Jean Cocteau once described smoking opium as an interlude in the rush of existence. ‘Everything one achieves in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death,’ he wrote. ‘To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.’ I feel the same way about religion. It is about removing oneself from life while still living it: a pause, a grace-note, a moment when nothing is getting done. It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is. Maybe it’s primarily a relief for those of us who live in our heads too much, who live very online lives, or who use words of our own all the time. But I see the calm it gives others too: the repetition of little acts, the recitation of the same words, the unity that such rituals can give a life over the decades. I saw it in my Irish grandmother — rattling through the rosary like a horse-race commentator.
And when this space disappears in a society, you can see people find ways to replicate it elsewhere. Last week, Gallup put out a poll that shows for the first time that affiliation with a church, synagogue or mosque no longer defines a majority of Americans. In the two decades since the turn of the millennium, religious affiliation has gone from around 70 percent, where it stood more or less since the 1930s, to a mere 47 percent. Among millennials, only 36 percent say they belong to an organized religion. For a European, this is unremarkable. For America, it is a seismic event.
What we’re witnessing, it seems to me, is not a collapse in the religious impulse as such. The need to transcend, to find meaning, and purpose, is eternal for humans. What we’re witnessing is what happens when politics replaces or becomes a form of religion.