Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Survival of the Most Pious?

In his Nov. 11 NRO column, Survival of the Most Pious?, John Derbyshire reviews Nicholas Wade's new book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.

While most of Derbyshire's column is "chloroform in print," the ending is worth sharing...

Religion will presumably survive as long as we are recognizably human. What will it look like, though?

In a thoughtful closing chapter Wade peers forward into the possible future of religion. He thinks that traditional religion has lost too many of its bouts against modernity and rationality, and needs some radical reworking if it is to fulfill human religious yearnings as it used to. He asks: "Is there not some way of transforming religion into versions better suited for a modern age?" If there is, can we discern the shape of whatever rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem?…

The various attempts to establish "ethical religions," from Emerson's Transcendentalism to Scientific Buddhism, have in any case fallen flat, offering only cold temples to their followers. A transformed religion, Wade tells us, must "touch all the senses and lift the mind … find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason, to our need to belong to one another …" The transformation, he says, needs to be similar in scope to the transition from hunter gatherer religion to that of settled societies.

What may actually happen, it seems to me, will be a partial reversion to Paleolithic styles. The dissolution of the power relations that prevailed until just a generation or two ago — hierarchies of class, race, sex, age, and behavioral inclinations — has returned us to the egalitarianism of our remotest ancestors. Perhaps our religion will likewise regress.

Such a regression, if it occurs, will only be approximate. We are not now what we were then.


Justin said...

The general failure to invent good religions is one of the most serious theoretical problems facing the "Jesus was fictional" crowd.

I would submit that the idea that "traditional religion has lost too many of its bouts against modernity" is willfully ignorant of the facts and terms of the modern debate.

Strangely enough, contra the "religion is dying" meme, traditional religion continues its 40+ year resurgence.

To be sure, liberal religion is dying... even when conducted under traditional names... but traditional religion is stronger than ever in the modern world.

And, if you are looking for a nice, appealing, egalitarian religion, honestly, uh, really... Christianity! Duh

"touch all the senses and lift the mind" CHECK "… find a way to be equally true to emotion and to reason" CHECK "to our need to belong to one another …" CHECK, yup, Christianity pretty much has got that covered.

People's wishful thinking often clouds their analysis, in this case definitely so. Let's be real here: Christianity ain't goin' nowhere. Instead of trying to wish it away, if people like this would stop and analyze WHY CHRISTIANITY IS SO POPULAR IN THE FIRST PLACE, they would quickly see it is not about to disappear.

Todd White said...


I think you're essentially right that "traditional religion is undergoing a resurgence" while "liberal religion is dying." But here's my caveat: The traditionalists are consuming a larger portion of a shrinking religious pie. Why? because the lukewarm religionists are dropping out. Thus, we have more polarization: More seculars. More traditionalists. And fewer "centrists" (for lack of a better term). Personally, I'm concerned about this. How does that old Yeats poem go? "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." That's what I'm afraid of.

As for Christianity's future...well, I'm not sure. I'm certainly not as optimistic as you are. I could see a scenario in which America becomes like Europe in 1-2 generations. In other words, a de facto agnostic culture. And that's not even a worst case scenario. A worst case scenario would be some sort of low-grade religious civil war breaking out in which organized religion is discredited, and Christianity is actively suppressed. That might be fanciful, I suppose. But in some ways, I think it's more likely than the status quo, which seems unsustainable.

Todd White said...

This new post at Secular Right has some interesting statistical data on how Christians break down...