Rhys Lindmark: Hello, listeners. Today, I’m excited to chat with Casper ter Kuile. Casper is helping build this beautiful world of joyful belonging in the midst of these enormous changes and how we experience community and spirituality and he's doing this in a variety of different ways. He's the author of this cool book, The Power of Ritual, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School, a co-host of this funny, amazing, very popular podcast, The Harry Potter and The Sacred Text, and also the co-founder of this startup, Sacred Design Lab. Casper, thanks for being on the show, and welcome.
Casper ter Kuile: I’m so glad to be here, Rhys. Thanks for having me.
Rhys: Yeah, we're excited to dive in. Casper and I were chatting beforehand. We're just gonna nerd out about the future of meaning and the future of spirituality and religion and hopefully learn from Casper today about how he's thinking about these things. But before we do that, I want to ask you, Casper, you are into all the spirituality and meaning and religion stuff but you're also, as far as I could tell from the internet, you're not actually religious. How does that work? Why have you ever thought about turning to the dark side or whatever?
Casper: Yeah, well so I grew up in England, which you know is a much more secular country than America like 6% of people go to church on a Sunday. So it's a very, very different context and I didn't grow up in a religious family. My parents weren't religious, my grandparents weren't religious. It was just far away from me. I honestly thought people who religious were a little weird and definitely when I came out in my teens, I was, okay, religion's either irrelevant or cruel, right? Because of its anti-women, anti-gay, anti-everything stance at least in the way I experienced it.
So I was, fuck you religion, honestly, but the thing that I became more and more interested in, especially, as I started my work, at first, as a climate activist. I was really involved in the young people's movement around the United Nations Climate Convention and I started to realize that the way I was trying to solve the problem was by looking at changing policies and when that didn't work, starting to understand how power and politics work. Then ending up in this place where I was like but the way in which we're thinking about these questions, the very paradigms through which we understand what we're supposed to be figuring out, that's where the real problem is.
So is nature a resource for us to use or are we part of a living ecosystem inherently implicated in relationship? Those are two very different starting points to think about fossil fuels, for example. So I started to think more and more about paradigms and that's when, I was like, well, who has tried to do culture change? Who has tried to shift the way in which people think about life for millennia? Well, hello, it's religion. So I came to the divinity school, honestly, as a self-described gay atheist being, well, I’m just gonna learn about religion and then I’m gonna take those little things and I’m gonna apply them over here in what I wanna do.
But what happened to me while I was in div school was a total reframing of what religion is. So if you ask me, are you religious? On the one hand, do I attend a congregation? No. Do I describe myself as affiliated with a particular denomination? No. So I’m not religious. But on the other hand, I’m praying every day. I take a Sabbath every week. I have rich relationships of mentorship and guidance. I have values that I try and put into action and how I spend money and how I live my life and do I feel part of something bigger than myself? Yes. So I am religious. I essentially think that the category of how we think about religion is no longer fit for purpose and that's part of my whole work is thinking about, okay, so what next?
Rhys: That's a great, great overview and I think that it's funny, I mean, just hearing 6% in England is wait, me, growing up in America, everybody was religious, everybody goes to church or whatever. I do like that reframe on religion as something that you can kind of that has these kinds of habits and practices and rituals and meaning and whatever. What's the praying that you do every day? By the way, is like a gratitude jour~. I do a gratitude journal every day.
Casper: Well, so this is one of the other questions is like how do we describe the very things that we're doing because you could describe it in a very secular way it's like, yeah, I go through three things that I’m grateful for at the end of every day. But listen, yeah, on your app, exactly or like some couples will do it they go to sleep with their partner, right? There are so many ways in which that happens. Then if you look at the tradition, and I’m most familiar with the Jewish and the Christian traditions, one of the best ways of describing prayer is gratitude, like Meister Eckhart, this wonderful mystic of the Medieval era in Europe describes if the only words you ever say in prayer are thank you, it would be enough.
So for me, so much of what we have to figure out is what's the right way to talk about these things. So for me, my practice and it's changed since COVID, honestly. I live in an apartment building in Brooklyn at the end of every day, I have a friend who I do this with, she texts me just a little bit of poetry or some beautiful couple of lines of text and I go to the top of the roof and I take ten conscious breaths as I look out over the city and I say these words aloud and I’ve ended up saying the Lord's prayer just because that's the one I learned in school, in middle school because I have to say it every day.
But I changed the first word because it's like, “Our father who art in heaven” is the classic Christian language but I always try and find a new word for God so I might be like, “Oh, great tree who art in heaven” or if there was in the poem, there was something about singing, “Oh, great song” so there's a creativity in naming God which in itself is a beautiful tradition, not finding different words for the divine. So anyway, that's a little insight into what that looks like.
