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Personal Responsibility in the Age of Unlimited Choices

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Have you ever heard of “cafeteria religion”? The term refers to the idea of people treating religion like a buffet table where they can pick and choose what parts they want rather than accept someone else’s menu. It is an idea I’ve had trouble with for a while. On one hand I can see definite problems with the pick-and-choose idea. How can truth be truth if the measure of it is what you want to accept or not? On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Even those who belong to reasonably strict churches or religions are just following the beliefs someone else has chosen to dish-up. With so many religious group variations its obvious no one of them has the direct connection with the divine truth.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase “cafeteria religion” while reading a library book called Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity by Hal Niedzviecki. Mr. Niedzviecki describes the dilemma of our era. On one hand we want to be special. We have been told being special is our birthright. It’s the underlying premise of our culture. Yet at the same time, can anyone be special if everyone is? He traces how we chase being special through our online communities (dominated by the desire for others to acknowledge our wit and insight), our relationship with our cultural icons (we’re all friends with the Big Bang Theory cast, right? Or at least we can live vicariously through them), our rejection of being just another corporate suit and our belief that somehow we’ll hit it big.

So what does this have to do with religion? In some ways religion suffers from the same dilemma of how to be special/true when everything is special/true. However in Mr. Niedzviecki’s chapter about religion he focuses on a different point: religions are now catering to our desire for specialness.  Part of the chapter is taken up with stories of the bizarre attempts religious leaders are making to celebrate everyone’s uniqueness: churches that offer special pets and owner worship services completely with doggy treats at communion time, or funerals performed by Elvis impersonators, but part of the chapter talks about the dilemma of wanting to belong and have community but not to surrender one’s personal freedom either.

There is a huge divide between traditional faith and the overriding morality of contemporary society, which says you can be who you want, do what you want, and the only rule is that you have to have personal responsibility for your actions. Organized religion takes the opposite approach: Do what we want, and we will take responsibility for your actions, absolve your sins. But new conformists want yoga and self esteem, not sin and forgiveness; the freedom to reinvent narratives, not the constrictions of a narrative written thousands of years ago; and, most of all, we/they want recognition, celebrity, specialness. Today, any institution that wishes to submerge individual destiny into a complicated hierarchy and the will of God is in trouble. (pg 66)

I know there are those who would say “just submit to the will of God.” Mr. Niedzviecki describes those fundamentalists as finding themselves “frighteningly adrift in an era of choose-your-own-adventure existence” and thus they retreat into being told what to do.

I haven’t fled to a fundamentalist religion but I still find the idea of personal responsibility for my life a little scary. It isn’t that I want to blame others for what I do. I can accept personal responsibility for my actions. Yet I get overwhelmed sometimes by the thought that I have to choose between competing information. To believe in this or not to believe in it? To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? To trust this person/book/story or not to trust it? An example of the additional responsibility that is being placed on people these days is the idea that people have to take responsibility for their own healthcare choices. Doctors ‘advise’ people. I’ve read stuff online where midwives tell grieving mothers that they have to take the responsibility for their own decisions that led to their babies death (rather than blame the midwives). Do we all have to be experts on everything?

As I write that paragraph above I can imagine certain people asking me if I want to be “sheeple” and telling me I shouldn’t see it as a burden to think for myself. Yet I can’t help thinking that many of the people who would tell me that tend to conform rather strongly with a sort of “nonconformist identity.” To automatically distrust everything “the establishment” says is just as reactive as trusting everything it says. We don’t need to rebel against everything anymore than we need to accept everything, and yet to pick and choose and still find meaning and purpose within what we choose is hard.

I take things seriously (and yes, that is code for “I over think things”)  and I found the book Hello, I’m Special a very interesting one. I’ve read other books that talk about the fragmenting of society or the growth of individualism, but this book does a particularily good job at acknowledging that most people still want to participate in a collective culture. They just want to do it in a way that somehow supports the notion that they are special individuals.

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