"Invisible Religion":
The Extimate Secular in American Society


Marcia Ian

Rutgers University

Copyright © 1999 by Marcia Ian, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. Intolerance of religious difference continues, as it has for centuries all over the world, to generate incalcuable aggressivity and violence within and between nations, within and between ethnicities. Such intolerance can escalate into genocide when religious difference is combined, equated, or conflated with ethnicity or race, causing religious difference to appear innate, as for example in the case of Jews racialized and exterminated by European Christians, or of Serbs and Croats who racialize and attack each other. Most Americans view such somaticized religious prejudice as un-American--and it is. The only difference acknowledged in the United States to provoke routine violence is not religion, but race, defined by skin color and other physical characteristics that mark one as either "white," or not. Religious difference in The United States, however, is nevertheless pervasive, even if it is almost invisible.
  2. What I want to address here is the difficulty of seeing "invisible religion."[1] The phrase comes from sociologist Thomas Luckmann, who coined it to name "a new type of religion: the institutionally non-specialized social form of religion that emerges when ecclesiastical religion decays" (Dobbelaere 111). Secularization--defined as the shrinking influence and relevance of an over-arching religious system--has, ironically, produced "invisible religion." Invisible religion is "private religion, the result of an individual 'bricolage'" which, although it is experienced as individual and personal, is inevitably fashioned from "select values from traditional religious belief-systems, former dominant political and economic ideologies, and major cultural [and familial] themes" (111). Invisible religion, in short, is ideology as Louis Althusser defined it, namely, "the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (162).
  3. The difficulty of "seeing" religion, then, is the same as the difficulty of seeing what, if anything, is not religion. If ideology is, as Althusser put it, following Freud, "eternal, exactly like the unconscious" (161), then it would be as difficult to see religion as to see the real itself. Secularization, then, signifies not the absence of religion, but rather the presence of what another sociologist has called "diffused religion," a "sort of global container, of connecting tissue" (Dobbelaere 124). As a small number of sociologists of American religion were shocked to discover in the mid 1980s, this is particularly true in the United States, the one nation in the world officially founded on the separation of church and state. Ironically, it is this very separation which has led not to the secularization, but on the contrary to the "sacralization" of life in American society (Caplow 103). In America secularization is sacralization.
  4. What these sociologists realized was that, by applying to American religious historiography assumptions and paradigms based on, and true for, European nations, their predecessors and colleagues had produced an entire discourse based on false premises and unexamined data. "Church and state are still intertwined institutions throughout Europe," where individual adherence to those institutions has dwindled markedly, especially since World War II, falling to between 4 and 11% (Caplow 101). But for the past two hundred years in the United States, adherence to religious institutions, specifically churches, has risen:
  5. On the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched. By the start of the Civil War this proportion had risen dramatically, to 37 percent. The immense dislocations of the war caused a serious [temporary] decline in the South. . . . The rate then began to rise once more, and by 1906 slightly more than half of the U. S. population was churched. Adherence rates reached 56 percent by 1926. Since then the rate has been rather stable although inching upwards. By 1980 church adherence was about 62 percent. (Finke and Stark 15)

    As of 1990, the three different kinds of polls sociologists now examine to determine such figures indicated that as many as 69% of Americans were "churched" (Warner 1049).