Rhys: I love that. It's cool to hear different people's morning rituals or end of the day rituals. That sounds a really nice one. Something though that I’m hearing from you as you talk about your own, you're like, hey, no, I am kind of religious in these ways. Something that I think, a lot of folks might push back or even I kind of think about, what's the future of religion and spirituality in society? It's like you're doing all these things but you're doing them, there's no organized institution or you're doing some community stuff but what do you think about community and networks and that kind of stuff like playing a role here?
Casper: The major difference in how, at least in kind of popular language, we differentiate between spirituality and religion is that spirituality is a personal endeavor and religion is a corporate one, right? It's one that we do communally and I think there's some value in thinking about that difference I also think it's wholly insufficient to understand. So what I want to say is that anything that we do just by ourselves can be a great first step and that's often as more of us who are outside of religious institutions are trying to grapple with our interest in these questions, right? We're gonna try something on our own first that whether it's a Headspace app, whether it's buying a beautiful crystal or you're laying tarot cards, whatever it is. That absolutely makes sense.
But if it only stays there I think it can be quite dangerous because we can either get in our own heads that, wow, we've really found the thing and it's the best and no one else's opinion matters or frankly and this one worries me more is that we stay in a sense that we are uniquely bad. This is one of the most beautiful things I think about religious worship especially in a frame of confession is that we remember that everyone else is shitty too, right? There's a sense of, yeah, we've all fallen short of who we want to be, in one way or another, and that it's a relief to remember we're not the only ones. So I really want to affirm your instinct of looking for something that's more communal. I think one of the challenges is that our imagination for the future of religious life is very much shaped by a congregational model, right?
This idea that we gather once a week and a hundred plus people in it, in the same building and that I think is culturally no longer attractive in the way that it was. It doesn't have the same viability or frankly financial viability as it used to. Our work lives are different, our family lives are different, there's a different structure that needs to hold us. So one of the things I’m most passionate about is being part of a small group of people who rigorously come together to do that kind of confession and mutual support and accountability on a regular rhythm. So whether it's once a week or once a month, being part of a small group where you can really be honest about what you're longing for, what you're struggling with, what you need help with it. I think is one way in which we can think about the structure of religious life because it has that communality but it also fits into the kind of lives that more and more of us are living today.
Rhys: Yeah, I like that. I think that doing something yourself that's how it starts and then it reminds me too of just wanting to connect with others and I’m reminded of some I’ve hiked a long trail, this Colorado trail, 500 miles, and I thought I was going to be a connection to nature and that was true but it really was at the, I made this coffee table book about it and I put a little equation because I’m kind of mathy and it was, “People in nature is greater than people is greater than nature”, where it's all about the people side and I came in with the wrong expectation.
So I like what you're saying about the congregation or big congregation might not work anymore. We don't have to be in these big churches? One way that I might think about is as these kinds of layers and so for me, I might be in the techno-utopian that's probably like the church new church that I’m the most part of or something.
Casper: I want to build on that because I think you're exactly right because those small groups should not live in isolation, right? What they need to understand themselves as part of something bigger and there's something bigger might be communicated, for example, through a podcast, right? Or it might be through a festival that everyone goes to once a year? So you see how those structures kind of already exist because a small group by itself will feel like we're only five people, what is this gonna do? But if I know that there are hundreds of other small groups out there I can actually still feel part of something bigger than myself which is an absolutely essential piece I think of what religious life is about.
Rhys: Yeah. So let's dive in on that for a second because we're definitely hitting on the same thing. I think Burning Man is the easiest, oh, you're in the techno-utopian whatever. But then for something like, maybe social justice activism or other kinds of new religions, it's like something like a women's march or something. How do you think about those bigger events that are like Burning Man but for this other kind of new-age things?
Casper: I love that question. I think you're totally right to point to social justice movements as being one place where people feel that. A fandom is another place that I would look and I’m familiar, of course, with the Harry Potter fandom. I’m definitely having been part of it but the way in which people are generative in these spaces I think is one way that you can look in terms of how meaningful it is for them. So, are people writing fanfiction? Are they creating YouTube series? Are they talking about it and creating new things based on the shared experience, right? Whether that's in fashion, whether it's in poetry, it doesn't matter what the medium is.
But there are other things like, for example, people who are part of gyms who then participate in a CrossFit Olympics or a CrossFit kind of annual competition or people who run Spartan races or people who attend conventions around drag. There are so many ways I think in which people who might feel like they're small part of the puzzle can then feel part of something bigger. It happens in these spaces and it's not that each of these things that I’ve mentioned is a religion but I think you can see religious elements to a greater and lesser degree across all of them. That's another kind of key shift I think of how we think about religion is we're cultured too, let me say, we're accustomed to thinking about religion is this one category of, okay, you're reformed Jewish, you go to this synagogue, these are the rituals you have, this is the family tradition that you have, and it all fits in this one box and I think more and more things are becoming kind of unbundled.
