God in Maine
"God is horribly absent," wrote literary critic Francois Mauriac upon surveying the thirteen volumes (in the original French) of À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust's titanic literary masterpiece. Nearly one-and-a-half million words — enough for Guinness to declare it the world's longest novel — and "God" is not among them. Incroyable!
There must be devout New Englanders nowadays who share Mauriac's amazement, though not on literary grounds. A survey by Gallup published in January found that the four "least religious states" in the U.S. are all clustered in our neighborhood: Vermont leads the pack, followed in order by New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts.
Of course with statistics of this kind, the devil is (so to speak) in the details. Gallup posed the simple question: Is religion an important part of your daily life? Only in our four northeastern states did fewer than half of respondents answer Yes. (In Maine the figure was 48%.)
It must be said that Maine and its neighbors are not so terribly out of step with the rest of the nation in this regard. We may in fact represent the cutting edge of a broad secularizing trend also reflected in other recent studies, including one by the Pew Research Center and another by Newsweek. These studies consistently show a definite drift in Americans' religious orientation:
- The number of self-identified Christians has been falling steadily for two decades.
- The percentage of people who do not identify with any faith has steadily risen.
- The number of people calling themselves "atheist" or "agnostic" has tripled since 1990 (to a still modest 3.6 million).
Yet before we go the full Mauriac, let's consider two persistent, countervailing facts -- which I think accord with our actual experience of Maine life.
One is that — paradoxical as it sounds — most people's personal religious beliefs have hardly budged in twenty years. A great majority of Americans (82 percent in the Pew survey, almost 90 in Newsweek) report that they believe in some "spiritual being" or "impersonal higher power," even though many of these people do not belong to a particular church or faith. A second fact, noted by Edward Correia of Northeastern University in his blog Uncertain Believer, is this: "Although an increasing percentage of people (15%, including atheists, agnostics and those with no preference) do not identify with any religion, 'faith' and 'religion' in the context of the survey mean organized religion, not a personal search for meaning or belief in a conception of God that is different from the one in the Bible."
That feels about right, doesn't it?
Personally, I've always found Maine to be a spiritually vibrant place. Not in the sense of being filled with regular churchgoers, but in the sense that Mainers quite often seem to take an active interest in the fundamental questions of life, the very sort of question that religion seeks to answer. After all, the basic concern of religion, as noted in a new book by British critic Terry Eagleton, "is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life." I've always found Maine to be a good place to pursue a quest for that kind of deeper understanding. In fact it's undeniable that I became a more spiritually-minded writer after I moved here.
In any case, as a sometime Episcopalian, I was raised to feel that a public display of one's piety is almost always in bad taste. So perhaps I'm inclined to take these more-religious-than-thou statistics with a grain of salt. And if I hadn't already felt this way, another recent survey might well have pushed me over the edge.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found, in a survey published just last week, an alarming relationship between a person's churchgoing habits and that same person's view of torture. To put it as simply as possible, the more time you spend in church, the more likely you are to say that the use of torture against suspected terrorists can "often" or "sometimes" be justified. Fifty-four percent of those who attend church weekly can find it in their hearts to approve of torturing somebody. Only 42% of those who "seldom or never" attend church can do the same.
This is especially odd when you consider the basic teachings of the New Testament. And indeed, if the question is rephrased, the answers change. When Pew broached the subject of torture in a way intended to remind respondents of the Golden Rule — by asking if they agree that "the U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would not want used on American soldiers" — a slim majority (52%) say that torture is "seldom" or "never" justified.
A little something to contemplate next Sunday, perhaps.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a contributing editor to Down East.