Tyler Cowen, Bad Religion, and contemporary religious practice

Tyler Cowen writes about Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and as usual shows a lot of acumen in a small space; consider:

My main question is what could have become of most organized religion in an era of newly found television penetration — a competing source of ideas about right and wrong — and the birth control pill and sexual liberation of women? Not to mention gay rights. The recent evolution of American religion may not be optimal, but it is endogenous to some fairly fundamental forces. Non-religious thinking seems to offer especially high returns to successful people these days, and while American religion certainly has survived that impact (unlike in the UK?), what is left will seem quite alienating to much of the intelligentsia, Ross included.

For most mainstream religions, for most urban and suburban intellectuals circa 2012, it is hard to live a religiously observant life during the ages of say 17-25. American religion is left with late convert intellectuals and proponents of various enthusiasms, all filtered through the lens of America’s rural-tinged mass culture. Where is the indigenous and recent highbrow Christian culture of the United States?

I left this as a comment: I wonder why a large divergence in American religious signaling (as opposed to actual practice) has opened up, while in Europe pure signaling seems smaller (see, for example, Slate’sWalking Santa, Talking Christ: Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?“, which observes that Americans say they engage in religious practice much more than they actually do, as measured by attendance in religious institutions like churches). The trappings of religion seems to offer benefits to some people, especially the non-intelligentsia, even when religious doctrine is unimportant. The only popular media representation of this sort of thing I can remember is in Friday Night Lights, where many of the characters go to church but aren’t theologically inclined.

In other religious news, I’ve been reading John Updike’s novels, and the way many of his characters are aware of each others’s church affiliation is striking (such and such is a Methodist, such and such is an Episcopalian) because a) I don’t think that way, b) I don’t even know the major differences among Christian sects, save for Catholics, and c) to Updike’s characters this is important, but mostly as a form of group membership. The status markers are religious in nature. This gives many of his novels an old-fashioned tinge; in my own mind or culture, people get divided into “hard-core religious” and “not,” with more people in the “not” category, even when they claim they are. Religious signaling might increasingly be a matter of convenience, in which one adopts religious trappings when they’re useful and discards them when they’re not (especially sexually).

For liberals / people in the intelligentsia (those two groups are not synonymous), I get the sense that college or academic affiliation is the modern secular equivalent. You build group affiliation based on college instead of your brand of Christianity / Judaism / Islam. Incidentally, Updike also gets the power of movies to take over religious beliefs: they are sprinkled throughout In the Beauty of the Lilies, which is often boring and over-written; it should be half as long, though as always there are beautiful individual sentences. It is hard to accept the more retrograde parts of older religions when they are paired against modern narrative experts, especially modern visual narrative experts who make TV shows and movies.

In general I find religious discussions very boring but sometimes like meta-religious discussions about why people are religious. I’ve been citing him a lot lately, but Jonathan Haidt is very good on this subject in The Righteous Mind.

Summary Judgment: The War of the Sexes — Paul Seabright

The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present isn’t a bad book, but you’ve already in effect read it if you have a cursory knowledge of the vast evolutionary biology literature—or if you’ve read books like Roy Baumeister’s Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, or Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life, or Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s The Woman That Never Evolved. If you have read those books—especially the first—you don’t need to read this one, and that’s why I’m not linking directly to it. There are too many better books.

Given a choice between The War of the Sexes or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, choose the latter. You’ll learn more about topics like this one, from The War of the Sexes:

Much of the elusive, infuriating, and enchanting nature of what we feel and why we feel it. Far from being a flaw in our makeup, it is a testimony to the complexity of the problems natural selection had to solve to enable us to handle sexual reproduction at all.

Although this is true, it also feel perilously close to being banal; by now, it’s well-established that emotions/feelings and “intelligence” or “logic” aren’t really separable entities in the human cognitive makeup. What we might think of as “a flaw” is actually an adaptation. Haidt discusses this in far more detail. Seabright also points, again correctly, to the way our own desires are really trade-offs and tensions rather than absolutes:

All individuals, men and women, will also want contradictory things: to be successful and to be protected, to choose our partners and to be chosen by them, to be passionate and to be reasonable, to be forceful and to be tender, to make shrewd choices and to be seduced. With such contradictory impulses, all of us will sometimes make choices we regret. Sex is about danger as well as about tenderness: the two are inseparable, and they are what has made us such a tender and dangerous species.

Our romantic lives aren’t immune to trade-offs, which might be why we find those romantic lives so frustrating so much of the time: they’re hugely important and simultaneously impossible to do perfectly “right.” But, again, this doesn’t feel like news. It feels like olds.

The writing is competent and the research reasonably thorough, but, again, the book as a whole is only useful if you’ve read little or no evolutionary biology; as it went on, I skipped steadily more pages. It isn’t bad. I feel like I’m witnessing a guy burst into a room the day after a big game, breathlessly wanting to celebrate his team’s victory, only to find the rest of the group expunged its impulse the night before.

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