So you might have been raised in a multi-faith home, you might live in a neighborhood that's and have friends that come from many different traditions, you might have nothing but you've taken up yoga and meditation and now you have a little something. So we're mixing together more and more pieces of a spiritual or religious puzzle and so we can't look in any single place and be like this is where religion is happening but it's more like a layer of experience that goes across all different parts of our lives. I think that's one way in which we can kind of shift how we think about what religion is and where it's happening.
Rhys: Yeah, I love it thinking about as a layer I think is good and it also reminds me of this like networked individualism where we're all kind of individuals but we're also part of the networking and see the other folks and I think you just hit on a lot of the bigger, with some of these other things going to these bigger tough mudder races or whatever. There's always like having the levels is really important for folks.
One thing that makes me think about is as we're wrestling with this idea of what is a religion, how should we think about it in comparison to these other collective shared orders? So something like a company or something like a market or like a nation-state. These things all provide us, as communities of people with meaning and community and can meet some of our basic needs or whatever, sometimes. So how should we be thinking about religion compared to those things? Is it competing with them? Or how do you think about that?
Casper: Well, now you're venturing into a fiercely contested sociological conversation.
Rhys: Oh, I also wasn't even aware. Oh, no.
Casper: No, no. In a good way. In the sense that scholars of religion have this conversation, always, which is, what is religion? What counts? What doesn't? What are the boundaries of it? Do you have to believe in God for you to be religious? So many of our assumptions certainly in popular culture come from a very Christianity-oriented worldview, right? Not just Christian but really Protestant, the idea that, do you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior? That's what makes you religious or not, right? That is a very simplistic understanding of belief being the cornerstone of religion.
Well, if you look at Judaism or many traditions outside of Christianity, what actually often really gives someone a sense of identity is the practices that they have, what are the rituals? Do you venerate elders? Do you keep the Sabbath? Do you eat a certain diet? Do you travel to a certain place at a certain time of year, right? Do you keep the Commandments? Did you speak a certain language? There are all sorts of other ways beyond just belief that that's important in religion. That was a bit of a preamble but all of that is to say that there are different answers to your question. For some people, the fact, Paul Tillich, for example, a great Theologian in the 20th century said, “What makes something religious is if it concerns itself with ultimate meaning and value.” So if you're just here to earn money, right? If you're a corporation and your bottom line is the finances, you want to get rich, that's not concerning itself with ultimate meaning value. I think we can all agree on that.
Now, it gets a little more interesting if you are a WeWork or a Facebook and you're, well, we have this big lofty mission, I mean, we can all see very quickly that they're falling short of it so that's a different conversation. But the lines become much harder to say exactly what is where, especially, when as people start talking in a language which is about we're all on this joint mission and this is the culture that we believe in and these are the rituals that we do and suddenly you're, well, where is the boundary of corporation? Where's the boundary of religion, right? Where's the boundary of fan community? Where's the boundary of religion? I don't think there is a strict boundary. I think to some extent what you can ask yourself is, what do I want from this? That, maybe, is the most helpful kind of internal measure like is this the place where I go and think about ethical concerns?
In our research, while we were at the Divinity school students. I was looking at with my colleague, Angie Thurston, at how fitness communities, especially, we're not just places where people were going to work out but they would bring a question, my mother has cancer what should I do? Should I move home? They would bring that to their fitness instructor. They would text their soul cycle instructor, should I divorce my husband, and here's a 23-year-old woman, who's great at fitness and being emotional in front of people on a bike but she's not being trained in pastoral care and counseling, right? But, nonetheless, people are bringing those questions to these spaces and so for me that's when it becomes religious.
Rhys: I love that reframe too because it's, okay, there's the institutions themselves but then again it goes back to the networked individuals and pieces, like what are you looking for? What needs are you looking to get met and you're like, okay. It reminds me of a friend on Twitter who wrote recently that she gets her needs for, she has a community where she, and these are all just like random Discord communities, but it's like here's the community that she does her value stuff with Bentos, and here’s the community that she does her work stuff with On Deck. So she just has these and she knows what she wants out of each of them. So I think that's a good way to frame it.
Casper: Rhys, I wanna meet your friend because one of my biggest questions that I don't know the answer to is how are we gonna organize it and I love that you point to Discord because I think new technology is a part of the picture which is like, okay, so if everything is remixed and unbundled and you're having to navigate eight different places for the eight different parts of your life that you want to tend to what's going to hold that altogether because as everything becomes more personalized we also get more and more uniquely situated, right? Who else is going to have those specific eight communities as their eight communities? No one and so I think there's an element of feeling of cosmically alone even though we're meeting something more and more specifically ours at the same time.