  6. Looking at the figures, then, reveals that in the United States "societal modernization went hand in hand with religious mobilization" (Warner 1049). This mobilization, however, includes more than just those who are "churched." It includes unchurched and therefore uncounted "secular" adherents to "invisible," "diffused," and, to use a term with particular and peculiar political and psychological resonance, "global" religion. Last August, a New York Times article not about religious doctrine but rather about personal attitudes toward what might be out in space, reported that "an open-minded American can believe anything," for example the sensational idea that a friendly space ship might be hiding behind a comet waiting for some new recruits wearing black Nikes and purple shrouds. "According to a recent Harris poll, [the article said] about 60 percent of Americans believe that there is some kind of sensible being out there in space, and the belief is more common among the more highly educated" (Shweder E13).
  7. Pluralism and free enterprise, it turns out, have served American religion well. Sects and denominations that do not provide what consumers of religion desire fold when these consumers turn elsewhere, and turn they do; an open-minded American can believe anything, and anywhere. The point is that the American does believe. In effect T. S. Eliot's wish expressed in 1935 has come true: we have become unconsciously Christian, which is to say, again in his words, that we seem to have come to possess what he missed in this country, namely a "real belief in a supernatural order" (Eliot 353). Secularization and sacralization are two sides of one coin, or better, the möbius strip that constitutes the continuous fabric of the cultural real of American ideology, which is to say, its unconscious. It turns out that "the history of American religious ideas" which has always been written as "an historical account of the march toward liberalism"--that is, a march from "mystery, miracle, and mysticism" toward "abstractions concerning virtue" meant to replace faith in "an active supernatural realm" with a secular public culture--is a false history (Finke and Stark 5). [2]
  8. It would be truer to say that on the contrary America has marched from its founding vision of itself as a liberal society guided by the light of right reason, away from Puritan "abstractions concerning virtue," toward an ever more diffuse and yet ever more concretely embodied religion at once personal and global. [3] By concretely embodied, I mean "materialized" in ways intrinsic to consumer capitalism, with its tendency to worship the material as if it were spirit made manifest, and the spirit as if it were matter made immortal. What Colleen McDannell has called our "material Christianity" solidified during the 19th century. Material Christianity is "affectionate religion," Protestantism softened and sentimentalized, with its iconoclasm, its antipathy toward, and laws prohibiting, images, relaxed. During the nineteenth century, for example, the Holy Bible was re-invented and made available as a kitschy mass-market commodity, illustrated, commodified, and mass-produced. The family Bible linked faith to fantasy and commodity to spirit as "the saving text" evolved into the "saving object," a standard feature of most Protestant households, a sign at once of domestic sanctity, divine paternity, and mainstream American identity (McDannell 68, 73, 74).
  9. Such objects blur the boundary between sacred and secular, but in so doing they reproduce and re-iterate logos in commodity form; they perform for the zillionth time the original "blurring" putatively achieved by the Incarnation. A supposedly one-time event "infusing . . . the divine into one man," the incarnation theoretically made it possible for the divine and the human realms to become, if not exactly one, at least not discontinuous (McDannell 18-19). In Christ, the secular and the sacred melt into that uncanny proximity which Lacan calls the "extimate," namely the appearance of "the real in the symbolic" (Miller 75). Christ is "the real in the symbolic"; he embodies the extimate as the object of worship and the point of identification for the subject; he is the nonexistent point where one side of the möbius strip becomes continuous with the other; he is the immanent transcendence of material nature become the signifier of culture--American culture. I can think of no better apologist for this point than Henry James, Sr., known to most of us mainly as the father of William James the philosopher/psychologist, Henry James the novelist, and Alice James the diarist, but known during his own time as a prolific if idiosyncratic public intellectual, a Swedenborgian Christian mystic, and Fourierist proponent of radical spiritual democracy.
  10. In January, 1883, shortly after their beloved father's death, William James wrote in a letter to his brother Henry that: "As life closes, all a man has done seems like one cry or sentence. Father's cry was the single one that religion is real" (Correspondence 344). In mockery of his father's single cry, his idée fixe, William had once drawn for his father a picture of a man beating a dead horse and suggested that he use it to illustrate his next book (Habegger 444). But Henry Sr. never gave up beating that horse, nor is that horse dead. On The Fourth of July in 1861 as war broke out between North and South, Henry Sr. gave a speech at Newport, Rhode Island, entitled, "The Social Signficance of Our Institutions," in which he told the crowd: "I myself have a devout belief in the Divine Incarnation. I believe in it with such extreme good-will that I seem to myself indeed to believe in comparatively little besides" (James 46).
