Social Madness

I’m reading a book written in the mid-1980s.  (All will become clear eventually.)  The author notes the connection between social madness and personal mental illness.  He cites the alarming rise of teen suicides.  This was over three decades ago.  Suicide rates have continued to climb, and this particular author got me to thinking about something that troubled me even as an undergrad.  Although I went to college intending to be a minister, I ranged widely in the subjects I studied.  (Being a religion major in those days allowed for quite a bit of flexibility.)  I took enough courses in psychology to have minored in it, if I had declared it.  Since my mind was set on church work I saw no reason to make said declaration.  The thing that troubled me was I had also taken sociology classes.

Like most people who grew up in uneducated households, I suspect, sociology was something I’d never heard about.  Asking what it was, in college, someone answered along the lines of “psychology of groups.”  My own experience of it was that it involved math and graphs—it was a soft science, after all—and now I read sociologists who say that such numbers can be made to declare what the sociologist wishes.  In other words, psychology.  The point of all of this is that the book I’m reading suggests societies exhibiting illness cause individuals to be sick.  Sociology leads to psychology.  In times of national turmoil, individual mental illnesses rise.  I had to pause and put the book down.  The eighties weren’t a picnic, but the national madness of the Trump era bears no comparison.  We are a nation gone mad, and when society can’t project health, the many who stand on the brink of individual mental illness simply get pushed over.  That sure makes sense of what I’m seeing.

Looking back, I often think I should’ve probably declared that minor.  Raised in a strong biblical environment, however, I wanted to learn as much about the Good Book as possible.  I was teaching Greek by my last year in college and in seminary I specialized in the Hebrew Bible.  It would’ve been a natural place to continue studying psychology.  By that point I’d decided to go on to a doctorate, and psychology required medical training.  For a guy as squeamish as me that wasn’t possible.  Ancient languages, though, they were something I could handle.  It’s rather frightening that those writing at that time already saw America (in the Reagan years, I might add) teetering towards national insanity.  We’ve gone far beyond that now.  And a society that doesn’t know it’s ill will sacrifice many individuals who realize that it is.


Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.


Frightening Faith

sacred-terrorBack when I first started this blog, I regretted that I had read Douglas E. Cowan’s Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen so long ago. You see, I try hard to post on a specific book only once—there’s really no rule about that, but I read a lot and don’t like to play favorites. Since it had been a year or two since I’d read it, my memory was a touch hazy about the details at the time. I did a post anyway. Now that we’re in the thick of fall, and my daily commute both begins and ends in darkness, I decided to read it again. This particular book is validating for a guy like me. Many scholars feel they need to apologize for such low brow peccadilloes as watching horror movies. I mean, don’t scholars read all the time? And when they’re not reading, surely they have better things to do with their time than watch cheesy exploitation films? My generation, however, has started to come to terms with this basic disconnect. A few of us have somehow made it past the bouncers.

Cowan’s book is the one I first read that dared make explicit what many of us feel—religion and horror are not so different. As a sociologist of religion Cowan brings a specific lens to the subject, and his book analyzes different societal fears (sociophobics) that these movies address. And even though he admits being a bit squeamish, he brings an impressive number of films to the table. The fears of hoi polloi, it turns out, are often the very same ones religion seeks to redress. After reading his book the first time, my list of must see DVDs grew. The same happened this time around.

It requires a certain maturity of character to both realize and admit that horror meets a deep need. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. More than once, armed with my Ph.D. and years of training my rational faculties, I’ve still ended up sleeping with the lights on. I can tell fact from fiction, but there’s an itch that horror scratches which other genres just can’t reach. As much as I enjoy science fiction on the screen, its debased little brother has fingernails just the right length. As Cowan points out, fear is one of the primal human emotions. The world we’ve constructed hasn’t eliminated fear—although I can’t recall the last time I saw a cougar or wolf in the wild—but has constructed it as more of our own making. In our own image, I might suggest. And since nobody likes to be alone during a scary movie, it gives me some comfort to know that Dr. Cowan is out there, somewhere, watching with me.


