The religious landscape of the United States continues to shift. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey shows that fewer and fewer Americans identify themselves at Christians when asked about their faith and the religiously unaffiliated share of the population has risen over the last decade. KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks to Havard religion scholar and author of the book, “The Power of Ritual” Casper ter Kuile about the power of ancient ritual; how they are being incorporated into our everyday practices both in our workplace and personal lives and how when rituals are shared, they can bring us together at time of isolation.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: One of the things Professor Pagels emphasized was that belief is overrated, what’s more important is practice. What are your thoughts?
Casper ter Kuile: “This is why I love Elaine Pagels’work, because I completely agree. The reason why we have such a focus on belief is that even though in the United States there’s a lot of diversity in terms of religion, it’s still a very Christian culture. And in the Protestant history, Protestantism broke from Catholicism, there was a real focus on belief. Martin Luther was famous for rejecting all of these hocus pocus rituals of the Catholic Church and emphasized faith alone.
So that shaped how we understand religion in the United States. When you ask someone, ‘are you religious,’ the subtext underneath that is something like, ‘do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ So it's very much about a set of theological proposals, but that's very different when you look outside of Christianity or even outside of Protestantism.
If you look at Buddhist traditions or Jewish traditions, or even Catholicism, you'll see that practice; what you do, is much more important in kind of deciding how religious you are, instead of what you believe.
Jewish folks might think, do you observe particular dietary laws, do you keep the Sabbath or do you believe in God. Sure that's important, but the way you express your Judaism is often much more about what you practice. And in this new moment where people are mixing different spiritual traditions or finding their own way, think about what are the rituals that anchor your life and that structure your ethics. Do you have a practice of generosity? Do you have a practice of welcoming the stranger into your home?”
Religious rituals are popping up in secular places; like Crossfit and SoulCycle How are these places learned to mirror what happened in more conventional religious practices?
Ter Kuile: “When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, my research partner and I started to look out into the secular world to see where especially younger people were coming together to build community. And very quickly we started to hear about fitness communities, arts groups and justice groups that on the surface seem very secular — working out, getting strong, losing weight, being healthy but when you start to look deeper, we saw more and more parallels with what you might expect to see in a congregation. People are getting married and having funerals in that CrossFit box.
People are raising money for neighbors at their SoulCycle spinning class and people were turning towards their fitness instructor to help them navigate a difficult divorce or the grief after losing a loved one. So suddenly people who are trained in how to help you lose calories and build muscle are accompanying you through a really big life transition for which by the way, they have no training.
We started to see these religious behaviors show up in these circular spaces. Once we started to see that these communities talked about themselves. So CrossFit, co founder famously said, ‘if people call us a cult, that's fine, I think we are a cult.’ And of course, with SoulCycle, the clue is in the name, so these organizations are already a kind of self consciously engaging in spirituality and religious traditions as a way of shaping that community.
What's interesting about this is that there's a narrow secularizing moment where more and more people are less and less religious. That's true when you look at you how people self identify, when you look at how many people attend a congregation but if we expand our lens, if we start to see these communities, like these fitness groups as of part of a religious ecosystem, suddenly, we start to see that religion isn't in decline, it's changing.
And so when at the workplace people are practicing meditation, when fitness groups are marking major life moments, suddenly the world becomes much more interesting to me because we start to see how spirituality and religion are showing up in those places.
Now not everyone going to the gym is having some sort of religious conversion experience. But these are indicators of honestly where the future is going. More and more people describe themselves as having multiple spiritual influences. Maybe they were born with one religion but they married someone who comes from that background and they practice a whole other set of rituals inspired by Buddhism or whatever — so you're starting to see just a very different religious landscape, which a lot of our current religious institutions are not quite yet ready to engage.”
What are ways we can bring ritual into our lives?
Ter Kuile: “One thing that I'm really passionate about is finding ways to translate ancient traditions so that they feel particularly alive and relevant for our experience today. One practice that's been really important to me is thinking about a tech Sabbath. More and more people are conscious of the challenging relationships that we have with our phones. More and more of us are comfortable saying, ‘yep, I'm addicted to this thing.’ You know, it's the first thing I wake up with. It's the last thing I say goodnight to and I want that to change because I know it makes me anxious’ or ‘I know it shortens my attention span.’ And so for me since reading wonderful texts called the Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great Jewish theologian. I was really inspired to find a way to create a tech Sabbath for myself.
On Friday night, I turn off my phone, I turn off my laptop, I hide them in a bookshelf so that they're not looking at me and tempting me and I light a little candle, stand in my living room, sing a little song to myself and it's like entering into a different reality. Heschel described it as entering into a palace in time.
Especially during this pandemic, when we can't move in terms of space, it's been really helpful to move through time in this way. Having that rhythm of every Friday night to every Saturday night, turning off my phone, has been a real comfort and it's given structure to these months where sometimes you don't know what day it is. So that's a ritual that's become very important to me and you see more and more people trying to find a healthier relationship with technology.”