The Nones: Education without Divinity or Selfhood

Aug 22, 2019 by

by R J Snell, Public Discourse:

If questions of ultimate meaning and purpose are shuttled to the side, as they are in so many of our schools and colleges, the various disciplines and domains of knowledge can never attain a unifying vision.

The statistics indicate that there are as many Americans with no religion as there are Evangelicals or Catholics. Those with weak or “cultural” religious identity are rapidly disappearing. The rise of those without religion—the “Nones”—is now well-documented and the occasion of much commentary, including this series in which we examine the Nones as they relate to the five central topic areas of Public Discourse. Nathaniel Peters has explored what this means for religion itself. Mark Regnerus has asked what the impact will be for sexuality. Matt Franck examined the implications of waning religiosity for the political community. Today I explore what the rise of the Nones might mean for education.

Douglas Coupland, often described as the voice of Generation X, wrote that his was the first generation to be raised without religion as the default background context. Still, for Coupland, God’s death was experienced as a tragic loss, and finding meaning or purpose was a tragic challenge.

Just a few decades later, however, Terry Eagleton describes contemporary disbelief quite differently. For him, it is “post-tragic,” not anything like a loss. Earlier generations, Eagleton suggests, experienced themselves as having a “God-shaped hole” in their hearts, a restlessness and desire for fulfillment that could only be filled by God. For those seeking ultimate meaning, its absence is a terrible wound. By contrast, he suggests that, for the thoroughly postmodern contemporary, the desire was never present. Thus, the loss of God is not experienced as a tragedy. In fact, his absence is barely recognized at all. It’s not that we simply don’t believe in God, Eagleton says, but rather that we don’t view ourselves as having inner depths or personhood in need of such fulfillment. Not only religion disappears, but so too those depths described by existentialists, idealists, romantics, psychoanalysts, and transcendentalists. Moses is passé, but so is Freud; Jesus is ignored, but so are Camus and Thoreau.

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