21 February 2014

Bad Religion: Heresy Or Just Obsolete?

"Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics" (2012) by Ross Douthat, a sophisticated, Catholic, Rockefeller Republican, is really two books under one cover.

Douthat argues that religion is in decline because it has strayed from the true Christian truth.  But, the more convincing argument is that the kind of Christian worldview he promotes has increasingly become incompatible with a modern scientific worldview and human decency to one's fellow human being.

The first is an exquisitely composed and elegant narrative history of the four main components of American Christianity (Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals and African-American Christianity) since World War II.  Generally speaking, in this part of the book, he gets his facts right, and acknowledges evidence that tends to argue against his thesis with grace that befits a regular columnist at the New York Times.  His richly detailed account is a barrage of deeds of public figures, religious intellectuals and Vatican intrigue.  Unlike the vast majority of conservative public intellectuals, Douthat has had the self-respect to tell this story reasonably accurately (critics note mistakes large and small, but few were material to the thesis), so it is familiar.

If you want to learn how to write non-fiction well, you ought to study Douthat's writing style.

After World War II, there is an across the board surge in organized, denominational religion of all stripes, built by charismatic ecumenically oriented religious public figures.  He attributes this to disillusionment with secular ideology in the wake of the horrors of World War II and in the Eisenhower era reaction to the secular Communist ideology of our emerging Cold War opponents.

He doesn't emphasize the role played by the desire of baby boom parents to have their children in church while they are young, or the role that extreme economic prosperity played in easing societal tensions that made it easier for the principle American religious factions to build an ecumenical consensus built around their shared doctrines at the core of orthodox Western Christian doctrine and a shared detente towards the Jews who had suffered so horribly in World War II as the notion of a Judeo-Christian society was constructed.  But, this is merely a matter of story telling emphasis.

Perhaps most notably, he makes a compelling point illustrated with statistics, surveys and anecdotes that this surge in American religious sentiment peaked in the time period from 1965 to 1968, after which Mainline Protestantism, white Catholicism, established religious institutions and orthodox Western Christian religious beliefs abruptly began a dramatic decline that has continued more or less unabated to the present.

He frames his story at this point as one of American liturgical Christianity as a candle burning at both ends.  As Mainline Protestants and eventually with Vatican II, Roman Catholicism take an "accommodationist" stance of making concessions to modern science and mores, the center loses many to secularism, and others to conservative Christian and Evangelical religious denominations that refused to follow liberalizing trends.  Overall, the nation became more secular, Catholicism appeared to hold steady only with massive Latino immigration, and Evangelicals moderately increased their market share making those people who remained Christians more conservative than they had been previously.

He documents the never ending failure of accommodationist strategies at least as far as theology and social values to prevent this collapse, the emergence of a highly partisan involvement of Evangelical Christians in politics in the 1980s, the common political cause found by conservative Christians and Evangelical Christians after a long history of Mainline Protestants and Catholics seeing themselves as allies against non-liturgical Christians, and way that charismatic Evangelical worship practices then began to influence Catholic worship practices.  He also recounts the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic church blaming both liberals within the church, for creating a climate where priests could do such things, and authoritarians within the church, for covering it up.  He also discusses how the authoritarians were driven in part by the collapse of the ranks of ordained Catholics in part due to economic pressure, in part as part of the overall decline in liturgical religion, and in part due to accomodationist trends.

He notes that eventually Evangelical Christianity morphs into para-church organizations and ephemeral mega-churches that may not be able to sustain it in the long run, the animosity the Evangelical Christianity has stirred up with its partisanship, and its lack of intellectual heavy weights outside of politics to rival great minds in other factions of American Christianity.  They growth from poaching Mainline Protestants and Catholics eventually stalled too.

This sets the scene for the second half of his book in which he condemns of heretical four trends in the substance of Christianity among those who are no longer secular:

* a liberal search for a "historical Jesus" and messier than orthodoxy would admit contest of Christian factions which is won by the proto-orthodox faction that becomes the Catholic Church.  He views these efforts as destabilizing theological work when scholars could have popularized theology in the tradition of men like C.S. Lewis instead, and as academically bankrupt.

He misses many of the key points historically, however.  For example, while the Biblical canon was assembled over time, the Council of Nicea in 325 CE was necessary because there were urgent and immediate ongoing schisms over what constituted orthodoxy in the Western Christian tradition that it finally resolved awkwardly with a powerful monarch's assistance.  Similarly, he fails to acknowledge that some our earliest records of Christianity from Paul's letters come from a man who calls himself an apostle but never met Jesus and that Paul was at odds with the leader of the Jewish Jesus movement that was the main legacy of the faith before Paul ministered to the Gentiles.  Also, he utterly refused to acknowledge that even if you have old, authentic writings from Paul, arguably the founder of Gentile Christianity per se, that it doesn't mean that the impossible things he is writing about someone he never met are actually true.

