"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Was a Win for Obama Victory for Secularists?

Edit: My friend Emily Dietle has an excellent post about churches serving as voting locations that readers of this might article might enjoy.


In the wake of Obama's win, CNN's Belief Blog co-editor Dan Gilgoff is wondering whether the Religious Right's influence has waned. He describes the situation as a nightmare for many conservative Christians. "Same-sex marriage adopted by voters in some states," Gilgoff pointed out, adding, "Rigorously anti-abortion candidates defeated in conservative red states." Though Gilgoff doesn't point this out in his article, it can also be pointed out that, a recent survey indicated that around 30% of young people do not self-identify as having any sort of religious affiliation. It would seem that liberal secularists are winning.

But I don't think the case is as clear as some people would have us believe. Among states in the Bible Belt, with the exceptions of Virginia and Florida, Obama suffered losses (see the election results by state here). The same is true of the Mormon corridor, with Romney leading with a percent difference of nearly 200%. A 2004 Gallup poll reported that Alabama was the most religious state in the country, with 76% of people self-reporting as Protestant. In Alabama, Romney led by a percent difference of just over 58%. And all of the data on Creationism indicate that disbelief in evolution (and belief in a literal view of the Bible) has been remarkably stable (around 50%) since people started taking data of that kind. In fact, a recent Gallup poll reported an increase in evolution denial (though this was within the historically reported variation).

How should we understand this complicated picture, where, by some accounts, the Religious Right is getting more radical, by others they are relatively stable, and by still other accounts (like Gilgoff's) the Religious Right is losing power?

I think the key to understanding all of this is through modern accounts of Secularisation. Secularisation is the process whereby religion loses its central authority in society and wherein non-religious viewpoints become ever more common. The phenomenon has long been documented by scholars of religion and even serves as the focal point of Friedrich Nietzsche's parable of the Madman (wherein Nietzsche declared that the Death of God was immanent.) Philip Larkin's poem "Churchgoing" situates itself along a similar theme, discussing what might come of churches after everyone stops attending.

One early account of Secularisation was given by Auguste Comte in his theory of the Three Stages of history (see here and for a more detailed overview see here). According to Comte, history is supposed to pass through three stages:

1. The Theological Stage
2. The Metaphysical Stage
3. The Positivity Stage

Stage (1) is intrinsically tied up with religious belief, commencing through a gradual evolution from fetishism to Christianity (Comte was writing in the 19th century and his views are biased by the ethnocentrism of his day. Although anti-religious, Comte still associated Christianity with a kind of civilised person that he would not necessarily have associated with the belief systems found in a non-Western setting.) The Metaphysical Stage involves people viewing theology in a much more abstract setting. Think of the kind of Catholic System Builders that proliferated throughout the Scholastic Period. Finally, in the Positivity Stage, there would be the wholesale rejection of any sort of theological thought; religion would be replaced by science. The Positivist movement gets its name from stage (3).

However, even as Secularisation theory was born out of the work of early Sociologists, it was quickly realised that society did not progress from religion into irreligion. As Kuhn would have stated it, theories are born falsified and Secularisation was no exception. Not only is there a process by which the sacred is made mundane, but there is also a process by which the profane is made sacred. The evolution of religion has just been more complex than moving from devout to secular and the United States is one place where this is particularly important. I will proceed with a rough overview of the history of American religion over the past hundred or so years to demonstrate way in which it has radically changed over time. This will be in an effort to convince the reader that theories of Secularisation which declare the death of God to be permanent are simply naive.

Much of the discussion of American religion since the mid-19th century onward can be seen as attempts by Modernists to incorporate the products of Modernity into Christianity and successive reactions by Traditionalists (and/or Fundamentalists.) Of course, there are also times when efforts by Traditionalists are met by Modernist responses; the feedback between the two groups and their respective struggle for religious authority was a large part of what shaped the present American religious landscape. As many scholars have noted, the Modernist-Fundamentalist split is a recurring narrative about religion in Modernity around the globe.

In post-Civil War America, there were a succession of religious revivals which helped to produce the Fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century. Although the Fundamentalist movement would largely go underground after the embarrassment of the Scopes Trial in 1925, America in the 20th century would be rocked by attempts by various groups to re-define the country as a Christian nation. Conservatives would use religious language in their fight against communists, whose ideology was viewed as godless. Subsequently, God was inserted into the pledge and put on currency during the resulting "witch hunts" of the 1950s.

Social reform movements from the 1950s into the 1970s would produce both religious revivals and entirely new religious movements. Various Hippy spiritualities would emerge in that period (think of people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious") with a variety of conservative reactions. The so-called "Jesus Freaks" would emerge in the counter cultural atmosphere of the period as the Hippy answer to Christian thought.