Scary Thoughts

rockoffThose who know me personally—and not just through the internet—sometimes are surprised to learn that I watch horror movies. After all, I’m a pacifist, vegetarian, and a very caring person. Plus I’m squeamish and I eschew violence. Why, then, do I watch such things? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I might be a bit closer now that I’ve read Adam Rockoff’s The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead. Now, I’ve never met Mr. Rockoff, but from reading his book I get the impression that he’s a descent human being and fun to hang out with. He’s also a family man and a sympathetic individual. The Horror of It All is an extended discussion of that troublesome question: why do some of us watch movies of this kind?

It’s pretty clear from this book that Rockoff is way ahead of me in the number of horror movies seen. I’m sure he doesn’t mention all of those he’s watched, but there are some I’ve seen that didn’t make this book and, in my own way, I hope, show that I’m no slouch when it comes to the genre. I’m not in the media like he is and those of us trying to be respectable ex-academics have to read weighty tomes to keep any street cred at all on campus. That having been said, it was fascinating to read how many of the same triggers are at work in not just Rockoff and myself, but in other horror watchers he’s known and interviewed. These films are, for the most part, not just degenerate trash. Many of them have redeeming value and an unexpected profundity. Academics and other society people don’t like to get caught watching what hoi polloi do, but just take a look at the box office take and you’ll see that horror sells. We are not alone.

Ultimately every horror viewer has to struggle with this monster him or herself. Why do we watch? While in grad school I had a sociology doctoral candidate interview me to explore just that question. Why? At the time, admittedly, I had seen only a fraction of the films that I’ve moved on to see since then. One thing I can definitively say—I’m looking for something. Life is plenty scary as it is. A world where a good job can be yanked away from you at will and the specter of a life on the streets leers, can be an intimidating place. In the horror movie you see how it could be even worse. So as my waking hours are increasingly spent in the dark, as if the sun itself is afraid, I see books like Rockoff’s as a kind of flashlight through this forest. If I run into monsters, I want to have prepared myself.


Meaningful Fear

BeVeryAfraidReading about the things that wrong, like terrorist attacks, may not be the best way to occupy your time on a bus heading to New York City. Robert Wuthnow’s Be Very Afraid is appropriately titled, in any case. I had been warned. Discussing sociological reactions to nuclear war, terrorism, pandemics, and global warming, Wuthnow suggests, sensibly, that action is the best response. He also points out that, statistically, people tend not to panic. What I’d like to focus on is his repeated assertion that humans need to find meaning. Disasters only bring this into clearer view.

We live in an age when religion and philosophy have been relegated to the children’s table of academic pursuits. They are, however, the traditional intellectual ways of finding meaning . Economists may be paid much more, and scientists receive more respect, but when the bombs fall or avian flu really strikes, even they sometimes turn to their beleaguered colleagues for answers. Money is notoriously poverty-ridden when it comes to purchasing meaning. Reductionistic materialism may allow a final shrug as the curtain falls, but plenty of scientists hope for a little something more. Not everyone, of course, finds meaning in religion or deep reflection, but we are all human and we want to know what it’s all about. We need to have somewhere to look.

Even as a child I was preoccupied with meaning. I wanted to be the usual things when I grew up—scientist, firefighter, G.I. Joe—but when it came time to make actual choices I moved in the direction of careers that would allow me to find meaning. I swiftly learned they didn’t pay well. Money is not meaning, however. I was teaching in a seminary when 9/11—a major topic of Wuthnow’s study—occurred. I saw people desperately seeking meaning, but not knowing where to look. This was just my fear, growing up; what does it profit someone to gain the whole world if s/he is groping about in the dark for meaning? We’ve created a world where even greater causes of fear are likely to arise. In our emergency kits, it seems, we should leave a little room for meaning.