  11. If this remark appears to us oddly inappropriate for the occasion, it is only because we imagine ourselves to live in a "secular" society, and the Fourth of July to commemorate its founding. Henry Sr. knows better; as he says toward the conclusion of his public address in honor of democracy, "I make no apology for assuming the Christian verity as undisputed and indisputable, for my oration was delivered before a technically Christian audience" (43). The Declaration and the Incarnation are extimately related; to ratify one is to ratify the other. In his words, "We [in this country] practically ratify the Incarnation as a private no less than a public truth" (28). The invisible religion of the incarnation goes deeper than the visible difference of race, as the contemporary coalition in the Promise Keepers of Christians black and white attests. The present cultural moment, in other words, a moment at which we are witnessing what seems a resurgence or perhaps resurrection of millennial fervor bordering on rapture, an efflorescence of spirituality exceeded only by its vast market potential, is not, as it may seem, an abrupt transformation or sudden desublimation so much as an unexpected glimpse of the mirror in which we can see reflected, as an illusory and seductive whole, the global specter of invisible religion. [4]
  12. A brief explanation of this statement, by way of a few symptomatic yet typical examples, ending with Freud and Lacan, will comprise the remainder of this paper. Richard A. Shweder, whose comments on the belief of the educated in intelligence "out there" I quoted earlier, suggests that "a long-overdue spiritual revival is taking place in the United States in which the tired and tiresome opposition between faith and science is finally being laid to rest." This suggestion constitutes, however, another erroneous view of history, one that serves the thesis that America has long, too long, been a secular nation. On the contrary, "the [so-called] tired and tiresome opposition between faith and science" has never been as much of an opposition as rumor has had it. Take the period from mid-19th century, through The Great War, for example, when this opposition was supposedly at its post-Darwinian peak. The closer one looks, the less opposition one sees; instead, like the scrappy lovers in some screwball comedy, science and religion seem in love from the start, fated to kiss and make up, marry, and live happily ever after in some millennial family romance.
  13. Here are just three examples of non-opposition from the religious "side" of the dialectic. The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, published in 1868, was then the second most popular novel in America (Uncle Tom's Cabin was first). In opposition to chilly Calvinist views of death as welcome release from putrid corporeality, this novel offers a theological theory called "spiritual materialism" which proves that heaven is just like earth, only more so; in heaven the houses are cuter, we get to take piano lessons if we missed out while alive, and we will enjoy in our actual but deathless bodies all our material goods, basking in the love of the family we so loved while alive (79,125,139). Second example: In September, 1893, representatives of what were considered the world's ten great religious traditions met in Chicago, for the largest such gathering ever, in part to affirm that, although evolution had seemingly swept over religion's concepts of origins, it had left them untouched, even strengthened. "By vastly extending our knowledge of Creation," one speaker offered in typical fashion, "science has given us a more God-like God" (Drummond 292). Third, a book published in 1928 called Where are the Dead? included responses from 22 ministers, scientists, and popular writers to the title question, posed in a letter to the Daily News by a reader dismayed by Sir Arthur Keith's public statement of the materialist hypothesis that the death of the body spells the end of life. Each of the 22 found a way to assure the reader that immortality, not the void, is "the prophecy of reason"--a pragmatic prophecy, really, since, as one writes, "this hypothesis seems to present fewer difficulties than the others." Our dead go "where Love is," and there, somewhere, "the colossal community of the dead . . . is morally and socially progressing" (Bennett 44-47).
  14. The refusal of scientists to see religion and science as mutually exclusive is even more striking. I shall name again just three examples of prominent scientists who felt moved to publish popular works explaining how the latest scientific discoveries did not invalidate the claims of religion. Gustav Fechner, much admired by William James and Sigmund Freud--James wrote the reverent introduction to the 1904 American edition of Fechner's book Life After Death, and from Fechner Freud adapted the "principle of constancy" in mental functioning--was a pioneer of the atomic theory, and of the idea that physiology is electro-chemical. He also invented what he called psychophysics, and claimed in his book Life After Death, first published in 1836, that life is but the middle stage en route to spiritual continuity with the universe, an idea made logical thanks to the laws of conservation of matter and energy, which must necessarily apply to mental energy as well.
