David Gibson has written a provocative column for the Wall Street Journal (linked at Mirror of Justice) in which he examines the distinction between “cradle” Catholics and those who convert to the faith. He raises the question of whether converts make for ‘better’ Catholics, and his conclusion is not a yes or no answer but rather, an attempt to blur the distinction altogether:
The truth is, as the sociologist of religion Peter Berger has long noted, that religion today is a choice, and we are all converts to one degree or another, choosing among a variety of religious experiences rather than having them given to us, as in days of old.
As Charles Taylor explains at length in A Secular Age (2007), today it is extraordinarily rare, at least in the West, for someone to be raised in a religious tradition “unreflectively.” That is to say, to be raised in a world in which their faith exists as an unchallenged background assumption espoused by familial, communal, and political leaders; a world in which one does not first have to justify belief itself before one has specific religious experiences. Yet this old reality existed for centuries, from at least the Middle Ages until perhaps the disappearance of village life in Europe (and inner-city ethnic ‘ghetto’ life in the U.S.) at the end of World War II.
Taylor’s implication, and Gibson’s, is that pretty much anyone who is serious about practicing religion today must have had what William James called a “second conversion.” That is to say that everyone, even “cradle Catholics” who follow their faith must have, at some point, recognized the plurality of options in society at large, examined their own inheritance, and either found it wanting or reaffirmed it on terms not originally considered. As Taylor notes in his book, this is, in some sense, a higher burden on believers than what was expected of them in the years a.d. 1500 or 1000.
Is this assertion, which seems to have a distinctly Hegelian flavor, correct? Can—and should—we ever revert to a scenario where religion is woven into the very fabric of life? And does it represent a triumph of a new consciousness in history, or, as some concerned about modernity have claimed, is it primarily a negative movement away from the classical restraints of community and inheritance?