* the prosperity and self-help gospel that fails to challenge people.

* the embrace of relativism and individual personal religious exploration in lieu of the tradition and authority of the church.

* the jingoist Christian nationalism of people like Glen Beck.

He argues that the secularists and heretics' positions are inferior to the orthodox position, because they try to hard to oversimplify an understanding of God and Jesus that is inherently complex, mysterious and contradictory - a both/and rather than an either/or - again and again.   His apology rests on the notion that the orthodox position is a hard won center ground that our forebears had the good judgment to secure with repeated good choices.

He suggests that this might be accomplished by providing certainty at a time when there is a social vacuum of religious thought, considers the option of having the truly faithful retreat from the secular world to purify themselves and become strong as an institution, weighs the possibility that America will be reinvigorated with the vibrant Christianity of the Third World,   He argues that people should have lower expectations of their church rather than expecting it to solve all of their problems and that it should be political without being partisan.  He acknowledges at the outset that this may be lost cause.

His skill as an apologist is not nearly so great as his talent as a historian.  I am familiar with why Mainline Protestants felt the need to take accommodationist stances and with the historical-critical Biblical literature he criticizes so severely.  He sees the sexual revolution driven most powerfully by the development of oral contraceptives as the most important blow.  He sees an increasingly global perspective that reveals Christianity as a choice not made by whole continents with no ill effects leading to a surge in interest in Eastern religion as another factor intertwined also with post-colonial era guilt.  Finally, he sees rising affluence and social class pressure to abandon religion as factors.

The Missing Factor: The  Undeniable Scientific Worldview

Ultimately, however, Douthat's greatest fault is making a straw man out of his creed's most serious challenge and to a great extent ignoring it all together.  What Douthat short changes is arguably the most important factor in the enduring rise of secularism and of accommodationist trends within liturgical Christianity.

This is the intellectual force of an emerging scientific, empirically based, rational worldview.  This worldview merged with an increasingly humanist, tolerant, inclusive and feminist set of moral assumptions that flowed naturally from the Civil Rights movement, which he makes the case for American Christians playing an instrumental part in bringing about (even in the South where most white clergy refused to oppose the movement even though they did not affirmatively aid the movement).

Without squarely addressing the immense intellectual force of these ideas, one cannot explain why secularism has grown in market share like wildfire despite having had no institutional structure or clergy or well organized large groups or formal strategies with massive funding to guide it.  One cannot explain its power to grow despite opposition from dozens of well funded religious denominations and organizations with millions or tens of millions of members, with thousands of professional trained clergy charged with guiding and expanding the ranks of the faithful, with organized evangelism campaigns.

As Douthat recounts the religious world of the 1950s he focuses on popularizers and intellectuals like Protestant Reinhold Neibuhr, Evangelical Billy Graham, Catholic Fulton Sheen, and African American Christian Martin Luther King, Jr.   But, he fails to acknowledge the corresponding intellectual influence of secular humanist popularizer's of the scientific worldview like Carl Sagan who offered up a secular and scientifically validated account of our creation as mysterious and poetically diving as Genesis in his series "Cosmos", a remake of which is about to appear on the Fox network this year.

 The discovery of DNA, carbon dating of archaeological remains, and archaic hominin fossils helped to make mere Darwinism into irrefutable scientific reality, again undermining the narrative of Genesis.  A revolution in our increasingly sophisticated and irrefutable understanding of mental health and medicine discredited the credibility of the New Testament faith healings and exorcisms, the subsequent lives of Saints in the Catholic tradition that carries the faith healing and exorcism tradition on for another millenium of credulity straining tales, and the faith healings that re-emerge in America starting with the Second Great Awakening.  The space race, culminating with putting a man on the moon, and increasing recognition of how the nuclear arms race had transformed war forever, symbolically crowned the supremacy of the scientific worldview making it impossible for the average college educated person to deny.

The surge in secularism among members of the upper middle class coincides with an immense surge in the proportion of people who were college educated as the GI Bill, expansions of state college and university systems and a dramatic shift towards meritocratic college admissions all took hold as liturgical Christianity reached its turning point.  Vastly more people suddenly became aware of the historical process by which the Biblical canon was assembled, historical-critical approaches to Biblical interpretation that had existed for more than a century but not been widely known among less educated lay people before then, and centuries of intra-Christian strife (not infrequently violent) between the proto-orthodox faction and the heretical factions that would ultimately be wiped out with their tracts purged like contraband illegal drugs today.

