Notes on Religion in America - Sleepers Awake!
Everyone knows Bach's "Sleepers Awake" - even if you didn't know that's what you were hearing. You can go here and click on the little button and have it play in the background while you consider the following.
The was a bit of a buzz on Wednesday, September 13, due to this item in the Washington Post, on the fifth page of the "A" section, because it wasn't that important - Bush Tells Group He Sees a 'Third Awakening'.
Whatever is he talking about? He's talking about how it seems to him that America, the most openly and fervently religious nation on earth, is primed to get really into it now -
President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."
Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.
"A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me," Bush said during a 1 1/2 -hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he that he sees lasting decades. "There was a stark change between the culture of the '50s and the '60s -- boom -- and I think there's change happening here," he added. "It seems to me that there's a Third Awakening."
The Post reminds us that the First Great Awakening refers to a wave of "Christian fervor" in the American colonies from about 1730 to 1760 - the Second Great Awakening is generally believed to have occurred from 1800 to 1830. And there was a third already. The president's math is a bit fuzzy. He's not one for detail.
We're also told that Bush aides, including Karl Rove, have read Robert William Fogel's "The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism" (on sale at Amazon here if you're into such things). Note, Rove denies he enlisted three clergymen to exorcise Hillary Rodham Clinton's left-wing spirit when he moved into her West Wing office in 2001, no matter what that new book says.
Should we be troubled by such religious fervor in the White House?
The Post says no -
Bush has been careful discussing the battle with terrorists in religious terms since he had to apologize for using the word "crusade" in 2001. He often stresses that the war is not against Islam but against those who corrupt it. In his comments yesterday, aides said Bush was not casting the war as a religious struggle but was describing American cultural changes in a time of war.
"He's drawing a parallel in terms of a resurgence, in dangerous times, of people going back to their religion," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the session was not open to other journalists. "This is not 'God is on our side' or anything like that."
That's good to know, even if you don't really believe it.
And anyway, there's no official transcript of any of this. The Post is reporting on highlights of the private meeting reported in the National Review by Rich Lowry here.
Lowry swoons -
He exudes an easy self-confidence. When he mispronounces a word or comes out with some malapropism, he asks what the correct expression is or makes fun of himself. He often slips self-deprecating lines or amusing comments into his answers. A woman whose job it is to sit off to the side unobtrusively and record the session for posterity with a large mike - and who must be very accustomed to listening to him talk - can't help breaking into a smile at regular intervals.
Bush's confidence goes well beyond comfort in his own skin. He exhibits a sincere, passionate, and uncompromising conviction in his principles. He is arguably losing a war in Iraq that could destroy his hopes for the Middle East and sink his party's hope in the midterm elections. But there's no wobble in Bush. If anything, the opposite.
... Where critics see the radical attacks on the forces of moderation and liberty - in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere - as evidence of the looming failure of Bush's long-term strategy, the president sees them as confirmation of the essential rightness of his vision: "The ideological struggle is being manifested as radicals attack young democracies. The attack of Hezbollah is destabilizing for Lebanon. That's where much of the focus has been. But it also destabilized the emergence of a Palestinian democracy. And it should be - it's noteworthy that extremists and radicals flocked to Iraq to stop the emergence of a democracy. And it's just - people say, well, all these problems are overwhelming. No, all these problems help remind us what the task is."
No one much knows what that really is any longer, but the president does. He doesn't waver, from whatever.
For a typical leftie reaction, the opposite of Lowry, but from a self-described Christian, see this -
First off, I don't need to get my Christianity lessons from my president.
Second, he sure as hell isn't the messiah, predicting the future of Christianity and implying he's one of its leaders, and for him to speak that way is downright scary. It's scary from a foreign policy perspective, from my perspective as a Christian, and my perspective as an American.
