Ionce asked my Aunt Mary what her beliefs were on the subject of life after death. She said: “Whatever Jews believe, that’s what I believe.”
Aunt Mary’s view was that there were people whose job it was to consider such things. She was not such a person herself, but she was completely confident that the guys assigned that task were doing their job, and it was all written down in a book somewhere. If you were sufficiently interested, you could look it up.
This view is in decline. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life concludes: “Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.”
What is striking about the Pew study is not the prevalence of superstition and hocus-pocus, alarming as that is. It is the feeling that we are free to choose from a broad, cafeteria-style menu of superstitious hocus-pocus. Charles Blow in the New York Times called it the construction of “Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities.”
Christians, for example, do not believe in reincarnation. At least not according to theology classes in the seminaries. But the population likes the idea. And people like the idea of being Christians too. So they just choose to believe in both. It is a kind of democratization. People feel entitled to make choices about things that used to be within the exclusive purview of the priestly class. That’s fine, I suppose, and consistent with our American mythology. We like to think we are a nation of individualists who make up our own minds. But what are the limits to this inclination?
I’m thinking of the story of an elementary school classroom that couldn’t determine the gender of the class bunny rabbit and decided to resolve the question by vote.
The point of the bunny story is that some questions do not belong to the class of issues that can be resolved by vote. Their answer is not a matter of opinion, even majority opinion. There is a “fact of the matter.” You don’t get to make it up.
But now the whole notion of a fact of the matter appears to be going away. We no longer trust the guys in the seminaries to determine which ideas are inside and outside the community of faith. We feel entitled to make our own decisions. Fair enough; the facts with respect to spiritual matters have always been somewhat elusive. But now many of us feel entitled to decide which scientific ideas to accept. Scientists have their ideas about, say, the age of the Earth or evolution by natural selection, and other people have other ideas. According to this new view, neither has any more claim to legitimacy than the other. There is no fact of the matter. We get to decide what gender the bunny is, and we get to decide what age the Earth is. It’s a free country.
This is genuinely scary. And it’s scary in a new way. For the last several thousand years, large groups of human beings enjoyed consensus about the big questions. We may have believed that the universe rested on the back of a giant tortoise and the tortoise rested on the back of an elephant -- and that belief may not have been borne out by more recent advances in astronomy -- but at least there was widespread agreement. Today it is not just the beliefs that are crumbling; the whole idea of agreement is crumbling too.
As the cliche goes, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. The problem is we have no agreement on what constitutes a fact. Ghosts? Astrology? Global warming? Evolution? How about communication with the dead?
We used to be a nation with a broad consensus. If you had a religious question, you asked a religious leader. If you had a scientific question, you asked a scientist. Today, if you have a question -- say about whether your enthusiasm for vibrational healing gong baths is well placed -- you ask another gong bath enthusiast. There is no fringe so far out it doesn’t have a website, and you can find it in milliseconds.
We are becoming a nation of fruitcakes.
Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”