Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.

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On the Move

Truth is increasingly a moving target. And when the Chronicle of Higher Education runs an article about religion, academics take notice. Actually, the article is about irreligion. An interview with Routledge author and Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman was the centerfold for November 23’s Chronicle Review. Zuckerman’s article, “Taking Leave of Religion” follows up from the book I reviewed on the sociology of religion. On the very same day, in an article my wife pointed out to me, MSNBC online published an article about the church and the Internet. Interviewed was Heidi Campbell, another Routledge author, at Texas A & M. What struck me in both of these cases was not so much what was said, but how.

In these days of higher education under siege, the media has come to love the young scholar. It has gotten to the point that I can hardly watch a documentary on the ancient world without seeing a friend or colleague on screen. I suppose the interviewing of scholars is not itself new, but the burgeoning of the celebrity scholar gives pause. Was a time when scholars wrote for other scholars. There are problems with that approach, mostly the issue of social irrelevance. Let’s be honest—when’s the last time we read a heavily footnoted, dry, academic monograph for fun? Honestly. So scholars have taken to the media. In popular forums with trendy words they make scholarship accessible.

What could be wrong with that?

The fact that I am writing this blog demonstrates that I believe in the public sharing of knowledge. I find it crass when experts charge for sharing what they’ve learned, but, I suppose knowledge is a kind of commodity in the marketplace of ideas. Herein lies the rub. The business of education. Scholars have become entertainer-specialists in the realm of commerce. Back in the day you had to seek the guru on the top of the mountain. Now he, or not uncommonly she, can be accessed from the comfort of your own couch or chair. Frequently there is no debate. Truth handed down, byte after exotic byte.

Perhaps we have lost the capacity for honest, if dusty, debate. Not only that, but the media now reserves the right to determine the truth we will receive. The target is moving, but the receiver is not.

Science of Religion

People do strange things when they are together. Phil Zuckerman’s Invitation to the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2003) is an informative whistle-stop tour of how social scientists view religion. Back in college sociology classes involved so many stats that it felt like a math class, so I was pleasantly surprised when I could read this treatment without a calculator or graph paper at hand. Sociology, of course, is all about how people behave in groups. Religion, as commonly defined, is a group phenomenon—people are religious together. Nevertheless, the study of religion from a sociological point of view does raise some uncomfortable issues for many people. Chief among them are the facts that religion is generally determined by where and when you were born and by the social forces surrounding you—it is learned, not revealed. Even religions that teach revelation of their divine origins generally don’t expect individuals to receive the religion by revelation, they receive it by social instruction.

Naturally sociology does not attempt to answer the question of where religion ultimately comes from. Religion, however, is something people do, and, unless one happens to have the correct religion (don’t we all?) then everyone else’s religion is made up. Sociologists would tend to see all religions as being human constructs. Zuckerman’s treatment is pithy and punchy and fun to read. As a college student at a confessionally-affiliated institution, our classes were entitled “Christian Sociology.” That is shorthand for sociology with a pre-decided bias. It was not sociology of religion, but sociology by religion. In many respects, reading Zuckerman’s treatment was affirming much that I had already observed, but having it placed in a scientific framework made a world of sense.

In many universities there a basic misunderstanding still reigns; many administrators do not realize that the study of religion is the study of a social or psychological phenomenon. Zuckerman demonstrates once again just how important this study is. It is no understatement to say that the entire “social contract” of the United States was constructed under heavy Christian influence. Zuckerman’s discussion of sexual mores alone should prove that point. We have the outlook we do because of the incredible force Christianity exerted on the developing religion of the western hemisphere beginning with the Roman Empire. Once those viewpoints have been deeply embedded, many, many generations deep, the chances of getting out for an objective evaluation are slim. That’s why we need our sociologists of religion. If more people were aware of what we know about socially defined religious parameters, the more they’d realize we need to pay much more attention to religion than learned doyens of human behavior often do.