Only in the 1960s did America finally have the leisure on a widespread basis to really absorb the progress made by the sciences and social sciences since the 1920s.  This kind of thinking had been put on hold while we endured the Great Depression, fought World War II, and spend a first decade after World War II returning America to post-war normal, dealing with postponed marries and college educations and careers, buying homes and appliance after fifteen years of pent up demand, and having lots of young children.  By the time Americans could finally pause to really think about religion and theology and philosophy again, the muddy, elite dominated, tentative, steam age worldview of the 1920s was finally confronted with the fully blossomed modern, scientific worldview and modern humanist, feminist, tolerant mores.

In the 1920s, at the time of the Scopes trial, a massive defeat for Evangelical fundamentalists and Biblical literalists, it was just beginning to appear that traditional views about Biblical interpretation and reality were irreconcilable.  By the mid-1960s, this fact was utterly undeniable to anyone who was not absolutely determined to hide his head in the sand, and the room for a God of the gaps has only steadily grown smaller with each passing year since then.

Many tens of millions of more educated Americans reached this point all at once.  When they did, it is this secular scientific and historically rooted world view that suddenly made huge swaths of both the Old and New Testaments that had previously been relatively unquestioned by ordinary laypeople in the pews, seem indefensible, utterly implausible, and doubtful when it came to their ethical messages at many points.

Accommodationist Mainline Protestants and Catholics as Douthat describes them, weren't driving people away from the church so much as they were frantically trying to save people from the ranks of doubters on the verge of leaving the church for good because its story had been rendered too implausible to believe.  These doubters were not people who could have been rehabilitated to orthodox version of the faith.  The intellectual leaders of accommodationist movements within these churches were those educated doubters struggling with their own faith, but committed by tradition and moral obligation to do the best that they could to salvage the religious institutions bequeathed to them by their ancestors rather than simply walking away.

I know what they were going through.  I went to the Chicago Folk Services that tried to accommodate the church culturally to modernity.  I ceased to believe for reasons like the ones discussed in this post shortly before I was confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a Mainline Protestant denomination) when I was in high school.  But, I still attended an Episcopal Church all through college (even teaching Sunday school), a Korean Presbyterian church for about a year while my wife was in graduate school and doing a community study involving the people at that church, and a Presbyterian Church (USA) for a year or two at my first job in Colorado.  In part, this was out of a desire to give orthodox, liturgical Christianity a chance to win me back in case I was quarreling with something specific to a denomination rather than Christianity itself (I could never stomach for even a moment Evangelical's stridently socially conservative and anti-science, anti-intellectual mindset as of the 1990s).

Ultimately, I became confident that it wasn't the denomination, but Christianity and theism itself that was the problem and left for good.  No amount of religious mystery or adherence to pre-modern social norms could have kept me in the pews and the same is true for many tens of millions more young, college educated people just like me, including most of my cousins and peers.

You can only pitch a faith based on divine intervention and miracles to people who are capable of believing in such things.  The scientific age and rising educational levels dramatically increased the ranks of those would could not.  Eventually, the views of these elites, in turn, trickled down to social classes below them and up to judges and legislators who drew more strict lines between church and state that protected the teaching of secular educational subjects that contradicted religious worldviews.

Belief isn't a choice.  You can chose to go to church.  You can choose to read a book or say a prayer.  But, many people can no more belief in Biblical miracles than they can belief that they are pregnant with puppies.

The accommodationist movement was and remains a valiant rear guard action to see if a Christianity which is the ancestral religious legacy of most educated Americans has anything left that can be salvaged and remain worthwhile if it is stripped of a requirement that one believe in the truth of patently impossible miracles and myths found in the Bible, leaving the genuine human history there in place.  If this can't be managed, then there is no point in an ethic identity like "secular Christian" in the sense that there are many "secular Jews."  Fifty years after the intellectual collapse of mainline Christianity, this effort increasingly looks like a failed one, so the holdouts increasingly are identifying as not religious, rather than as mainline Protestants or Catholics.

Heirs to the Christian tradition who do not want to engage in a war on science and are incapable of holding schizophrenic worldviews simultaneously, must as a matter of logical necessity, either radically reinvent their tradition, or relegate it to the status of a historical curiosity; ancestral myths of a dead God no more real than the Greek, Roman and Norse pagan pantheons whose myths we learn and discuss as literature without believing them to be true

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