The News Agency of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness

The Cult of Choice

By: for The Denver Post (USA) on July 11, 2009

Think of the zeal many Americans display toward the most inane and inconsequential aspects of their lives.

Take the Macintosh, a brand name that legions of computer users believe offers superior functionality compared to your run-of-the mill PC. A product so excellent, in fact, that it causes advocates to stick the company logo on their cars, proselytize the non-believer and dismiss anyone who fails to submit to its awesomeness as a fool.

The Mac is an illustration of a market-based cult of choice. It is an appliance. If we all had a Mac, no one would get very excited. Yet, it ignites passion, which Apple must satisfy yearly for fear of losing its flock.

Such an enthusiastic bond between the faith and flock was missing in my own childhood religion. Religion simply didn't try enough. It didn't have to.

Then again, when it comes to faith, humans historically have rarely experienced much in the way of alternatives. You were either born into a faith or another, stronger, tribe decided that you were terribly miguided and introduced you to a new God — or death.

Then, more than 100 years ago, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." Since then, another group, atheists like myself, have patiently waited — and consistently kept dying while waiting — for the masses to come to their senses. After all, you get to choose now.

Certainly, these days, there is a perception that faith is in retreat. Many believe the trajectory of history means that religion's demise is inevitable. While it is true Western society has seen the erosion of organized religion, there is mounting evidence that another, stronger trend is ongoing. Instead of giving up on God, people around the world are building more resilient bonds to their faith.

Organized religion has utilized the tools of markets, unleashing technology and communication to compete for eyeballs and ears. Religions are gaining footholds in new corners of the world. Today, even in the most remote nations, choosing your religion is usually possible. And it matters.

"Religious choice has a profound effect on public life," writes John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, authors of the new book "God is Back." "The more people choose their religion, rather than inherit it, the more likely they are to make noise about it. If you have made a commitment to your faith, why would you leave it in the closet at home, or outside the voting booth?"

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which studies religious trends, has been documenting a shift in the U.S. religious landscape. It found that religious affiliation in the United States, long varied, is more diverse than ever.

Nearly half of all American adults today have changed their religious affiliation at least once during their lives. "Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24," explains the report, "and many of those who change religion do so more than once."

It's a buffet of holiness!

One in 10 American adults, for instance, is a former Catholic. Half of them are unaffiliated and the other half are Protestant.

This kind of religious marketplace, once a uniquely American experience, is now spreading. As the authors of "God is Back" explain, "The American model of religion — one based on choice rather than state fiat — is winning. America has succeeded in putting God back into modernity partly because it put modernity, or at least choice and competition, back into God."

Nearly everywhere, impediments to choice are easing. In China, formerly isolated populations are coming into contact with the once-forbidden evils of capitalism and Christianity. In fact, Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out that through homegrown churches and missionaries, by 2050, China may have the world's largest Christian population.

China already has as many Muslims as Saudi Arabia and may become the largest Muslim nation, as well.

Latin America is another area that has undergone a dramatic shift in denominations. According to the 2005 World Christian Database, Pentecostals represent 13 percent (about 75 million) of Latin America's once nearly all-Catholic population. Between 1980 and 2000, the proportion of Catholics in the world's largest Catholic country, Brazil, fell from 89 percent to 73 percent.

In most of the world — sans a majority of Muslim nations still ruled by religious law — a marketplace has emerged.

So the big story isn't the corrosion of religion, as many predicted. It's that a capitalist model is spurring a generally peaceful resurgence of faith and a stronger connection with the faithful.

The good news is that those who experience religious freedoms will most often embrace and defend other tenets of a liberal democracy. If you don't believe me, just trying coercing a Mac user to try a PC.

David Harsanyi is a columnist and member of the Denver Post editorial board. Reach him at dharsanyi@denverpost.com

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