New-old habits of the postmodern heart: 'When people choose not to believe in God, they do not ... '

It is without a doubt the most famous quotation that journalist and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton either (a) said, (b) never said, (c) might have said or (d) said in pieces that were latter assembled by someone else into one memorable thought.

I am referring to this statement: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

You can click here for a fascinating investigation into the origins of this statement. The bottom line: There are all kinds of Chesterton statements that may have evolved into this quote. I liked this part:

... Robin Rader of Zambia argued that the epigram can be found divided between two adjacent Father Brown stories:
It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense. [“The Oracle of the Dog” (1923)]
You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief -- of belief in almost anything. [“The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924)]

I bring this up because this famous Chesterton semi-quote offers a perfect summary of what I felt recently while walking the streets of Prague, thinking about some recent Pew Research Center survey work about religion in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Czech Republic in particular. That turned into my "On Religion" column this past week, which then served as the hook for this week's Crossroads podcast. Click here to tune that in.

But before we get to that, please do this for me. Read the Chesterton statements again and then read this headline from a recent "Gray Matter" essay in The New York Times: "Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s."

Interesting? Here is a key chunk of this fascinating piece:

Dozens of studies show a strong link between religiosity and existential concerns about death and meaning. For example, when research participants are presented with stimuli that bring death to mind or challenge a sense of meaning in life, they exhibit increased religiosity and interest in religious or spiritual ideas. Another body of research shows that religious beliefs provide and protect meaning.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.
These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious.

That brings us to my column and the podcast.

When you walk around the amazing city of Prague and look up, you see medieval spires and steeples wherever you turn your eyes. But when you look around, things are different. As I put it in the column:

... Along the winding, cobblestone streets, something else is happening at eye level in the bookstores, artsy shops, coffee hangouts and sidewalk posters. This is where yoga mixes with sacred rocks, folk religion bumps into numerology, and dark themes in fantasy comics blend into pop versions of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In today’s Czech Republic, people are “still asking questions about what is good and what is bad, and questions about life and death,” said Daniel Raus, a journalist and poet known for his years with Czech Radio, covering politics, culture and religion. “What is different is that (Czechs) are saying, ‘I will decide what is good and I will decide what is bad. No one can tell me what to believe about any of this.’ “

That brings us to the Pew Research Center study entitled “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe.”

Remember all the media fuss about the rising numbers of "nones" -- religiously unaffiliated people -- in the American population? Well in the Czech Republic, 72 percent of adults describe "their religion as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’ “ That is staggeringly higher than elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Want more? Only 29 percent of Czechs say they "believe in God." A mere 9 percent of Czechs say they “pray daily.” 

Ah, but what does it mean to "pray"?

Have other spiritual-but-not-religious activities taken the place of conventional faith? In my column, Raus pointed to other research there in Prague, noting that:

... 80 percent of Czech women read horoscopes, along with 46 percent of men. A third of Czechs fear black cats and believe Friday the 13th is a “bad day.” Prague’s NMS Market Research firm, in 2015 research, found that 76 percent of Czechs knock on wood “not to spoil something,” 78 percent believe in the power of fate, 62 percent say they believe in lucky numbers, 37 percent believe breaking a mirror causes bad luck and 31 percent affirmed they have a trusted amulet.

In other words, did the "religious mind" in Czech life and history evolve back into the "folk religion" or "superstitious" mind? If secularism is the absence of religion, is the Czech Republic actually secular?

GetReligion readers who have followed research on this topic for several decades are probably thinking: This sounds really familiar.

What about that famous "Sheila" quote from "Habits of the Heart," by Robert Bellah?

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as "Sheilaism." This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. "I believe in God," Sheila says. "I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can't remember the last time I went to church.
My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice." Sheila's faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls "my own Sheilaism," she said: "It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other." Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points.

So are the numbers in the Czech Republic (and faith trends in other parts of Europe) a sign of things to come in America and elsewhere? Is this trend new or the return of something old?

All I know is that journalists -- as well as pastors, rabbis, imams and others -- have to pay attention. Sheila is on the march. Can you say "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism"?

Enjoy the podcast.

Please respect our Commenting Policy