Faithful Places

PlacesOfFaith Is there any more American a diversion than the road trip? Those of us who live on large land masses with relative ease of travel sometimes like to go for, well, the fun of going. If you’re a sociologist, however, you might find funding for a road trip if you can put a thesis behind it. Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke made such a trip and entitled the results Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape. This isn’t really an academic book, but it does contain some interesting information about faith communities that might otherwise remain off the radar (with the exception of mega-churches, one of which they visit in Houston). Religion, it becomes clear, is still a large part of life for many Americans, and not just small-town rubes like yours truly. Thriving faith communities are found in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, and Salt Lake City. Scheitle and Finke don’t neglect the smaller venues either, stopping at rural sites in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Perhaps the biggest take-away from their book is that religion is diverse and deeply embedded in the United States.

While many claim that atheism is humanity’s next big step forward, it has to be admitted that freedom of religion (without which atheism might be problematic) has gone far. Although Places of Faith sticks pretty close to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, there can be no question that many, many other religions constitute a nation where “mainstream” is not as normative as it may seem. As also became clear from the descriptions and photos the authors provide, religions are fond of splintering. Faith can be made of brittle stuff. As I’ve argued before, we are really each our own entity of personal religion. We share some traits with the larger group, but unless we’re an identical twin, likely nobody thinks quite the same way we do. Religious leaders know this well—uniformity is often a thinly veiled illusion.

Having studied religion for most of my life, I can’t say that there was too much new to me in this little book. It provides a tolerant, and colorful tour through some religions that will be less familiar to those who don’t consider just how broad the landscape is. You won’t become an expert in Mormonism or the Amish, but you might learn a thing or two about both. The authors encourage something that many religion majors know by rote: you learn a lot by exploring your local religious landscape. As a college student I tried not only Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the occasional foray into that mysterious realm of Episcopalianism. There was more diversity, even in that small town of Grove City, than I had the ability to explore on my own. This much was certain, however, people find meaning and comfort in their beliefs. To deny them that is to deny them what makes religious freedom the wonder that it is.


Paranormal Academy

ParanormalA recurrent theme on this blog (as my faithful few will doubtless know) is that religion draws from the same stream of cultural energies as do other phenomena such as horror movies and the paranormal. Religion and fear and curiosity seem to share some common parameters, and every now and again serious academics tackle these connections as well. Erich Goode, a sociologist, has taken on unconventional beliefs in his The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why it Matters. Unlike many academic writers on the topic, Goode does not attempt to debunk, but it is also clear that he does not ascribe to the unconventional viewpoints he examines either. In what must be an important realization among sociologists, Goode, like some of his colleagues who also consider the paranormal, finds that belief is widespread. Large segments of the US population allow for some validity toward ghosts, psychics, aliens, and yes, even creationism.

That last one stopped me for a second. Several seconds, actually. Creationism paranormal? When Goode’s delineations are considered, this is not completely inappropriate, but creationism is pure-blood religion. Not that it is necessary for religion, but its birth and considerable growth has been among the conventicle of true Bible believers. It is clear that in Goode’s line of reasoning there is only a fuzzy line between religion and the paranormal. I’ve asserted that same fuzzy line, but I’d never considered biblical literalism as paranormal. Maybe because I was raised in that environment it seemed normal and natural to me. Maybe because it is in the Bible it feels weird to hear it classed as paranormal. Maybe because believers in ghosts, aliens, and undiscovered forces have at least some viable evidence to indicate their beliefs are valid; the creationist distortion appears not to belong in the same camp.

Creationism is a complex psychological phenomenon, to be sure. How people who know the obvious practicalities of science (such as television and the internet, where creationism can be expounded) have demonstrated that its overall methodology is sound, how such people can accept a fairy tale beginning to a Grimm tales world is difficult to fathom. And creationists, in general, would reject belief in what most of society considers paranormal. Can these coexist in the same category? While Goode constructs his paradigm as those who accept and reject empirical reductionism, I’m not convinced that religious belief is the same as paranormal belief. The parsing is a bit too coarse here. Creationism, which began life as a religious belief, has become a political agenda all about domination. It is not so much naiveté as it is need to rule. Somehow I doubt the ghost hunter with her or his night vision camera and digital voice recorder has any real designs on textbook distortion or having women keep silent on Sunday morning.