Third, it is completely inappropriate to talk about the war on terror being linked to some alleged Christian revival in America. I thought the war was on terror, not on other religions. Not to mention, is Bush somehow implying that we will win the war on terror by spreading Christianity? Is this a crusade now? It's one thing to talk about the origins (at least part of the origins) of the current terror battle being in radical Islam, it's quite another to say that somehow Christianity is also involved in this battle. We are not fighting the war on terror on behalf of Christianity.
It's really time for more Republicans and/or conservatives to start speaking up. This man is your president. He's quickly moving from incompetent to delusional, all the while endangering our entire nation.
That may be an overreaction. He only said people seem to be getting a lot more religious, that they see things now in terms of unambiguous black and white - pure good and pure evil - and that how he sees the world and the wars we're in, so he's glad everyone is getting fundamentalist religion and coming around to his view. He finds it interesting.
Okay, maybe it's not an overreaction.
And former Clinton aide, Bruce Reed, here is amused by the numbering problem - "As if stagnant incomes and a sputtering foreign policy weren't giving Republicans enough troubles this fall, President Bush revealed yesterday that under his watch, one of America's great awakenings has gone missing. First the Bush White House lost track of Osama bin Laden. Now they've lost count of America's religious revivals."
Here's the Reed count -
The First Great Awakening took place in the mid-1700s, during the heyday of Jonathan Edwards, of fire-and-brimstone (not Two Americas) fame.
The Second Great Awakening, led by New Englanders like Harriet Beecher Stowe's father Lyman Beecher, helped fuel the abolition movement. Bush alluded to that awakening yesterday, suggesting that his base was a lot like Lincoln's - Abraham, not Chafee. Just as many of Lincoln's strongest supporters were deeply religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and slavery as evil, Bush said his strongest supporters feel the same way toward terrorism. The Mormon Church also emerged during this period, but went on to become part of Bush's base, not Lincoln's.
The Third Great Awakening, in the late 19th Century, helped fuel the social reforms of the Progressive Era, and emboldened reformers of all stripes, such as William Jennings Bryan, Carrie Nation, and Mary Baker Eddy. Bush did not claim any of them as his base.
And the Robert Fogel book mentioned above covers the forth - the rise of evangelical Christianity since the 1960s and the emergence of the Christian right. And Fogel has a handy chart, if you're keeping count.
Reed's assessment -
Bush is like an evangelical Dr. Evil, the villain in the "Austin Powers" movies who was cryogenically frozen in the 1960s, thaws out three decades later, and tries to shock the world by demanding "one million dollars!"
Which Great Awakening is the president rubbing out? Does he discount the First, which helped put "endowed by their Creator" in our Declaration of Independence and "In God We Trust" on our coins? Does he refuse to recognize the Third, which led to Prohibition as well as William Jennings's Bryan's last stand for creationism?
Or course it doesn't matter. The president is just pleased that the nation is turning away from complexity and more and more folks are with him, thinking in terms of absolutes, and resisting anyone who says things are more complex than simple good and evil. He's a happy camper. It's a winner in the November elections.
The question is, of course, is he reading the nation right?
USA Today reported on a new study, written and analyzed by sociologists from Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, in Waco and conducted by the Gallup folks.
Baylor's Christopher Bader, "you learn more about people's moral and political behavior if you know their image of God than almost any other measure. It turns out to be more powerful a predictor of social and political views than the usual markers of church attendance or belief in the Bible."
So forget who's an evangelical, who's a tweedy New England Episcopalian, and who's New Age. It's the image of God you buy into - and there are four available -
1.) The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity's sins and engaged in every creature's life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on "the unfaithful or ungodly," Bader says. Those who envision God this way "are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals," Bader says. "(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools." They're also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).
2.) The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values. But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, Froese says. They're inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. This is the group in which the Rev. Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor and communications director for his father's 5,000-member Southern Baptist congregation in Overland Park, Kan., places himself. "God is in control of everything. He's grieved by the sin of the world, by any created person who doesn't follow him. But I see (a) God ... who loves us, who sees us for who we really are. We serve a God of the second, third, fourth and fifth chance," Johnston says.
