“Of all horrible religions,” G. K. Chesterton once observed, “the most horrible is the worship of the god within… . That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” We had occasion to ponder Chesterton’s remark on Sunday, December 7, when The New York Times Magazine favored its readers with a special issue on religion. Elsewhere, the media was full of recollections about the bombing of Pearl Harbor— the event, as Franklin Roosevelt put it, that made December 7 “a date which will live in infamy.” For its part, the Times gave us “God Decentralized,” a miscellany of a dozen or so short articles by divers hands on subjects ranging from the problems of interfaith marriages, young American Muslim girls who wear nose rings and baggy jeans, and the monthly meetings of the “Freethought Association” in Talladega, Alabama, where “devout atheists gather for their Sunday social.”

Interleaved among these articles and the usual advertisements for Clinique make-up, Lexus automobiles, and jewelry from Tiffany’s were a handful of brief interviews— with Donna Rice Hughes, for example, who flickered momentarily into public consciousness when her affair with Gary Hart became public and spoiled his aspirations for the presidency, and who now campaigns against pornography; or with Gail Turley Houston, the Mormon feminist who believes that God is half female and who was denied tenure at Brigham Young University for “publicly contradicting fundamental church doctrine.” Max Frankel, former executive editor of The New York Times, devoted his column to explaining that the American press is too “pious” in its treatment of religious matters. “All too often,” he wrote, “what passes for religious coverage is a ritual celebration of papal tours or holy ceremonies.” (It was unfortunate, we thought, that Mr. Frankel had neglected to read the consistently anti-Catholic coverage dispensed by the Times, especially its unremittingly hostile treatment of the current Pope.) The weekly food column was titled “Our Daily Bread” and was given over to soup and bread recipes with names like “St. Genevieve’s Soup” and “Brother Juniper’s Roasted Three-Seed Bread.” (“In the simple act of baking,” a caption informs us, “we can experience grace.”) Finally, the magazine’s Endpaper canvassed a dozen celebrities from Geraldo Rivera, the talk-show host, to ex-governor Mario Cuomo on their views about the afterlife.

What the Times had given us, in other words, was a journalistic equivalent of Disneyland—a sort of verbal theme park in which claims of spirituality replaced Tinkerbell. It is not that every article was an exercise in fatuousness. Here and there were touches of genuine pathos—in “Alone in a Lofty Place,” for example, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s spare, moving meditation on illness and faith. But the overall effect of this mélange was to induce that sense of nausea that comes whenever a serious subject is treated with the utmost triviality.

Part of the problem was the indiscriminate, all-religions-are-equal approach that the Times insisted on adopting. Across the page from Harrison’s piece, for example, was a description of “The Unarius Academy of Science,” “A U.F.O.-oriented New Age group” that gathers annually in El Cajon, California (where else but California?) “to herald the future arrival of ‘space brothers.’” Elsewhere in the issue we learned about the woman who became a minister after having a religious experience at “Womanquest, a Unitarian Universalist gathering on Lake Geneva,” under the influence of “Starhawk, a leader of the feminist spirituality movement who had brought us to the woods to participate in a spiral dance.” Then there was “The Calibration of Belief,” an essay about faith healers who conducted a study of the effects of prayer on people suffering from arthritis. After an initial prayer treatment for everyone, the group was divided in two with half receiving “booster doses of long-distance prayer, without their knowledge, every day for six months.” Or the Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, where toddlers sing, to the tune of “Frère Jacques,” “I am special, I am special. Look at me. Look at me.” And so on.

The two-sentence caption on the cover of this special issue of the Times Magazine said a great deal about its contents. “Americans are still among the most religious people on the planet,” the editors informed us. “But these days, they’re busy inventing unorthodox ways to get where they’re going.” About the first sentence: ever since Tocqueville, we have been told that America is an unusually religious nation. Perhaps that was true in the 1830s. But today? In a page of statistics about the current state of religion, the Times assures its readers that 96 percent of Americans surveyed affirm a belief in God. But at a time when such a belief can mean little more than anticipation of meeting alien “space brothers” such statistics signify very little. Ninety-six percent of Americans say they believe in God, but the “big question,” as the title of the novelist Benjamin Cheever’s column puts it, might turn out to be “God or BMW.”

Then there is the second sentence, about “inventing unorthodox ways” of practicing religion. “Unorthodox” is a favorite word in this special issue—partly, no doubt, because spiral dances in the woods by Lake Geneva make for colorful copy. But the more important reason is that on all moral and religious matters the Times long ago declared itself an enemy of orthodoxy. Hence when it endeavors to cast a friendly eye on religion it winds up producing a carnival of psycho-babble in which genuine religious feeling is indistinguishable from the most flagrant forms of pseudo-spirituality. Indeed, that conceptual muddle is precisely their point. For the Times, religion can go unchallenged only if (as one caption puts it) faith is an “option,” an innocuous item in that great consumer smorgasbord that includes expensive shoes, exquisite chocolates, and churches in the Ozarks where real estate entrepreneurs dispense enlightenment along with mortgages and bedizen their chapel altars with the Star of David, images of Jesus, Shiva, Vishnu, and John F. Kennedy. We do not doubt that editors at the Times intended to produce a thoughtful reflection on religious diversity in contemporary America. What they have given us with “God Decentralized,” however, is a grotesque parody in which religion emerges as little more than a matter of lifestyle, the latest form of equal-opportunity kitsch.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 5, on page 1
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