A recent trend in sociology claims that there is a rise in sentimentalism, that increasingly we are substituting sentimentality for real emotion.

Both religion and sentimentality end up failing to be what they seem upon closer inspection. It has been argued that if Christianity were inspected by the Trades Descriptions Act it would be found guilty of false advertising. Increasingly, it can be argued that many Christian sects have substituted sentimentality for substantial religious experience; they are giving out a fake product instead of the real deal. Religions should instill wonder by connecting to the supernatural realm.  Yet, modern Christianity substitutes vague fuzzy feelings for a transcendental moment with the divine.

Recent commentators in the book Faking It: the Sentamentalisation of Society, said regarding the modern Church of England that the doctrine has been watered down and down-played, the substance of sermons reduced to emotional stories based upon vague humanist principles, and truths now justified by feelings not logic.  All that remains  are general emotional topics that feel good to the listeners. One attends a modern service and hears a never ending cycle of songs that proclaim “He is love” with nothing beyond that, no engagement intellectually or any form of doctrinal exegesis other than a reiteration of established dogma; nothing is being communicated except sentimental, emotional manipulative proclamations of the superior privileged in-group. Church attendance has been reduced to a bonding ceremony of the like-minded rather than a platform for doctrinal discussion and a wake up call for improvement.

The criticism leveled at the Church of England could equally be pointed at Mormonism.  Recent years have seen a substantial watering down of doctrine in General Conference with more emotional stories and talks based on generic principles.This can be seen from this talk in 1981 from Noel B. Reynolds, vice-president at BYU, who observed that

“We are observing a widespread difficulty in distinguishing between sentimentalism and true spiritual experience. Too much of the literature used, seen, and quoted in the Church today is just sentimental trash which is designed to pull our heartstrings or moisten our eyes, but it is not born of true spiritual experience. The tendency of our youth to use sentimental stories in Church talks creates a culture of spiritual misunderstanding in which thinking and learning are discouraged.”

Since Reynolds gave this talk this trend has in my experience only got worse. The increasing prevalence of church endorsed EFY programs across the globe, runs the risk of conflating the spirit with emotion and sentimental thinking. The use of sentimental stories and songs is the basic currency of the EFY generation but it only increases the danger of substituting religious experience for sentimental feelings.

A product of this sentimentalisation of religion is that truth has been substituted for something we call truth but it is far from it. All truths are contestable. For truth to emerge there must be room for debate and contest, and this requires a language that is substantial in which to debate the truth. Christianity is resorting to an emotional language that revolves around feelings and is stripping language of all substance. When truths are not expressed in substantive language but merely in the vagueries of good feelings and emotions it is no longer a crucible of truth but a vehicle for emotional manipulation and the manufacture of feelings. The result is that people are not invited to think about the truths presented to them, but to feel about them. This sentimentality corrodes truth and renders it ineffectual in the lives of people. It seems almost absurd to use feelings as a litmus test and means to discuss truth, just imagine a scientist presenting his research and saying: ‘I think this theory is true because it feels good’ and not having any evidence to support it beyond his own subjective feelings. The relience upon an emotionaly charged language deprives religion of its substance.

The religious experience that transforms lives, that caused the individual to transcend their own life, and strive for a higher purpose has been reduced and eroded to simply being instructed in dogma and the emotional manufacturing of feelings. It is a faded hollow shell, stripped of the vibrancy that it once had. We are being sold a bad cover version of religion and told to accept it as the genuine thing.

Thoughts

  • Do you agree? Have modern religious organisations (ours included) substituted sentimentality for spirituality?
  • What differences exist between sentimentality and genuine emotion?  Between sentimentality and spiritual experience?
  • What can be done to reduce the levels of sentimentality?
  • To what extent can we use feelings to talk about truth?
  • Does sentimentality result in spiritual misunderstanding, or is it a means to help people understand the spirit?