Mystique-alism

CavemanMystiqueReading in a public place gives peer pressure an entirely new meaning. Public transit is a place where I spend at least fifteen hours a week. Not having converted to Kindle, or even Nook, I still prefer the feel of paper in my hands. With the open book, however, comes exposure. On the bus you have no control over who climbs in next to you. You’ll be spending an hour, maybe two, side-by-side, and although s/he may never see you again, it could be that tomorrow they will find themselves once more at your side. I’m very conscious of the books I choose under such circumstances. I shouldn’t care what others think, but I do. Recently my choice was Martha McCaughey’s The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science. The issues here were multiple. McCaughey consciously chose her riff on The Feminine Mystique as a catchy, if very appropriate title. The person plopping down next to you with a bleary eyed glance over on an early morning bus will probably catch only one or two words in the title. One of them will be the only word with an x. Still, this important little book has big implications for the “s word,” and how men are socialized to think about sex.

Darwinism, and evolution, are concepts that are keyed to religion in the United States. There is no avoiding it. McCaughey, as a sociologist studying science, shows just how many assumptions scientists make about the universal applicability of their work. She suggests something that many of us have learned over the years: absolute objectivity is not possible for any human being. We are all socialized. We all bring biases to our work. We’re all human. McCaughey doesn’t question the results of scientific investigation, however. Her concern is that in a male-dominated field the results might be, well, screwed up. In a series of delightful thought experiments, she shows how very basic sexual biases get played out into larger scenarios that tend to excuse the inexcusable: violence against women. Men have to be taught to be cavemen. Science, improperly disseminated, gives men an excuse for blaming evolution for their lack of character. It seems to this man, at least, the McCaughey is certainly on target.

In a particularly insightful paragraph, McCaughey writes, “Invoking God’s will, or nature’s [i.e., science], hides the political context in which such a will was ‘revealed’ or ‘discovered.’” How easy it is for both scientists and religious believers to conclude that the way of their belief system is the only explanation for the world. Both camps forget they are profoundly political. As humans we can’t escape it. The world defies easy explanation—there are truths that we haven’t discovered yet. The main point of The Caveman Mystique, however, is clear. Just as men have been led to believe that the caveman is inevitable, they can be also taught that such a statement is a lie. Biologically there are gender differences, but socially—and this is the ability humans boast of—we can and must insist on equality.


Silent Fright

Baylor University has begun to make quite a showing in the non-sectarian academic world of late. Knowing of the school’s Baptist heritage, I’d always been somewhat suspicious of any scholarship susceptible to doctrinal poisoning. I freely admit that my fear goes back to a hyper-evangelical college roommate. Even at the conservative bastion of Grove City College, John would lament the sorry religious state of the school and repeatedly thought of transferring to Baylor. (I need not fear that John will ever read this—he avoided liberal dribble like it was Planned Parenthood.) By association, Baylor became something in my mind that it apparently is not. When the administration recognized the direction the Southern Baptist Convention was going, they took steps to protect themselves from a takeover (something I’d witnessed at a much smaller school some distance north). The university press has been producing intriguing books, and the sociology department has been cranking out some fascinating studies of religion.

One of the more recent religion in America surveys from Baylor indicates that a correlation exists between the image of God presented by a version of Christianity and that contentedness of believers. More specifically, churches that promote a judgmental image of God (think Jonathan Edwards and his spiritual bedmates) tend to be anxiety-ridden and compulsive. Churches that teach a loving God have more balanced believers. Brimstone and hellfire, in other words, produce the expected results. What the Baylor study shows is not so much surprising as it is scientific. Well, softly scientific. As a social science, sociology relies on statistics and analysis to draw its conclusions. We now have a means of measuring religions outcomes.

Religion is, in many ways, self-fulfilling prophecy. By preparing believers for a literal Hell of a future, it cranks out automatons who’ll do anything to flee from the wrath to come. Herein lies its danger as well. Although some politicians may be naïve about the veracity of belief, many of them realize something their more liberal compatriots don’t—religion motivates. The religion of a loving God who has no Damoclesian sword hovering perilously over the heads of the faithful won’t get them to the polls. The god with believers on a skewer above the everlasting barbeque pit will. Baylor has shown us the data. If we ever hope to redress the damage constantly visited by politicians claiming God has told them to run for office, to invade Iraq, to commit war crimes in the name of the prince of peace, we must act on good information. If religion is a psychological anomaly, it pays to learn a little applied psychology. Otherwise the wrath of an angry god will consume us all.


