What Order is Your Order In?

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Dr. Kathryn Lofton, Professor of Religious Studies, American Studies, and History and Divinity at Yale University wrote,

First, nobody evades being organized by something; second, if you’re being organized by something, it is worth learning the terms for that organization; third, if you learn one and two, you will be a part of the study of religion

This is the central claim of Lofton’s latest book, Consuming Religion. Dr. Lofton offers a meta-critical look at what religion means. Lofton claims that each of us is being organized by something. The question is what.

We call football a religion. We call political parties religions. We call capitalism a religion. Cooking. Birding. The employees at Goldman Sachs call the corporate culture at Goldman Sachs a religion.

Lofton argues that we are looking at the wrong thing about religion when we look for traditional religious trappings, such as a search for the sacred. Lofton argues that religion is, at its base, an organizing principle.

Martin Luther long ago said, “Not only the adoration of images is idolatry, but also trust in one’s own righteousness, works and merits, and putting confidence in riches and power.” Luther was attempting to define “true religion” by contrasting it with idolatry.

Kathryn Lofton carries this idea a step further. Idolatry is uncritically accepting the organizers of our lives: Anything that organizes is religion. Clearly, we can’t escape being organized by various forces, but what we can do is be conscious of the power of organization and use it rather than be used by it.

This insight is one that Unitarians have embraced for quite some time. In the mid-nineteenth century, Transcendentalists such as R.W. Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau claimed that nature itself is sacred and therefore walking in the woods is as sacred an act as going to church . . . perhaps even more so.

The experience of nature organizes reality outside of traditional social assumptions.

The Humanist insight is that even if there is a god, that god is unlikely to have anything to do with human actions. Therefore, meaning and purpose and moral action are all human constructs, in the hands of the human collective: all ordering is human ordering. Therefore we humans have the freedom to rethink all social norms and assumptions.

This insight led the first generation of Humanists to Democratic Socialism, because they insisted that human beings create economies and consequently human actions create inequality. The only order is a human order. The First Humanist Manifesto insisted on a “shared life” for all people, in a “shared world.”

Since the Cold War, mainstream economic theory has insisted that only market capitalism can create the sorts of societies in which economic opportunity and liberal social policy can exist — the inviolability of individual choice. The term neoliberalism has emerged as the label for this set of assumptions as to the order of reality.

That most American citizens have no real choice in their economic circumstance is, in the neoliberal scenario, part of the collateral damage of free market capitalism.

Many Americans love the fact that we can choose which video game to play or which television series to binge watch, but these same Americans do not consider whether or not to go deeply into debt. That is a given. It orders lives.

Back to Dr. Lofton: “. . . nobody evades being organized by something; . . . if you’re being organized by something, it is worth learning the terms for that organization; . . . if you learn one and two, you will be a part of the study of religion.”

It’s a good question to ponder: What is organizing you?

Economics? Politics? Social class? Education? Race? Gender? Age? Health? Probably a whole array of these things and more! The act of looking at what is organizing you . . . is religion . . .

I like that definition of religion. Religion becomes an act of meta. Dr. Lofton encourages each of us to engage in the ultimate religious question: What is the order of the order you have chosen to order your life?

Is that order inevitable?

Keep asking.