I think one of the things we're looking for as a culture is what are the new organizing principles around which we can negotiate those eight different parts of your life and maybe the answer is Discord.
Rhys: This has all been a preamble and we're trying to sell you on Discord. I agree with you. I actually want to highlight, well, there's two pieces of that, one is what is the underlying coordination technologies that we will have available to us to organize both religions but also other kinds of things? I think that's an outstanding question but lots of these online forums or online message boards or Reddits and also messaging communities like Discord are part of that and the bigger spaces like Twitter and being part of like a hashtag, I don't know you might be part of the, you know, the future of religion hashtag or whatever.
One thing though I want to dive in on there for a second is you said you might feel cosmically alone and I think that is and it kind of goes to your definition too of like religions. It's like these big questions maybe a religion is a thing that deals with a big question and it makes me think about, your book, The Power of Ritual, and you know both the ritual that you do every day and for me, some of these meditation things where you can go deep and be interaction with a present itself and with these anti-fragile attractors that are can keep interested in them for a long time or whatever. But there's also, what they don't do is they don't have an answer to the question of what it all means and for me personally the answer is this optimistic nihilist perspective which says nothing it means nothing and the meaning that you get out of it is just in the day-to-day experience.
So it just makes me think about I know it's a ramble now but something that the older religions have is, something like Christianity, it has an answer to the question of death and it says, hey, you're gonna have an afterlife or whatever. I think a lot of these new religions, something like techno-utopianism says, oh, you'll be able to make a long life or something like social justice, you'll be in the memories of people you know going forward but I don't know how new religions are going to answer this question of cosmic aloneness and the meaning of it all. What do you think about that?
Casper: I’m so glad we're in conversation. That's a beautiful question. Well, I’ll tell you what I think slash want, and then let's talk about what we see happening. I think one of the most honest ways in which I would want to structure a future of religion is that it doesn't center answers but it centers questions and what it does is help you ask the question better. So, for example, I’ve really shifted how I think about scripture, right, about sacred texts. That it isn't a place that gives you answers but it's a place that you can go for good conversation about the question because it's a description of someone else's experience that you can use as a mirror for your own and say, hey, what resonates here? What's clarified? What's challenged, right? What did I assume that is not assumed here? Gosh, I haven't thought about that and that's what good preaching does is it helps us read a scripture differently. It helps us find new insight because I think one of the foundational mismatches between our culture which is inherently skeptical of hierarchy and authority.
But as soon as you come in and you're like, okay, I’m a bishop so I’m going to tell you what I think or I’m the pope and this is the answer. It's like, no, who gave you that right? Rightly, so frankly because those power structures are so embedded within patriarchy and sexism and everything else. So that would be my first kind of salvo is to say, let's center questions but not just be like, oh, you have to figure this out on your own, let's resource you with community and with ancient wisdom and contemporary insight from new science and technology that will help us just grapple with that question better. I think, in terms of how the assumption that a lot of religious institutions might be coming in with is that they will lose something inherent about who they are if they let go of some of the traditions or the certainties.
I don't want to paint too negative a picture because healthy religion has always said that faith is not the opposite of doubt, right? It's not certainty. It's actually making space for the questions, making space for doubt. So I don't want to do a disservice to these traditions up their best but it's more frightening, right? If you're looking for security sometimes what you're looking for is answers and there's definitely people who will be willing to give them to you but they might not always have your best interests at the heart, honestly.
Rhys: That's interesting. I like your phrasing there of religions in the future centering on questions, not answers and just being in relationship to those questions and what that means and what you've said about the religions at their best give a sense of being in relationship to a question and not providing that we want the security and the certainty but it's like you know to be able to provide this open-ended question thing seems better. I’m curious just, in your life, how do you think about the big question or the cosmic importance in the connection to the afterlife or non-afterlife? How are you trying to solve that in your own life?
Casper: This is the reality of human psychology is that I want different things at different times, right? There are moments when I want to be comforted and where I want a certainty or a stability of an answer and then there are moments where I ridicule that and actually, I want openness and unknowingness and then there are moments where I just want, you mentioned optimistic nihilism, maybe I’ll just go towards a full-on night somewhere it's like nothing matters all I’m doing is Mario Kart. I guess the honest answer is it changes and I think that is just fine. I don't need to land somewhere I think part of the beauty of life is that is the willingness to change and to hear about someone's experience of feeling the presence of their mother who had died 10 years ago as they're baking something and be like I wonder what that really is about? What does that mean? I don't think there's a ghostly mother figure behind her as she's baking but there's something real going on here even if it's just in her head and to quote Dumbledore, “Just because it's going on in your head doesn't mean it's not real.”