On into the 1980s, televangelism and megachurches would arise as major players and the Fundamentalists would re-emerge to form a new Christian Right (owing much to the rise of several conservative organisations and think tanks in the 1980s, most prominently so-called "Family Values" organisations.) A variety of panics and scares would fill that period. Not only were there rising political efforts by liberals to bring attention to the plight of the American homosexual (especially with the rise of the AIDs virus) but there was also widespread paranoia about Satanic cults. Conservative reactions to the former would generate theological discussions about sexuality and "traditional family values", while the latter would lead to a full scale investigation by the FBI (which found that Satanists were a harmless, albeit eccentric, group. Fears that such groups had massive networks of people engaging in animal sacrifice and child abuse were discovered to be mistakenly based on illegitimate psychological practices, in which the hypnotically-recovered memories of patients had simply been invented out of whole-cloth.)

With the election of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and even Bill Clinton, evangelical Christians would find their views (to a varying extent) being increasingly represented in politics. Central political issues -- science education, abortion, gay marriage -- would be found to have serious theological implications which politicians both addressed and would use (often) as the basis of policy formation. George Bush, Jr, would give voice to conservative Christian views, including Creationism, from the White House. And in the post-9/11 world, a variety of new concerns about the role of religion in society would exert themselves from both Christian and secular sources.

The history of American religious ideology is obviously not the one detailed by Comte. It is widely agreed in religion scholarship that the original accounts of secularisation were wildly naive. Some theologians have even gone so far as to claim that the sun has set on Secularism generally construed; certainly that was the position of Oxford educated theologian Alister McGrath in his "Twilight of Atheism". But I don't think that view fully captures what's going on either.

There are two things that I think explain the situation:

4. While Secularisation does involve religious belief becoming a less central authority, paradoxically it can also involve the strengthening of religious belief.

5. There has been a widespread depletion of Liberal Christianity (and a movement towards conservative denominations) over the last half of the 20th century and into the present day.

(4) is worth unpacking further. I wrote about this issue for a letter that appeared in the Roanoke Times to help explain why the secularisation of our government is actually good for American religious groups. As American religious authority is de-centralised, competition between religious groups actually strengthens the convictions of their adherents through a sort of Darwinian struggle. Correspondingly, those religions which assert stronger, bolder claims seem to attract more adherents. Several theologians have commented that this might explain (5) (see here, here, and here)  as have sociologists (see, for example, Roger Finke's "Unsecular America" in Religion and Modernization, 1992). This can be contrasted directly with the situation in England, where, despite there being no separation of Church and State, the Anglican church is often viewed as an old, passe institution and where any distrust of the government builds in distrust of traditional religious authority.

This evolutionary account of the strengthening of American religion has several explanatory advantages; it explains, for example, why religious authority can increase locally in the South even while decreasing nationally. It can also help us to understand the so-called "Emerging Church" movement wherein members are both hipsters and conservative, evangelical Christians. Most importantly, it tells us that:

6. As time goes on, religious authority is demoted to being one authority among many. But that means that religion will directly compete with other sources of authority for political and social power.

(6) tells us directly why Secularists should not become complacent after what seems like a victory. Provided that the view I outlined here is correct, in the coming months, we should probably expect a severe reaction from religious conservatives. Reverend Barry Lynn (president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) appears to agree with me. In a press release from Americans United, it was stated:
Lynn warned that despite their losses at the polls, [Catholic] bishops and their Religious Right allies are likely to escalate their lobbying campaigns. He predicts major conflicts over issues such as contraceptive coverage, marriage equality, faith-based job bias in federally funded programs and church electioneering law.

'I think the battles over contraceptive coverage, marriage equality and other social issues are likely to heat up, not cool down,' Lynn said. 'The Catholic hierarchy and their fundamentalist friends are increasingly desperate. They see their political clout slipping away, and they are going to do everything possible to implement their agenda now.'

Lynn said Americans United will undertake a variety of initiatives to see that church-state separation and individual freedom are preserved.
What should Secularists be doing? As James Croft (of the Secular Humanist Community at Harvard) told me in the interview I did with him, we should see the unaffiliated as potential converts to Humanism or Freethought. If we do not, we could lose them to enterprising religious communities which adapt to appeal to those populations. We should be making our positive values -- critical thinking, education, rationalism, egalitarianism, marriage equality, etc -- more public than our negative values (our lack of belief in God, for example.) And we should be making efforts to communicate our views to other groups and to participate in efforts to lessen stereotypes about us.

Obama might have been elected president, but we still have a lot of work left to do.

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