up with other points of view. And in general this message of tolerance has (with a number of failures and exceptions) for the most part prevailed in our country. (Perhaps, as Jung would say, it is because the spirit of the land requires it.)

But why is tolerance good? There are many in the world, and in America, who believe it is not. The answer has to do with how seriously one takes religious forms in themselves. The bigot and the fundamentalist see the form as an absolute: God not only must exist, but must exist in the way I see him (or, more likely, in the way I'm told to see him). Those with a broader view acknowledge that the inexpressible may have many means of expressing itself, and that while the form may capture certain aspects of higher reality, it cannot exhaust that reality. No doubt this is why the Transcendentalists, who still remain the greatest visionaries in American history, had such deep respect for the spirituality of far-flung civilizations like India's.

This willingness to go past the specific forms of religions brings us into the domain of the esoteric. Here gnosis - that indescribable knowledge of the divine - takes precedence over doctrine and covenant, so that the gnostics of different faiths may have more in common with each other than with many of their coreligionists. A Course in Miracles puts it well: "A universal theology is impossible, but a universal experience is not only possible but necessary."(8) Or as my late friend, Dr. Frederic Spiegelberg (beautifully profiled by Judy Matthews in our "News & Notes" section), said, "Numberless yogis have tried through thousands of years to find some type of 'religion of no-religion' by leaving behind all formulations . . . rather than to get caught in nonsense answers."(9)

If there is to be an American creed, I believe it will have to be what Spiegelberg calls this "religion of no-religion." (At times this seems to be what Harold Bloom means when he talks of "Gnosticism.") The forms of American spiritual expression are too diffuse for anything else. We will not be able to seize onto any one - no matter how shrill its cries for attention may be - and cast it into an idol for general consumption. But if we maintain an attitude of respect for each other and for the Mystery that is greater than any of our creeds, we may find common ground.

There are dangers in this direction, of course. The principal one is that any sense of collective ethics will be drowned in the seas of diversity. For nearly all of human history, religion has been the parent and protector of ethics. Will our "religion of no-religion" be able to provide the backbone for a consistent morality? Or will collective morality continue on its present course and end up as nothing more than a mask for expediency?

Morality is an enormous subject in its own right, and I've never encountered any discussion of it that I've found altogether adequate. But I can say this much: we all know and agree on the fundamental moral dictums against killing, stealing, lying, and the like. (I might point out that these are all specialized applications of the principle of respect.) Although certain issues like euthanasia and the rights of test-tube babies remain controversial, there's really very little disagreement on basic principles. We just don't live up to them. If we did, we could still debate the controversies and possibly even come up with some solutions. And we'd feel safer and more secure in the meantime.

But perhaps this discussion has become a bit highfalutin - and as Americans, there's nothing we hate more than the highfalutin. So let me suggest an alternative. In a recent seminar, screenwriter Michael Hauge set out what he considered to be the three basic themes found in Hollywood movies:

1. Recognize your own gifts and stand up for them.
2. Be honest with yourself and others.
3. Offer your gifts with love to other people.

Could these be the bedrock tenets of the American religion? Quite possibly. After all, when it comes to things American, whom can you trust if not Hollywood?


1. Brent B. Coffin, "A Theological Postmortem on Health Care Reform," in Harvard Divinity Bulletin supplement, Religion & Values in Public Life, vol. 3, no. 1 (Fall 1994), p. 12.

2. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, trans. Lysander Kemp (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 22.

3. Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 57.

4. For a discussion of the issues raised by the meaning of this word, see GNOSIS #23, "Gnosticism Revisited" (Spring 1993), esp. Stephan A. Hoeller, "What is a Gnostic?", pp. 24ff.

5. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (New York: Atheneum, 1974), p. 290.

6. Decorously retitled "The Complications of American Psychology," it appears in C.G. Jung, Civilization in Transition (Collected Works, vol. 10; New York: Bollingen Foundation/Pantheon, 1964), pp. 502-14.

7. Ibid., p. 510.

8. A Course in Miracles (Tiburon, Calif.: Foundation for Inner Peace, 1975), Teacher's Manual, p. 73.

9. I am indebted to Judy Matthews for this quote. But see also Frederic Spiegelberg, The Religion of No-Religion (Stanford, Calif.: James Ladd Delkin, 1948).

(c) copyright 1995 Richard Smoley and Gnosis Magazine

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