Religious Disaffiliation and the Ethics of Authenticity

One must tread carefully when trying to understand the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in Western societies. Each person is unique and does not fit into any general categories. However, it is fair to say that there is what the Germans call Weltanshauung (roughly translated as “worldview”) — or what some call “social imaginary”—by which people make sense of their lives and the form of the good. While we do not want to reduce the individual to a Weltanshauung or equate the spirit of the age with the spirit of God, it is important to acknowledge that human beings are held captive by a certain assumptions and prejudices, as each of us is born and raised into a particular culture. Likewise, each of us develops a given language with which we make sense of reality. These facts should be taken into consideration when thinking about the unaffiliated.

Please note: We do not propose cultural relativism here. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has explored this aspect of our social nature, arguing against what he takes to be an Enlightenment view of the human being as merely an individual who as subject can detach himself or herself from the givenness of things (objects). In his magnum opus, A Secular Age, Taylor names this “buffered self” in contrast to the “porous self” that one finds in pre-Enlightenment cultures. The buffered self views itself as immune from outside influences, having an extrinsic relation to the world. The moral corollary of such a view is that the self that is influenced by the world and others without choosing to be so influenced is a pushover or a slave. Autonomy, the modern moral ideal, is achieved by going against the given. But this sets up an unnecessary dialectic in pursuit of artificial authenticity: If I am not a master, then I am a slave. Religiously affiliated people who have been born and raised within Western society often view their religious affiliation this way: it is primarily a choice.

In his series of 1991 lectures called “The Malaise of Modernity”, Taylor names this new moral ideal the “Ethic of Authenticity.” He finds its roots in German thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who said that each person has his or her own original way of being human. Each person has his or her own “measure.” This gives great importance to being true to “myself,” and the idea that a life that is not true to yourself is an unworthy one. Our culture is dominated by this way of thinking today. Have you ever heard the phrase “You do you”? While we might dismiss this as another instance of narcissism, it actually is an expression perfectly at home in the ethic of authenticity. According to this new ethic, it is not immoral to keep oneself unaffiliated or affiliated only if it is true to yourself but a moral ideal.

The unaffiliated have been growing in the U.S. According to the statistics Dr. Stephen Bullivant cites in his book Mass Exodus, around 23% of Americans identify as unaffiliated with any religious group (59 million Americans). That’s a lot, and this demographic continues to grow. It might not just be an accident, but the destiny of the age.

Knowing the Weltanshauung might be key to understanding why a phenomenon like the “unaffiliated” might not be an anomaly but the expression of our age’s moral ideal.