According to Taylor, if we identify religion as one of the core, historic faiths, then religion is declining. But if we think of it as a spiritual or semi-spiritual belief that answers life’s ultimate questions, then religion is as popular today as it has ever been. In short, religion isn’t dying, it is changing.
One of secularism’s replacements to traditional religion is that of “expressing” our authentic selves. In this quasi-religion, instead of receiving or allowing oneself to be conformed by any outside idea or definition, one creates one’s own self, realizes one’s own way of being. This leads to an ethic of tolerance—if meaning is found in choice, then to deprive another of choice is to deprive them of meaning.
This “expressivism” is also tied to our hyper-consumerism. As we consume different music or buy different products, we feel like we are determining who we are. But these identities, like the suburban teen that spends $200 on a skateboard with anarchy symbols, are shallow when compared to the type of belonging that was once given by the nation, community groups, and churches.
Expressivism is not just a problem for the unbeliever, but also for the believer. It leads believers to think that they get to choose aspects of their faith like they choose their brand of tennis shoes or music preferences and that their faith must speak to them on their terms and in their way for it to have any meaning. Instead of finding Christ they forge a Jesus of their making. Couple this with the idea of tolerance and we end up with something like this injunction: “Let everyone follow his/her own path of spiritual inspiration. Don’t be led off yours by the allegation that it doesn’t fit with some orthodoxy.” Instead of religion correcting sin and leading one to repent of their quest to become an autonomous individual and of finding their highest meaning in self-expression, religion becomes co-opted, faith becomes a means by which people “find themselves” and discover their own “route to wholeness and spiritual depth.”
In his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics Ross Douthat calls this phenomenon the heresy of the “god-within.” The problem with finding meaning in expressing ourselves is that, to paraphrase Douthat, ‘sometimes the God within is no God at all, but just our ego or libido, using spirituality as a convenient gloss for our own desires and impulses. What seems our highest thought is often emanating from the lower reaches of our souls. But the “God within” heresy baptizes our worst impulses. We become self-absorbed and selfish and call it being “authentic” or being true to ourselves.’ What is more, this false god fails to provide the contentment, happiness, well-being, and above all the ability to forge successful relationships with fellow humans that is promises. When we look to the things of this world to make us happy, these things crumble under the weight that we put on them. As a result ‘we are less happy in our marriages, our friendships have withered and disappeared, fewer people marry and have children, and more and more people live and die alone. . . . We’re freer than we used to be, but also more isolated, lonelier, and more depressed.’
Even if we as Christians reject this idolatrous view, we cannot help that we live in an age where this is not only an option, but one that is encouraged. Knowing the Gospel and seeking to live firmly rooted in it while remembering the consequences of embracing this are two ways to resist assimilating ourselves to this false belief that is accepted and promoted by so many in our society.