3.) The Critical God (16% overall, 21.3% in the East) has his judgmental eye on the world, but he's not going to intervene, either to punish or to comfort. "This group is more paradoxical," Bader says. "They have very traditional beliefs, picturing God as the classic bearded old man on high. Yet they're less inclined to go to church or affiliate seriously with religious groups. They are less inclined to see God as active in the world. Their politics are definitely not liberal, but they're not quite conservative, either." Those who picture a critical God are significantly less likely to draw absolute moral lines on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research. For example, 57% overall say gay marriage is always wrong compared with 80.6% for those who see an authoritarian God, and 65.8% for those who see God as benevolent. For those who believe in a critical God, it was 54.7%.
4.) The Distant God (24.4% overall, 30.3% in the West) is "no bearded old man in the sky raining down his opinions on us," Bader says. Followers of this God see a cosmic force that launched the world, then left it spinning on its own. This has strongest appeal for Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews. It's also strong among "moral relativists," those least likely to say any moral choice is always wrong, and among those who don't attend church, Bader says. Only 3.8% of this group say embryonic stem cell research is always wrong, compared with 38.5% of those who see an authoritarian God, 22.7% for those who see God as benevolent and 13.2% who see God as critical but disengaged.
Some of us prefer the Randy Newman version -
Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
'Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind
I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind
I burn down your cities - how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind
That must be option five.
And for some immediately applicable cynicism see this on the Baylor survey -
All fascinating stuff - but what has me really interested is the studies findings that four in ten say there were once "ancient advanced civilizations" such as Atlantis and about one in three Americans say they belong to denominations that theologians consider evangelical. Those two groups must be about equivalent in numbers, right?
What an untapped constituency! Atlanteans! Just as dumb as uber-rightwing Evangelists. (In some weird cases the two are even the same thing.) You could tell them anything and they would believe it.
Given that I now expect Karl Rove and George Bush to claim that the "Third Awakening" will be that of believers in Atlantis and that al Qaeda and the Islamofascists in our midst were collectively responsible for the fabled continent's destruction, I'm here to pre-emptively put the record straight.
Dick Cheney and his Illuminati friends sank Atlantis. They did it to stop the Atlantean's Tesla-style technology supplanting their eventual plans for an oil hegemony.
Ok, sorry - I can't keep a straight face anymore. The trouble is, there are people out there who actually believe something like that
The difference is, accusations of moonbattery from the uber-right aside, the left doesn't give its wacked-out extremists as much of a voice as the Right does. The Right's equivalent of the Atlanteans (you know, people who believe the Earth is only 4,000 years old and Darwin was a Satanist plant) are people with direct access to the White House and somehow I just don't see a Dem presidential candidate inviting the Atlanteans, Illuminati-nuts and Draconian-theorists to run a campaign contribution drive.
But what if they're right? What if God chose George Bush as his agent in earth? That would argue for the Randy Newman view.
Of course, what's happening may be only incidentally related to religion, as Christopher Hayes argues here -
On September 11, 2001, George W. Bush wrote the following impression in his diary: "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today." He wasn't alone in this assessment. In the days after the attacks, editorialists, pundits and citizens reached with impressive unanimity for this single historical precedent. The Sept. 12 New York Times alone contained 13 articles mentioning Pearl Harbor.
Five years after 9/11 we are still living with the legacy of this hastily drawn analogy. Whatever the natural similarities between December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, the association of the two has led us to convert - first in rhetoric, later in fact - a battle against a small band of clever, murderous fundamentalists into a worldwide war of epic scale.
How did we get here?
The best place to look for the answer is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before. Examining the cultural mood of the late '90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.
The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it "changed everything." But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come - the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.
Then see Digby at Hullabaloo with Pimping the Greatest Generation -
I don't think younger people can understand the depth of the generation gap between the baby boomers and their parents, the Greatest Generation. It was a chasm and it turned families inside out for many years. But by the 90's our parents were starting to get very old and for many of us, the fetishizing of the Greatest Generation was a form of generational rapprochement.