So I’m just throwing questions back at you because I don't have a concrete answer but I’ll tell you this, that going to divinity school and feeling like I could ask these questions and learning better how to do it has made me a happier better person and ultimately maybe that's the one finite thing that I can point to is like how do we live our lives, right? Are we just a merciful? Are we kind and generous? Are we forgiving? Are we an asshole? No doubt we can be both of those things but I hope that by engaging with those questions faithfully that you can see the outcome in how we live.
Rhys: I like that but it's also interesting just to hear your own, I think for me it can change day to day too. I think it's just a funny or when I think about if I put on my, oh, it would be better if the world had more indiv~ if everybody went to Burning Man, if I put on that hat, I actually been to Burning Man once, then one thing that I think that the new religions need to solve is the questions around the afterlife and so I just think to share the people who are in these post-religious religions are kind of their answers to the afterlife. I think are crucial for “convincing folks” or whatever.
Casper: Can I ask you about what that looks like in a kind of techno-utopian world for you? You mentioned the promise of a longer life. If I put on my critical glasses, what I see is a fear of death and a sense of being beaten by life and that somehow my masculine strength has been undermined by the frailty of humanity. So I think I can give you a whole spiel about how this is really a fear-based thing and I think that's only half the story because but I want to hear you talk about what's the other half? What's the beautiful wish in this? What can I learn from that kind of vision about the future?
Rhys: Thank you for the curious question and let me say that I’m maybe, I'd call myself like 30% techno-utopian or something. So maybe I’m not…
Casper: I love it that sounds like a healthy mixture.
Rhys: Yeah, exactly, you gotta have a little bit of it but not too much. Well, I think it's funny because it's a classic thing where it's like in, you know, I live in San Francisco and you know hang out a lot of like VC types and then tech founders. I think that stuff is really good and also you can really see people being pulled towards these intense meaning and purpose things and like the two key ones are just like Elon Musk and space travel making humanity a space-faring civilization. It has some truth to it which is cool and should be pulled towards it and it's like the amount of weight that it pulls might be too much because it has crazy good purpose and meaning meter.
So I think there's that side and the other side is the longevity movement which are I think your skepticism is all right which are set, these folks are, that people ain't nobody wants to die, at least not at 86 or whatever. So trying to live longer and people will paint the positive side is that what people want to do is they just want to do better science and they just want to make sure that we have, you know, 200 years ago half of kids died before the age of five. Right now, it’s less than 5%. So this is we're so excited about. How many do that as well? But for our own like more lives like just make it so that more people can live longer and make it a choice or whatever.
So I think there is a lot of goodness and truth there and I also think it does it has this kind of weird pseudo-spiritual, pseudo-religious thing that pulls people towards it. Does that answer your question?
Casper: Yeah, it makes sense and I think it speaks to this wonderful paradox of so much of the energy that you're describing is one of progress, right? We want to do better, we want to advance in science and we want to live longer and the curve is going up and to the right. That's the future that we want to be in and that is part of I think in so many different spiritual and religious traditions, right? That sense of growing in virtue or becoming more faithful or whatever it is, right?
So that echoes. I think the bit that's missing for me and the thing that I find hardest as well is the willingness or the ability to just be present to suffering and because the world is beautiful and exciting and it's also awful and painful. I guess what I’m always looking for in a community or in a movement is, does it have both of those things? Because that's what you have courage and humility you have vision and the okayness with what is. Those people can do that like they're the real visionary masters of, I don't know, I struggle with that a lot. I don't want to be near pain. Who wants to be near pain?
Rhys: I love what you said there and I think it's true which is this constant focus on positive some dynamics and on pushing forward and all stuff and it's like, okay, that is good and also let's just like sit for a second and the pain of others really empathize with or understand this. So I think in the way that maybe folks would answer like there's this and maybe I’ll share this with you afterwards there's this great, our world and data, post about it which says three things but it's a very quantitative answer to your question and one of them says, the world used to be really bad, half a kids used to die before the age of five, the world is so much better, only 5% die before the age of five now, and the world could still be so much better. In sub-Saharan Africa or whatever, if they had the same percentage died before the age of five as Western Europe then X amount of kids would die less per year, whatever. So it's kind of answering your question which is, oh, there is sadness but it's answering in a very quantitative way.
Casper: Yeah, that makes so much sense to me and of course, I’m thinking about so we've got the quant side now, what about the qual side, what is the experience of life, right? You can live to your 190 but are those last 100 years enjoyable, right? What's the world that we live in? What's equity like? What's access to different resources like?