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.


In God We Lust

One of the entrenched ironies of human mentality is that reason will not suffice to change religious views. Many studies have repeated demonstrated that faith is impervious to logic, and this has appeared with Ektachrome clarity in the case of Warren Jeffs. Rev. Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has painted himself into a mental corner that makes the logic of legal proceedings appear as slapping the idiot. Logic and faith do not connect. Any Christian who has read the letter to the Hebrews should know that. Nevertheless, Rev. Jeffs, having illogically dismissed his team of lawyers, has been attempting a divine defense to justify his alleged sexual abuse of minors. He remained silent during his opening statement, despite judicial advice that such a tactic might harm his case. Breaking silence yesterday with a nearly hour-long sermon, faith responded to logic and was found wanting.

Society at large fails to consider that studies of religion have been carried out from multiple angles over many decades. We have erudite studies of the philosophy of religion, the psychology of religion, the anthropology of religion, and the sociology of religion. They all point to the human origins of this phenomenon, often demonstrating that a basic disconnect remains when religious belief is brought into the harsh light of logic. Neurologists and biologists have explored the utility of religion as a survival tactic, and evolution seems to have blessed it. Yet trial lawyers, judges, law enforcement officials, and politicians—often themselves religious individuals—are charged with apprehending and convicting others who simply take their religion to extremes. Religions make untenable demands on adherents. God has a poor record of turning up in the courtroom. His divine statements are absent from the stenographer’s tape.

Not knowing the details, it is difficult to find much sympathy for Rev. Jeffs, should he be found guilty. Yet at the same time, his interpretation of religion differs only in a matter of degree from other religious sexual ordinances. Is it normal for a clergyman to live a lifetime of enforced celibacy? Although signing on the dotted line may indicate a tacit agreement with church policy, what young man can clearly anticipate the pressures of decades fighting biology and psychology? Yet the practice is perfectly legal. Until the nearly inevitable inappropriate results squirm out. Public rancor runs high, as it should, against child molesters. The children are innocent victims. The perpetrators, however, believe themselves to be following divine dictates. It would seem that much suffering would be ended if God would go on the record here, so that we might have solid evidence with which to judge the case. If it please the court.

Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP, from The Seattle Times


Response

Chaz,

I am not sure if this cycle has a name—sociologists have noticed it, I’m sure—but is as old as at least civilization itself. My experience with it has been in the realm of religious studies. A number of years ago I read a study that indicated that within a decade of the founding of a religion it will have changed beyond the recognition of its original form. In other words, it will evolve. I suspect this is true of most memes. In literary studies this recognition goes by the sobriquet of “Reader Response” theory. Once an author (or any initiator of something new) produces a written work s/he has lost control over what it “means.” Each reader interprets a piece in the light of her/his own context, some perhaps close to the original intent of the author, some far distant. In the broadest sense of the word, this is a corruption. According to Reader Response theory, it is natural and to be expected.

On a larger scale, human endeavors are often beset with divergent agendas. A founder may start a school with the intention of training teachers. Soon interest and clientele grow and further program options are offered. The teacher’s school becomes a college. If the college meets a larger societal need, it becomes part of a university. Universities, despite all posturing and muttering, are becoming very much alike through the mediation of the Internet. Is this a corruption? Perhaps not in the sense of being a benign development, but it general terms it reflects the dilemma of changing ideals. Various religions point in different directions to explain it, but most explanations are mythological. The “fall” in Eden does not fit the view of the Hebrew Bible, but it is a popular Christian explanation for why corruption sets in.

A more humanistic response might call it “human nature.” We are fully capable of lofty ideals. In my admittedly limited experience, I have found that those with such ideals are often ill-equipped to realize them. Those who grow such ideals into institutions tend to have an entrepreneurial outlook that benefits from following the greatest returns. To court investors, a tangible payback must be included. We see this all the time in churches: popes, archbishops, televangelists—soon they find themselves powerful people with access to great wealth. A far cry from a working-class carpenter preaching love. The pattern is ubiquitous throughout history, and there seems to be no cure other than, as you suggest, to begin again.

