Confessions of an ex-pagan

May 19, 2021, 9:22 p.m.

Philadelphia, mid-2000s. At my progressive elementary school, we learn about the history of the United States with mild boredom. First comes the unjust displacement of the Native Americans, which is sad but also gives us Thanksgiving and a four-day weekend. The colonial era brings powdered wigs and bayonets. Rebellion involves throwing tea into a harbor. No one can fathom why George Washington was selected to lead a nation if he had such awful teeth. There’s the American Revolution, the Fourth of July, the shameful years of slavery, the guy on the 20-dollar bill, a Ken Burns docu-series on the Civil War, cigarette-smoking doctors, the Nazis, MLK and Civil Rights, guitar-playing hippies, Russian spies, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Monica something-or-another, George W. Bush, 9/11 and, finally, reality.

America jumbles together into a pastiche of fact and daydream. To me and my friends, our shared cultural heritage consists of watching VH1 music videos on Saturdays and memorizing two-letter state abbreviations. We have a vague understanding that there’s another side to this sprawling country of ours. We’re told that there are people in IA and AK and MS with dreams and aspirations, just like us. Most are probably hicks and hillbillies. We know all about gun-slinging, Bible-thumping extremists. What divides the strongholds of the benighted past from those of the luminous present? We debate possible explanations. Maybe they’re evil, maybe they’re stupid, maybe they’re beholden to enemy forces. It’s difficult to say.

In practice, I dwell very little on the question of the other America. As a fifth grader, I declare myself “Jindu” — Jewish and Hindu. It’s a portmanteau of my own creation, a nod to the Wednesday evenings that I spend half-heartedly studying Hebrew at a Reconstructionist synagogue and to the puja ceremonies that my mother performs on special occasions. Religion, as I understand it, means weird rituals and gifts on special occasions. Supposedly, civilized people once believed in deities with ineffable names or elephant heads. They couldn’t distinguish between fact and fiction, between science and myth. By high school, I have already figured it all out. From the pages of my journal: “History’s forward march strips us of false beliefs — once upon a time, I wrote page-long letters to Santa Claus and tucked bloody incisors under my pillow for the Tooth Fairy. So too with human history. Dark Ages to modernity.”

Does God exist? Does the universe have a teleology? The questions seem moot. I swear to be nice to my brother for all eternity if I get an A on my next trigonometry test. I take care not to step on cracks in pavement for fear of breaking my mother’s back. When my childhood dog dies, a friend sends me a copy of “The Rainbow Bridge,” a poem that describes the bridge that dead pets cross on their way to an Elysium of endless treats and play — “Just this side of the Rainbow Bridge there is a land of meadows, hills and valleys with lush green grass.” In our heaven, tropes from children’s books and Hollywood collide. 

We are tolerant, mild-mannered, enlightened and uncritical. We are nothing like the backwoods fundamentalists. My universe rests on a set of simple premises. If it makes me happy, it is good. If it makes me sad, it is bad and will not last forever. Karmic justice will intervene to settle scores. A yard sign gospel reminds me of my righteousness: “In this house we believe …”

Contradiction abounds, of course. I infuse my speech with the vocabulary and assumptions of theism. Injustice must be redressed. Some actions are pure evil. Human beings have inalienable dignity. Bad people will burn in hell. People whom I love will watch over me from heaven. The Torah and the Gita are compendiums of found wisdom. Neither makes legitimate metaphysical claims. But, there does exist a deity (or deities) who cares about my life and approves of my actions. This deity will always intercede on my behalf in times of dire need, or before upcoming standardized tests.

Years later, I will discover that there’s a name for these garbled beliefs: moralistic therapeutic deism. Christian Smith, a sociologist, coined the term almost two decades ago while writing a book on the spiritual lives of American teenagers. He interviewed thousands of adolescents about their beliefs and synthesized his findings into a set of guiding principles that he deemed “therapeutic” (as opposed to “repentant,” perhaps). It turns out that the god of America’s teens is not the actus purus of Aquinas, but rather, in Smith’s words, “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: He’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

If the above sounds like a crude caricature of religion, that’s because it is. Moralistic therapeutic deism is a belief system apt for navel-gazing teenagers convinced by syllogistic reasoning of God’s non-existence. The Divine Butler/Cosmic Therapist — the god of my teenage years and, I imagine, the god of most teenagers in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) countries — is the ideal complement to adolescent narcissism. This god is all-accepting and marginal. He (for there were never doubts about his maleness) allows his devotees to have their cake and eat it, to play sanctimonious when it fits their agenda but to disregard fine-print theology. He offers feel-good spirituality for an anxious West obsessed with self-care, personal fulfillment and pleasure. And he spares the proscriptions on indulgence and the rejoinders to our rallying cry — “You do you!”

This god might suffice for some time. He invites us to imagine our lives as one great party. The point is to feel good and have fun, and maybe to make a difference if we have spare time between feeling good and having fun. There’s no ultimate purpose, of course. But if we’re good, nice people, we’ll probably end up in a glowy afterlife filled with reverie and devoid of pain. Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, we will meet all of the figures that populated our family trees and history books (it turns out that they weren’t fictional, after all!). We will look down on our earthly loved ones with placid smiles and we will bask in an unceasing wave of pleasure. 

For now, our job is to enjoy. To throw a party. To invite all of our friends. To do what feels right and looks good. To follow our gut. To trust our hearts. To believe that progress will triumph, that humanity will overcome evil. To be our best selves. To revel. To play. Later, there will be time. When the party ends and the guests leave, there will be time. When you lie alone, small and cold beneath the rising sun, surrounded by the detritus of last night’s party and yesterday’s adolescence, there will be time. Then, you will feel a warm sun ray on your cheek and forget yourself and begin to wonder anew. 

This article is part of a series on the myth of coming-of-age.

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