There's so many ways of thinking about that question but I’m suddenly reminded actually of a very prototypical, a very typical faith journey for young people who become very evangelical in evangelical Christianity where in the early teens they'll have an experience or they'll become part of a community which is amazing and it really feels they're on that train, right? Going up everything's improving and it's really clear about what you need to do and what you don't need to do and quite frequently something in life will happen that does not fit with that community's values or theology. So someone's sibling comes out as trans, someone's best friend kills themselves, maybe they themselves have something that doesn't fit with the story of the community, and then you see people's understanding of the world change. So I guess that's another piece of the puzzle for me, is for folks who are really excited about that kind of techno-utopian vision. Well, let's see who's here and who's not here, what life experiences are part of this conversation and what isn't because if we're not fully speaking to a broad, I don't want to say universal, but at least a broader segment of life then I become hesitant about what the vision is and that's not to undermine everyone's specificity, it's just what's the whole, right? We're seeing part of it but what's the whole? Now, I’m just preaching so I apologize.
Rhys: I think it's interesting too because I think there's a side of it which is that the techno-utopian vision in some ways it's super universal, it's super scale, it's like let's make sure that we reach a billion users or whatever. But while doing that you turn everything into an API and not an actual human. So I think it's just like a balance and what this all makes me think about and I think we're doing it to some extent in this conversation but people do this with, oh, let's have the left and the right chat with each other, let's have the atheists and the religions chat with each other.
I think another version of that is how can the social justice activists shout out the techno-utopianists or whatever. It makes me think about, there's this great essay by this woman, Renee DiResta, which is about mediating consent and it's how back in the day you were talking about how we had the protestant form of religion and it was kind of push top down and it was it went through the newspapers and TV and whatever. That's what we got and now we have this bottom-up networked individualism and we have remixed intuitional religions that are a part of that. So how can we still mediate between these communities all these communities that you were talking about, the Discord and whatever, how can they interact with each other in an actual positive way instead of dunking on each other on the internet?
Casper: That is a real question to figure out. I want to read this paper and it makes so much sense that we are in a time of Joan Chittister, who's a Benedictine nun, and I’ll just take a slight step to the side to explain why I want to share this quote. There used to be hundreds of thousands of Catholic nuns in America. They set up hospitals, school systems, all sorts of things. At this point, there's less than 40,000 and the average age is 79 or something.
So this particular expression of religious life is coming to an end, right? The people who run those organizations fully understand that they've grieved for it and they've let go of what it was and now we're very excited about what might come next, not for them, but for their tradition. So I love that and Joan Chittister is one of these sisters, these nuns and she says that the future of religious life at least for the next couple of decades is going to be a story of coming and going that actually trying to build some solid institution now is fundamentally bone-headed. It's not going to make sense and so we're in this in-between time of journeying together and the question is how will we be on the journey?
So maybe what you're pointing to is, yeah, it can be exhausting talking across these very different communities of, like tech utopias and social justice advocates, but can we intentionally find a few friends to learn from and walk with or can we learn something beyond our own context knowing that, actually, no one has the answer at this point, it just does not exist. I also don't want to paint a false parallel of, let's just get along better and find something new which I’m at risk of doing but I find it very helpful someone who cares so much about this question that I am not going to start the next institution, right? That's just folly to try and want to do that and but what I can do is have conversations from which I learn and we hopefully find something new.
Rhys: I think that's a good directional approach for us to take going forward. By the way, we chat about some of the bigger ones. Do you know of any weird new experiments that are happening or weird new startup religions or anything through the Sacred Design Lab that's happening on the ground that may not be big now but we'll be big at 10 years or something?
Casper: That's a good question. I would say there's a lot of people who I mean I’m sure you've been in 800 conversations of should we start a commune. I think there's a lot of people intentionally cultivating a different way of life from what the dominant expectations are within society. I think 99% of them would not describe themselves as a new religion per se and that's probably healthy but what I am really interested in are what are models of new relational commitments that are being made and to make that real, for example, one of my favorite organizations is Thread in Baltimore, Maryland which on the surface is about supporting young people going through education. So the purpose of the non-profit is to help young people who are at risk of dropping out of middle and high school and to make it through graduation and into college. But the way that they do that is really interesting.
They have three to four adult volunteers usually people who are newer to Baltimore. So they have higher incomes, higher levels of education but lower levels of connection to the community, and lower levels of feeling like their life is meaningful. They get that group of people together and surround one child and the strategy is love they have to spend at least one hour a week with them with the kid in person they have to do for this child everything that they would do for their own child. So sure, you can help you do math homework, you can do other things that you would expect to see with reading and writing and whatever else but you're also going to drive them to get the prom dress because they need a ride to get to the mall, you're also going to do A, B, and C everything that you would do for your own kid, have them over for dinner, et cetera, et cetera and what happens is that over those years the relationships that have been committed to become part of someone's kind of essential framework of being part of the city, being part of the neighborhood, feeling connected across generations and what I love about this organization they don't just measure how many kids make it through high school and into college, they measure what it feels emotionally for the volunteers who are part of it.
