When organized religion declines, replacement religions fill the void
American organized religion is declining. According to Gallup data, only 1 percent of U.S. adults claimed no religious affiliation in 1955. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 20. The younger the adult, the likelier the lack of religious affiliation. For adults aged 30 to 39, the percentage is 28; for those aged 21 to 29, it’s 33 percent. If you’re looking for evidence of secularization in America, this rise of the “nones” is Exhibit A.
Yet David Zahl claims in his new book, Seculosity, that “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.” Those replacements don’t look or feel religious, however — at least not in the capital-R sense of the term, which Zahl describes as “robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs.” They don’t necessarily look like “folkloric beliefs” or “occult belief systems” either: things like charms, telepathy, or astrology.
Instead, replacement religions center around everyday concerns such as — to list the topics of the book’s chapters — busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food and politics. Zahl calls each of these replacements “seculosity,” a portmanteau of “secular” and “religiosity.” Seculosity is a religious impulse “directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”
Why does Zahl consider these secular concerns religious? And why should we? Those are fair questions, good ones even, because they go straight to the heart of what our culture thinks religion is.
We typically think of religion in capital-R terms: organized religion with its concerns for doctrine, ritual, community and institutions. Those are outward manifestations of an inward impulse, which Zahl calls “the justifying story of our life.” According to him, religion is “what we lean on to tell us we’re OK, that our lives matter.” It is “our preferred guilt-management system.”
In other words, religion is what “we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness.” This search for enoughness characterizes religious “nones” just as much as it does the traditionally religious. It is a universal longing.
The search for enoughness characterizes religious “nones” just as much as it does the traditionally religious.
Take the everyday concern about busyness, for example. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll probably reply, “Busy.” I certainly would. Between work, marriage, parenting and life in general, it feels like every moment of every day is accounted for ... and then some.
I tell myself to rest, but the moment I start to do so, the nagging suspicion takes hold that a book needs read, an article needs written, a chore needs accomplished, my kids need helicoptered over, my wife needs date-nighted, the latest blockbuster movie needs watched, etc. (Notice that even our leisure activities, such as dating and movie watching, become to-do items.)
These nagging suspicions arise from what Zahl calls “performancism.” He writes: “Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness.”
And woe betide those who fail at these tasks, because “if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough.” Zahl doesn’t quote Blaise Pascal at this point, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the latter’s statement, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Now that I’ve quoted Pascal, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not checking off that to-do item either.)
Performancism is “one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity,” their underlying assumption, affecting how we approach everyday life. It cripples seculosity’s practitioners with anxiety (Am I enough?), shame (Do they think I’m enough?), and guilt (Have I done enough?). “The common denominator [in all forms of seculosity] is the human heart, yours and mine,” Zahl explains. “Which is to say, the problem is sin.”
In theological terms, you see, seculosity is just the latest example of a “religion of law.” It is a form of self-justification or works-righteousness. And like all such schemes, it is doomed to failure because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not enough. We have not done enough. We cannot do enough.
The antidote to seculosity is a “religion of grace,” Zahl concludes. “Sin is not something you can be talked out of (‘stop controlling everything!’) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved.”
That salvation depends on the sacrificial love of Christ. He is enough, and only in Him can you be enough.
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Influence magazine.