For conservative baby boomers, however, it had much more resonance. Vietnam was their war, of course, the most lethal, meaningful hot war of the Cold War, but they had largely avoided it like most of their age group, even as they extolled the warrior virtues and supported the policy. (This led to cognitive dissonance that never left them.) They also sat out or opposed the successful, defining social movements of their generation - civil rights and women's rights - and were looking back at a life made up of nothing more than petty culture war resentment. By the time they came into power even the Cold War was over - resolved by the last presidents of the Greatest Generation. It looked as if the conservative baby boomers were going to be left without any meaningful legacy at all. You could feel their emptiness.
Karl Rove and other rightwing operatives saw a way to feed that gaping void with WWII kitch while furthering their long standing narrative. As Hayes also makes clear in his article, the entire Greatest Generation campaign was partially designed to further the conservative culture war by evoking that epic generation gap and portraying the WWII parents as the proper role models.
Even before 9/11, Karl Rove understood this all too well. In his essay "Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror and the Uses of Historical Memory," David Hoogland Noon, a history professor at the University of Alaska, Southeast, writes that even in his first campaign George W. Bush "consistently referenced World War II not simply to justify his own policy aims, but more importantly as a cultural project as well as an ongoing gesture of self-making," positioning himself as "an heir to the reputed greatest generation of American leaders."
"In the world of our fathers, we have seen how America should conduct itself," Bush said in a 1999 speech at the Citadel. Now, the moment had come "to show that a new generation can renew America's purpose." Throughout both his campaigns, Bush would go out of his way to criticize the dominant ethos of "If it feels good, do it," instead calling for a "culture in which each of us understands we're responsible for the decisions we make."
Bush's allusions to the Greatest Generation were so persistent that the press came to see him - a Boomer child of privilege known for his youthful carousing - as a kind of throwback. Reporting on Bush's first inaugural address, Newsweek's Evan Thomas wrote that "Bush wants the White House to recover some of its dignity, to rise above baby-boomer self-indulgence and aspire to the order and self-discipline prized by the Greatest Generation."
Yes, the press veritably quivered with excitement that the "grown-ups" were back in charge. The absurdity of it all was staggering, of course - the boomer man-child who never had a real job and drank himself into oblivion until he was 40 representing the Greatest Generation - but there it was. When 9/11 hit shortly after he took office it was a seamless transition. (They even put him in a flight suit and tried to pass him off as a heroic WWII pilot.) This yearning for "grown-ups" to take charge is a conservative boomer psychological condition. They and the political class are the only ones who are still fixated on the 1960's; the rest of us moved on sometime back.
One big problem for the Republicans is that a majority in this country now are too young to give a damn about any of this. Rove might be able to tap in to the yearning of middle aged right-wingers to be involved in an epic struggle that competes with their parents' greater accomplishments, but the young conservatives who are required to sustain this endless war don't have the same psychic needs. They didn't grow up in the shadow of a generation who fought and won two existential battles; their boomer parents either failed to rise to the occasion (in opposition or battle) when they had the chance or rejected the whole war fetish all together. These young conservatives' idea of glory is winning a fast paced video game. If 9/11 had even had a modicum of the same sense of threat as Pearl Harbor, we would have seen a similar rush on the recruiting centers and we didn't. In fact, the strongest youthful supporters of the war, the College Republicans, commonly say things like this: "The people opposed to the war aren't putting their asses on the line," Bray boomed from beside the bar. Then why isn't he putting his ass on the line? "I'm not putting my ass on the line because I had the opportunity to go to the number-one business school in the country," he declared, his voice rising in defensive anger, "and I wasn't going to pass that up."
That's quite a stirring call to arms isn't it?
This rhetoric of epic struggle that rivals WWII and The Cold War serves the simple political purpose of rallying the conservative base so that the Republicans can maintain power. It is guided by the deep psychological need for conservative baby boomers to find some meaning in their pathetic lives and a cynical attempt to co-opt some sunny, simple vision of the Greatest Generation - who would be the last people to claim the depression and the wars of their lifetimes were either sunny or simple. The younger conservative generation sees it as a cynical political game, which it is.