So there's this multi-level kind of measurement system where they're able to see this has changed the lives of all of these people and so again they would never use religious language but when I think about the best of what congregational life was people felt part of something beyond themselves which asked things of them that they would not necessarily want to do, right? We talk so much about like community is amazing, community is also terrible because you have to do shit you don't want to do. Seriously, yeah, and so I love that this model, it basically helps people allow themselves to be asked things that are hard and it makes everyone better. So those are some of the things that I look at I’m like there's something here that could really, right, and it's got that same small group model so you can see some of the themes of the things that I really believe in. That's one example I get very excited about.
Rhys: I like that. It makes me think about something that I actually wanted to hit on earlier which is you talk about these commitments that you have within community and it makes me think of again as we think from the quote-unquote, old religions these weird new religions. Old religions had the Ten Commandments, that's a legit thing, don't steal, don't kill your neighbor. Those are good things and those are actually very helpful to create interpersonal trust between people. When you think about something that is sad these days like everybody's talking about rights were good. The fact that we got rights is good, the bill of rights is good but also what about duties? What about our duties to each other? So how do you think about a distributed bill of duties? If you could put three or five things on that, what would your three to five things be?
Casper: I’m gonna avoid your question by offering a different vision but I love that those two things go together and you're absolutely right. The C word we're most familiar within a religious context is commandments, exactly, as you said. The other tradition that I’m really passionate about is covenant. Covenant the first covenant…
Rhys: What is that mean? I don't even know.
Casper: Yeah. What is does mean? That's a great question. I mean, if you're familiar with the story of Noah, originally, we encounter it as this agreement between God and Noah, that Noah will fulfill the commandments and God will keep God's promise, right, of not destroying humanity again. That's a prototypical early example but in later religious communities what covenant became was a way of agreeing not necessarily on what we're going to do because the world is uncertain but an agreement on how we are going to be together. So I love covenant because built into the model of jointly saying well what's important to us, okay, I really need to hear and not just like butcher paper agreements at the beginning of a workshop of let's not interrupt each other but a deeper level of engagement about what really matters to what to each of us and how we want to be together built into the model of covenant is not just the agreements that we make upfront but is a process in which we engage those agreements.
So, for example, in my team at Sacred Design Lab, there's three of us. So it's a small enough team that we do this every single week we read out loud our covenant the agreements of how we're going to be together and then we talk about it for 10 to 15 minutes of where did we fulfill our promise to one another, what can we celebrate, and where did we fall short, what do we need to pay attention to next time and the covenant works itself on us because it has shaped how we not only are with each other but how we are in the world because we've got this set of commitments and the structure of support and accountability to help us live that out. So I think one of the major challenges with a kind of command model is first of all that if you break the commandment you are out and with covenant the job of the covenant is to expect that we're going to fall short. We're going to screw it up that's part of who we are as human beings right and so how do we repair that that becomes a crucial part of the process is that we have to find our way back to each other.
Now, there are of course limits to that but at the same time you know there are incredible stories of forgiveness and repair that inspire me at least. So when I think about what are the ways in which we're going to hold one another what's that structure of rights and responsibilities? I think covenant is an extremely powerful thing and one of the things that scare me is how do you do that at scale. Is there a size at which you can do that and beyond that, it's too big and we have to go into a simple kind of rules-oriented context? I don't know.
Rhys: It's interesting because I think if I’m hearing you correctly the way I hear the difference between like a commandment or a duty to each other is like the duty is, hey, here are these things, don't break them, like these are the rules, like you point at them like you broke for rule seven versus a covenant which is, hey, we've all kind of co-agreed on these co-created things and like we're gonna see what our relationship to them is and is that kind of the main difference?
Casper: Yeah and maybe one thing I didn't say very clearly at all was that, in a traditional biblical context, the commandments came from God, and if you pissed off God you're in trouble, right? That whole worldview was built around an authority figure who could decide if you went to heaven or hell and if you really believe that boy is that scary, right? It's a social control mechanism that has power. Now, I’m assuming in your social world and in mine that does not have a lot of power, right? That assumption of a God on high who's sitting in a judgment seat when we die, no, it doesn't work and so those commandments don't have power over us. So covenant is really an alternative in the sense that it's an agreement of mutual assent, right? That we are explicitly saying yes to this set of agreements and therefore we feel responsible to the agreements because we were part of creating or consenting to them.
Rhys: That's very helpful I think the commandments come from an authority figure, God, and if you break them, bad, bad, bad things versus hey, we've co-agreed in this bottom-up thing. I think covenant as a good like this balance between the messy and the qualitative versus the kind of rules-based laws or code that are these things that get that can do the social control at a macro, macroscale and so I don't know. I think it'll be interesting to see what kinds of the bill of duties or distributed duties or covenants look like. I think that'll be really interesting.
