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I’ve finally come across the term that wraps my mind around the nuanced social reality I see in Europe.
Vicarious religion. I’ve finally come across the term I have been looking for for years.
Something inside me was whispering that one day it would arrive, that one day I would be able to wrap my mind around the nuanced social reality I saw around me in Europe.
The black-and-white categories of believer/unbeliever, or the survey questions asking people to identify themselves as belonging to a major religion (Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or Hindus) or else be categorized as atheist/agnostic/none did not seem to me to adequately describe the spiritual horizon in Europe.
Things felt much more complex, much more nuanced. Many believers did not quite believe, many nonbelievers believed still somehow. Most people do not belong to a congregation per se but still feel like belonging his or her country’s mainstream church.
Scholars talked about “believing without belonging” (the Protestant pattern of secularization) or of “belonging without believing” (the Catholic pattern), but even that did not seem enough to me to properly describe what I saw here in Rome: no longer Christian but still in many ways Christian, secular but post-secular, pre-modern and modern and postmodern, cosmopolitan but parochial and everything in between with Jehovah Witnesses knocking on your door.
Enter “vicarious religion.” I take no credit for the concept except for finding it at page 522 of Charles Taylor’s humongous, tiny-print, ultra-complex A Secular Age (hey, even Miroslav Volf quipped that “Charles really could have used an editor”).
So I take a tiny bit of credit for the idea. No, not really. (I read until page 218 and then jumped to page 505 for the juicy part, which goes however until page 776.) “Vicarious religion” was actually coined by British scholar Grace Davie, and this is how Taylor describes it:
What she is trying to capture here is the relationship of people to a church, from which they stand at a certain distance, but which they nevertheless in some sense cherish; which they want to be there, partly as a holder of ancestral memory; partly, as a resource against some future need (e.g., their need for a rite of passage, especially a funeral); or as a source of comfort and orientation in the face of some collective disaster.
Bingo. Dead on. In my paraphrase: “You be religious for me. Thanks. But no thanks, I don’t want it for myself. Of course not, how could I believe all that nonsense? But you, you believe bro. Follow your heart. It makes me feel better. It may be of use if I freak out or something. I mean, I will need a proper funeral one day. The girl I’m hitting on may want to get married at church, who knows.
So I don’t believe, of course not, but I’m glad that you’re there. Grandma needs you.” Or take Annie Dillard’s own personal version at the end of Holy the Firm (this one I found at page, not year, 1977):
People love the good but not much less than the beautiful, and the happy as well, or even just the living, for the world of it all, and heart’s home. You’ll dress your own children, sticking their arms through the sleeves. Mornings you’ll whistle, full of the pleasure of days, and afternoons this or that, and nights cry love. So live. I’ll be a nun for you. I am now.
Coming across this term illuminated for me how many if not most people today in Europe feel regarding Christianity. If you ask them, they are not religious but of course they are religious.
They don’t believe but they believe. They don’t go to church but still feel like belonging. They will still stop calling themselves Christians only if they convert to Islam, but even as atheists they will be Christian atheists.
They don’t follow it but don’t you dare pointing that out. They feel like it. Very few people besides Dawkins and company want to abolish religion altogether. In Davie’s own words, “In terms of belief, nominalism rather than secularism is the residual category.” They don’t believe but it’s nice that churches are around. They help some people.
John Wolffe describes the belief system of this vast number of people like this (long quote but worth it):
God exists; Christ was a good man and an example to be followed; people should lead decent lives on charitable terms with their neighbors, and those who do so will go to Heaven when they die. Those who suffer in this world will receive compensation in the next. The churches were regarded with apathy rather than hostility: their social activities made some contribution to the community. Sunday school was felt to provide a necessary upbringing of children, and the rites of passage required formal religious sanction. Association was maintained by attendance at certain annual and seasonal festivals, but weekly participation in worship was felt to be unnecessary and excessive. Women and children were more likely than men to be regularly involved, but this did not imply that adult male were hostile; merely–it can be surmised–that they tended to see themselves as the main breadwinners, and felt that women should therefore represent the family interests in the religious arena. The emphasis was on the practical and the communal rather than on the theological and the individual.
It is a complex, nuanced horizon beyond the easy polarity between belief and unbelief. People carry many conflicting emotions and convictions.
They want to be religious. They don’t want to be religious. They want you to be religious for them. Or something like that.
But don’t you do it bro. Don’t be a nun, or a priest, in people’s stead. God is for everyone, and they can’t delegate that.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007), 522.
 Annie Dillard, The Annie Dillard Reader (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 1977.
 John Wolffe, quoted in Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 519.