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.

2 responses

  1. This is interesting. I didn’t know that church attendence rates in the US aren’t higher than other western countries, though i knew Americans claim much higher levels of religiousity. Reading the slate piece, what’s really interesting is that Canadians also inflate their church attendence, given that from a distance it appears religion in Canada is a lot like other western countries, with US fervancy being the outlier.

    This is somewhat similar to the idea of monotheistic therapeutic deism that’s been going around for a few years. People absorb the intellectual background and influences around them. Saying you are Christian in the US is perhaps a marker for being good, nice and pure.

    From Australia, it’s somewhat similar but reversed. Many people want the status marker of rational and smart, and one way to get that is join in on criticising organised religion on the hot button topics. But they retain vague beliefs of ‘I was made for a purpose’ or ‘there’s someone watching over me’ or ‘i’m spiritual, but not religious’ that are holdovers from the Christian faith of earlier generations.

    Like

  2. Pingback: The Dan Savage Interview Problem « The Story's Story

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