How to Regain Our Sense of Faith in a Secular World
In his latest book, “Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About it,” David Zahl coins the word “seculosity” which he says describes what he’s witnessing in all aspects of daily life: “the way more and more of us are leaning on things like politics and food and romance, not just for the things themselves but for our own sense of “enoughness.” Basically, as replacement religions.” In this exclusive Q & A, Zahl reveals why we’re turning to replacement religion and how we can take a fresh look at the grace of God in all its countercultural wonder.
1) How do you define “seculosity” and how has it become part of our popular culture? Why are we, as a society, abandoning or replacing religion?
DZ: “Seculosity” refers to religious devotion or feeling that’s directed at earthly rather than heavenly targets. The word itself is a mashup of “secular” and “religiosity.” Having grown up in the church, I’d leave the gym and think, “Gosh, that felt a lot like church, and not necessarily the good parts—a sort of “be better, or else.” Or I’d be at the playground and witness a perfect stranger correcting another parent about their childrearing and couldn’t help but notice that it felt like certain fanatical strands of American religion, where there’s an intense focus on behavioral purity, and everyone was basically afraid of messing up all the time. But since there was no substitute deity involved, at least not consciously, I figured a fresh term was called for to name this phenomenon.
As for why we’re abandoning or replacing religion in such numbers, there are nearly as many theories as there are people. Some say it has to do with science, some with capitalism, or moralism, or distraction, or indifference, or abuse, or all of the above. Clearly, the Christian church has a pretty significant PR problem! That is, it’s viewed by more and more people—and not for no reason—as a driver of guilt, hypocrisy, and ‘not-enoughness’ rather than a reliable dispensary of comfort, forgiveness, understanding, and grace. But one of the observations at the heart of Seculosity is that our replacement religions tend to maintain most of the demand of the old-fashioned variety but little of the mercy.
I think we’re only beginning to realize the function that religion—at its best—has always served, namely, as a place to go with our guilt and shame. Your priest, as a friend of mine likes to say, was “your local forgiveness person.” Our need for that hasn’t gone away.
2) What are the forms “seculosity” and why do you feel this inspires more anxiety?
DZ: The forms of seculosity I outlined in the book were the ones that I felt applied most broadly in our culture, as well as the ones that applied most to me personally. I didn’t want to write about this phenomenon from “above” or “outside” but from within. So it’s almost a catalog of replacement religions that would occupy a person in my stage of life: busyness, parenting, technology/social media, food/diet, career, romance/relationships, exercise, and politics. I probably could’ve written about the seculosity of sports or the seculosity of celebrity, as both of those things function pretty religiously in our culture. I’m sure everyone has others they could mention.
The anxiety comes from the inherent and often unconscious “performancism” at work. By “performancism,” I mean the idea that there’s no distinction between my performance at x, y, or z, and myself. My resume doesn’t describe me, it is me. This means that if you’re not eating well enough, loving well enough, parenting well enough, voting well enough, balancing work-and-personal-life well enough, getting enough ‘likes,’ then you aren’t enough. There are right and wrong answers to these questions. In other words, all sorts of everyday activities and decisions take on existential stakes: Thou Shalt Be Thin, or Influential, or Happy, or Authentic (and Effortlessly So)—which is super anxiety-producing. One false move, especially on social media, and you run the risk of being canceled—or cast into ‘secular hell.’ And so we hide and curate and do everything we can to avoid transgressing whatever code of ‘enoughness’ or ‘righteousness’ we hold dear. It’s exhausting to say the least, especially when there’s no place to go with your failures and shortcomings, other than the therapist’s office (and even then). So I have a lot of compassion for people.
3) Can you offer some examples of how “seculosity” is being played out in politics, parenting, relationships?
DZ: When it comes to politics, I think you see seculosity not just in the outright messianic (or diabolical!) expectations we foist onto candidates but in the tribalism on both sides of the aisle. There’s a lot of “us vs them” thinking that divides the people into believers vs pagans. Not that there aren’t legitimate differences in conviction between parties, or that there’s no such thing as right vs wrong, but there’s a leap from that kind of talk to ‘orthodoxy vs heresy,’ which is closer to what we have today. It’s not just a person’s position that’s wrong, it’s they themselves. But anytime you claim that politics not only explains everything in the world but can fix everything in the world, you’re in religious territory, and holy war is just around the corner.
In parenting, take the VarsityBlues scandal as an example. Parents have always wanted the best for their kids, and that includes education and the opportunities that admission at a prestigious college can provide. But for a certain slice of the population, college admissions’ decisions have come to represent a judgment of religious proportions, not just for the students but their parents. “I am enough because my child goes to this-or-that school.” When we make our children the measures of our enoughness (or our path to immortality/eternal life), well, then we will do everything in our power to make sure that the school sticker on the back of our car broadcasts the ‘right’ message. Plus, I think a lot of high-powered parents deal with a lot of guilt for overworking while their children are young. One of the ways they can ‘atone’ is to get their child into their dream college.
Relationship-wise, just think about the “Soulmate Myth.” We’ve somehow bought into this idea that there is one perfect person out there for us, who will fulfill all of our emotional, physical, and material needs almost by instinct. Someone who will, to quote Jerry Maguire, “complete us.” What we’re after, in these cases, is more of a savior more than a spouse. Those kinds of astronomical expectations of another person tend not to bode well for intimate relationships, which are commonly forged in moments of vulnerability and failure.
4) How can we take a fresh look at ourselves and where we’re headed with regards to this new way of thinking?
DZ: I suppose that will vary for every person. My hope with the book is that it might give people a fresh lens for viewing the world and maybe evoke some sympathy about why it is we’re all so increasingly anxious, lonely, and exhausted. Sometimes it ‘takes the sting out’ and gives us some patience with others to know we’re not the only person out there dealing with an acute sense of ‘not-enoughness.’ If you are a conventionally religious person, then take heart; religious observance is not nearly as weird we sometimes fear it is. Furthermore, we’re all in this together!
So it would be wonderful if the book lent that sort of perspective and allowed readers to take a deep breath, no matter what their background or spiritual leaning. Practically, I would urge folks to think seriously about what forms of ‘replacement religion’ they gravitate toward and reflect on about whether or not those ‘seculosities’ are delivering what they’re promising or if perhaps it’s time to raise the white flag. Maybe ask yourself, what would it be like if you truly believed that ‘enoughness’ was a gift rather than an achievement? Can you imagine a life lived without a scoresheet?
Then again, the goal of the book isn’t to give people one more thing to feel like they have to get ‘right’ but to point toward the reality and hope of grace. By ‘grace’ I mean love that comes at you when you’re at your most ‘not-enough.’ Love that absolves and restores, yet isn’t self-generated, the kind that we hear about in best kinds of churches. If you’ve experienced that sort of thing before, it makes all the difference. Stay close to it, or even better, pray that it stays close to you.
This Q & A was featured in the June 23rd edition of Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper newsletter. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward. To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.