Casper: I mean, look at what happened at Basecamp this month, right? That was an organization that had started maybe with a commandment culture had moved with dominant culture to question some of that and it was becoming more peer-to-peer mediated, there were committees and the people who had power were feeling their power undermined and wanted to reclaim it and a third of the company resigned. I think that's where you can see that kind of two different ways of thinking about how this might work at play in a really concrete way.
Rhys: As we get into pseudo-wrap mode here. I’m asking one other question then we'll go to this the final section but this question is, so we've talked today a lot about what's new, what's happening, what's the hacks with the new stuff versus the downtrend of the old cycle and the poll recently about 47% of Americans go to an organized church or mosque or synagogue and that's the lowest, it's the first time under 50%. I guess my question is how do you think about the impacts of that side of things and what for folks who are like either losing that or who are moving away. What's happening over there? How do you think about that?
Casper: Yeah. There's pros and cons. I’m always very clear as a gay man of the benefits that certain oppressive forms of religion having less cultural power have had for me, literally, in my life and at the same time many of the relational infrastructure, right? What structures existed in people's lives that held them in community are declining? It's congregations but it's also things like the Lions and the Elks club, it's the PTA involvement, right? There's many, many things those kinds of community-level organizations that are in decline in part because women are in the paid workforce so that these organizations couldn't depend on free labor of women, right?
So there's structural reasons why this is the case beyond just the individual cultural changes but it has meant I think that we are encountering people who we wouldn't choose to encounter less frequently at its most beautiful congregational life can mean that the head of the union is sitting next to the head of the owner of the factory and that they are worshiping together to something bigger than themselves and that that changes the dynamic of then the negotiations on a Monday morning, that's an idealized picture but it holds some truth and when we are only associating with people we choose to associate with, though we may feel safer, though we may feel more comfortable we also lose an element of what it means to live in society.
So I think the political polarization that you're seeing I think the growth in the rates of loneliness and social isolation that you're seeing I think those are absolutely connected to the decline of institutional religion maybe even this idea of you know politics is religion without transcendence some of the intensity of the identity of Republicans versus Democrats or even you know within the parties I think that's not unrelated. But again this is not the first time it's happened. Religion has it's not a static thing, it's always evolving and it's shaped by new technologies in the state of the economy and in turn shapes them. So I don’t want to paint this as something completely unique although of course, it is, just in terms of the actual new technologies that exist but religion will change and it will mold and it will in turn shape how we experience the world.
Rhys: I think what you're saying is to remember the old stuff and I think that's just like reading stuff is so helpful for you like, oh, wow, these things happen in the 1800s, 1800s isn't even that long ago. So it's like you can even look deeper than that and so reminding ourselves of that I think is crucial I think what you said is true which is how to get folks and this is back the mediating consent question and like how to like get folks back into a civil digital civil society you know in digital public spaces like how can we do that’s up for debate. One final question here, we're gonna do one overrated-underrated which is, do you think that the phrase, “God is dead in science” slowly dismantling religion or whatever. Do you think that's overrated or underrated?
Casper: I mean, obviously, I’m gonna say overrated. I think all you need to do is walk into a hospital waiting room or look at how someone feels when they're on an Ayahuasca journey or like God is alive in so many different places if we think about what God is much more creatively than I think. I’m glad the God of the old man in the sky is dead like long live that death but I think God as God actually is very much alive.
Rhys: I love that. So like “the” God, capital T, capital G God is dead but like godliness or whatever is alive and alive. Well, beautiful, Well, Casper, thank you for the conversation today. It was fun. I think that I’ll be curious to see what you all continue to do with understanding the future of meaning and spirituality. Are there places where folks can check you out on the interwebs or any call to action for folks?
Casper: Yeah, for sure checkout Sacred Design Lab which is sacred.design and I’ve got a couple of podcasts where we talk about things like this. There's Harry Potter and The Sacred Text and the real question which you can find wherever you listen to your podcast and if you want random things on Twitter for me, I’m @caspertk.
Rhys: Is there anything that you would recommend to our listeners as they think about their own journeys with meaning into the new world? Any kind of slight bit of, a one-sentence recommendation or something?
Casper: I think we can trust our longings that if we want to feel part of something bigger closer to people we care about, closer to our own integrity that wherever those longings take you that they're trustworthy.
Rhys: I love that. As me, as a super mental person, it was always like do the thing, make the spreadsheet, or whatever, and then I learned when I was 25, like trust your gut man. It's pretty much right every time. Beautiful, Casper, thank you for your conversation. Thank you for listening folks and see you next time. Goodbye.