Chaz and I would like to invite comments and discussion on this issue. Idealists and more pragmatic types are both encouraged to reply!


Explaining Religion

Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer, is one of those books that I wish had been written earlier and I had read earlier. Like several of my recent reading projects, this book was suggested to me by my cyber-friend Sabio Lantz’s blog. In the course of a very busy semester, it took several months to read, but Religion Explained is an astounding book that raises the ultimate issue: whence religion? Among the many revelations in this monograph – based on solid anthropological and sociological data, as well as neuroscience – is that religion has multiple origins. As Boyer demonstrates repeatedly throughout his book, religion arises from several mental processes symbiotically supporting assumptions that, taken alone, would often fail to survive in the meme pool.

Summarizing Boyer’s work would require a book in itself, but a few of his points struck me as particularly apt to today’s struggle between religion and society. At one point (140) Boyer demonstrates that doctrine is not nearly as important to religions as most specialists assert. In fact, most regular adherents to a religion misunderstand the doctrine to which they give lip service. After having spent too many years in a doctrinally ossified seminary, reading Boyer’s analysis was like liberation at this juncture. As Boyer points out later (282) Christian doctrine emerged in the conflicted environment of revolutionary movements with differing ideas as to what a messiah was. Only after the situation became too complex did one group decide that councils were necessary to decide what they in fact believed. Not really an inspiring story for those who wish to claim absolute certitude about their belief structure! Boyer also draws from other religions around the world to support his case.

Having stated that, Boyer does not attempt to destroy religion, but to explain it. The very premise itself will obviously strike many as blasphemous, but religion, like all human practices, can be studied with a scientific outlook. Accessing anthropological studies and neurological analyses, and the battery of tools provided by decades of psychological and sociological research, Boyer’s portrait is lifelike and believable. Religion developed as an amalgamation of human survival strategies that synchronized into a relatively consistent system that helped to explain a confusing world. If I had read Religion Explained when I was in college, my lifelong religionist enterprise might have turned out rather differently.


Suddenly the Bible

Universities are generally reluctant to hire Bible faculty (except in the case of “Christian” colleges where Bible faculty must be a particular brand of “scholar” who has already decided the case before the evidence is presented). The stock reason given to department heads and deans is that religion just doesn’t make money. Universities thrive on the income from science grants and wealthy business and finance donors who want buildings named after them. Religion, it is claimed, doesn’t bring in money. The real problem is that universities don’t know how to market religion.

The other day I visited the local craft store to pick up supplies for a project my wife is working on. While in line I spotted this novelty item:

God in a box?

The shelf was full of them. When I returned later in the week, the supply was severely diminished. Someone had reasoned, correctly, that by putting a cheap length of paper-roll with “biblical” designs printed on it in a kit for making a throw-away mug, it would sell. Obviously universities and colleges couldn’t stoop to such a level, could they? Isn’t it far more respectable to draw your finest students into a mega-stadium to watch guys in tights throw around a fake pig-bladder and emerge drunk enough to vomit up all the costly snack foods they purchased? This is, after all, where the leaders of tomorrow are formed!

While looking up a troublesome word I can’t spell in an online dictionary, I was intrigued by this promotional inset (click to see). All I had done was type in a word on the Merriam-Webster site (it was not a biblical word), and when the answer popped up, so did this self promotional add for “Kiss of Death, Feet of Clay: Words From the Bible.” I don’t pretend to know how online advertising works, but it was clear that Merriam-Webster wanted the cyber-visitor to linger on their site, and the Bible was an effective way to achieve this.

The Bible is all around us. It would be difficult to nominate any other icon that would better illustrate American social self-consciousness. So immediately the sophisticated academic shuns it. Those of us who’ve put our lives into trying to understand the Bible phenomenon are deemed useless as money-makers while our counterparts in marketing and sales laugh biblically all the way to the bank.