  15. German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, well known for his hard-headed rejection of conventional religion and philosophic dualism in favor of scientific monism, published an address he gave in 1892 called Monism as Connecting Religion and Science: The Confession of Faith of A Man of Science, in which he re-names the law of conservation of matter and of energy the law of conservation of "substance," and argues "logically" and "rationally" for the immortality of spirit as electrochemical substance. He considered himself a pantheist. Sir Oliver Lodge, a well-known British physicist interested in parapsychology, radio waves, and the Anglican church, argued in his book Science and Immortality that the two (science and immortality) are compatible. They only seem difficult to reconcile, he points out, because the material and the divine operate by two distinct sets of laws, and we don't yet know the divine ones. He interprets the incarnation of Christ, however, as God's proof and promise to us that we humans will evolve past sexual reproduction, since He produced his own son that way. [5]
  16. To conclude, I turn to two famous figures from our own time, who seamlessly blend Christianity and science. For years Carl Sagan told us that we, like he, should love science, "because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be" (29). He warned us against "baloney" and "pseudo-science," including psychoanalysis (Demon 29, 43). And yet, the astronomer main character in Sagan's hit novel, Contact, travels to the center of the Galaxy to find a God who welcomes her in the guise of her dead father. She returns to her work on earth renewed, redeemed, and in love with a fiery minister, having decided that after all science is really "experimental theology" (Sagan 426). (If this isn't wish fulfillment, what is?) In her last book, The Wheel of Life, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross relates how a spirit, channeled by a friend, told her that only a woman of science could tell people rationally, persuasively, that in fact death does not exist, and assigned her this task. Having interviewed 20,000 individuals who had near-death experiences, this was exactly Kübler-Ross's parting message. Incidentally, Jesus and Mary are among the dead whom Kübler-Ross was able to visit while she was still alive (Kübler-Ross, 203 214, 243). [6]
  17. Both Freud and Lacan view religion and science as discourses opposed in their claims to truth, yet have opposite views as to which is more akin to psychoanalysis, and which on the contrary reveals the psychotic core of the subject, that subject who lives unconsciously poised at the point of extimate contact between reason and desire. Freud feels he must defend psychoanalysis (and the human race in general) from the illusion of religion, which he views as analogous to the hallucination of love, whereas Lacan deems science, in its un-self knowing subjection to the symbolic, to be the illusion constitutive of psychoanalysis itself, redeemable, perhaps, by love. For Lacan modern logic "is indisputably the strictly determined consequence of an attempt to suture the subject of science"; it is this unconscious suturing which paradoxically enables the subject of science to construct the world in accord with its beloved reality principle (Lacan 10). Again and again Lacan reveals to us that the subject/object dualism constitutive of our world is actually a splitting apart, a cutting into, the sublime continuity of the "imaginary real" of extimacy.
  18. Freud, conversely, portrays this imaginary continuity as the inert "equilibrium" we all desire; to get it we regress in myriad directions: we fall in love with people who remind us of our parents, we imagine that God awaits us in heaven, we may even hasten our own deaths or deny life to others. Science--Freud sees psychoanalysis as science--stands opposed to the wishful thinking religion encourages. For Freud, extimacy may well be the truth of psychical reality, but psychical reality must, rationally and ethically, submit to the reality principle. To disavow or undermine the dualism constitutive of reason is to risk transgressing the boundaries between subject and truth, between subject and subject, and to succumb to the narcissism of a global transference love.
  19. We need to affirm, knowingly, bravely, even if ironically, the distinction between religion and science, the sacred and the secular, the father and the son, much as we need to preserve the impossible nature/culture distinction upon which the incest prohibition rests. We must not let the problem of the real in the symbolic become the problem of the symbolic in the real. Otherwise--if we are going to give up the idea that religion and reason are fundamentally different--we might as well get our black Nikes and purple shrouds ready.


  1. I address this topic at greater length in my book in progress, American Secularity: The James Family and Others. Back

  2. How and why did sociologists of American religion manage to miss completely, to not see, the huge and thriving object of their study, while they saw only the unreality of its disappearance? They give as reasons that: they believed without question the dour prophets who looked at the unchurching of Europe, saw it as the beginning of the end, and pronounced that America was headed down the same path to chaos; they believed certain hegemonic narratives written by academics, asserting for example that New England puritanism and congregationalism were the dominant influences on the American self, ignoring the data; it did not occur to any one to examine the tables of numbers compiled in huge volumes sitting on library shelves in their own institutions of learning; they ignored key differences between the United States and Europe. Back

  3. The language of global finance has recently begun to speak of people in undeveloped, and hence about-to-be-targeted, markets, as "unbanked." A special technology that can read and identify fingerprints has been developed so that even illiterate persons in these markets can become "banked" and use automatic tellers. This strategy for the spread of American consumer capitalism is, in other words, a variant of missionary evangelism. Back

  4. In the "academy," many "liberal" professors in the humanities, including so-called "tenured liberals," are beginning to teach a variety of courses showing their own renewed or newly outed interest in "spirituality." Back

  5. First published in 1908, this copy of the 1914 American edition belongs to Alexander Library Special Collections at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick. Back

  6. Kübler-Ross indulges in a comment hostile to feminism. Complaining about a time when she could not get a loan even though she had a good income from her lectures, she writes that "[t]he insanity almost drove me to sympathize with the feminist movement" (206). Back

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 127-186.

Bennett, Arnold. Where are the Dead? Plainview NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1975 [1928].

Caplow, Theodore. "Contrasting Trends in European and American Religion." Sociological Analysis 46.2 (1985): 101-108.

Dobbelaere, Karel. "Some Trends in European Sociology of Religion: The Secularization Debate." Sociological Analysis 48.2 (1987): 107-137.

Drummond, Henry. "Evolution and Christianity." The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World's Parliament of Religions, 1893. Ed. Richard Hughes Seager. La Salle IL: Open Court, 1993. 285-296.

Eliot, T. S. "Religion and Literature (1935)." Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950. 97-106.

Fechner, Gustav Theodor. Life After Death. Trans. Mary C. Wadsworth and Eugene Jolas. New York: Pantheon Books, 1943.

Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Question of a Weltanschauung." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1964. 158-182. Vol. 22.

Habegger, Alfred. The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Haeckel, Ernst. Monism as Connecting Religion and Science: The Confession of Faith of A Man of Science. Trans. J. Gilchrist. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1895.

James, Henry, Sr. The Social Significance of Our Institutions: An Oration. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1861.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. The Wheel of Life: A Memoir of Living and Dying. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Lacan, Jacques. "Science and Truth." Newsletter of the Freudian Field Spring/Fall Volume 3.1 & 2 (1989): 4-29.

Lodge, Sir Oliver. Science and Immortality. New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1914.

Luckmann, Thomas. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Miller, Jacques-Alain. "Extimité." Lacanian Theory of Discourse: Subject, Structure, and Society. Ed. Mark Bracher, et al. New York and London: New York UP, 1994. 74-87.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Gates Ajar, 1868.

Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York: Pocket Books, 1985.

---. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

Shweder, Richard A. "How We Down Here View What's Out There." The New York Times August 24 1997: E13.

Skrupskelis, Ignas, K., and Elizabeth Berkeley, M., eds. The Correspondence of William James. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.

Warner, R. Stephen. "Work in Progress toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States." AJS 98.5 (1993): 1044-1093.

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