The entire campaign is built on a Disneyfied version of WWII and boomer childhood nightmare cartoons of The Cold War. They are trying to squeeze all the bogeymen of the 20th century into Osama bin Laden's turban in the hope that they can cop a little bit of that Hollywood heroism themselves. (After all, their hero Ronald Reagan didn't actually fight in any real war either - he just remembered the movies he was in and thought he had.) It is deeply, deeply unserious.
So maybe the moral absolutism here has less to do with religion than with this Not the Greatest Generation feeling of inadequacy and meaninglessness and all that. Or maybe it's both. Either way it's is deeply, deeply unserious.
For a hint of where that can lead see Dahlia Lithwick here on the current dispute with the White House insisting congress authorize the CIA be allowed to us "enhanced interrogation" techniques - waterboarding and freezing and that sort of thing - saying the Geneva Conventions' Common Article Three about ''outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment" must be rewritten, for us, to forbid treatment that "shocks the conscience." The White House says that wording is more precise and useful, legally. It's a game - and also deeply, deeply unserious. You want to codify torture? Just do it. Don't dick around with this moralistic crap. Just say God wants you to do it, or that it worked just fine in World War II.
And call it the Fifth Awakening if you'd like.
So just why do humans have religion?
For a discussion of that see Kim Sterelny in The American Scientist here, where he reviews Daniel C. Dennett's book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
As noted in the magazine, Kim Sterelny divides his time between Victoria University in Wellington, where he holds a Personal Chair in Philosophy, and the Research School of Social Sciences at Australian National University in Canberra, where he is a professor of philosophy. He is the author of Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition (Blackwell, 2003), The Evolution of Agency and Other Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and The Representational Theory of Mind (Blackwell, 1991) - so this is heavy going, but it is interesting.
Try these nuggets -
secular theories of religion are corrosive. Religious commitment cannot both be the result of natural selection for (for example) enhanced social cohesion and be a response to something that is actually divine. A cohesion-and-cooperation model of religion just says that believers would believe, whether or not there was a divine world to which to respond. If a secular theory of the origin of religious belief is true, such belief is not contingent on the existence of traces of the divine in our world. So although a secular and evolutionary model of religion might be (in a strict sense) neutral on the existence of divine agency, it cannot be neutral on the rationality of religious conviction.
I think this is true of all secular models of religious conviction, even the "economic model," the one that most aspires to neutrality. According to this model, which Dennett discusses in a chapter titled "The Invention of Team Spirit," religious belief is an instance of ordinary economic behavior. People join religious communities and sacrifice time, money and freedom to secure concrete rewards: immortality-despite-death, guaranteed bliss, supernatural intervention on their behalf and the like. These things are not available elsewhere; you can't just purchase them online. No wonder that the suppliers of such services stay in business. The trouble, of course, is ensuring delivery.
Dennett has based his case in part on work of cognitive anthropologists Atran and Boyer, who in effect have argued that religion is a spandrel - a side effect of certain other cognitive adaptations. The simplest hypothesis is Atran's idea that religion is a consequence of our tendency to anthropomorphize, to project intentionality onto the world. We treat people as intentional agents - creatures that act as they do because of their thoughts and preferences. That regarding people this way is an adaptation is almost uncontroversial. As Dennett himself has persuasively argued in many of his works, it is often adaptive to treat other systems as intentional agents, especially when they are well-designed, well-functioning systems. But we habitually overuse this productive heuristic. It is harmless to talk to your cat, and it may well be productive for a hunter to conceive of his prey as actively planning to avoid or escape his attentions. But it is not adaptive to shout at and kick the step for being in the way after you have stubbed your toe on it. Likewise, we get no capacity to intervene in or predict the weather by thinking of storms as produced by divine agents. To the contrary, we get a false sense of control, which imposes a double tax: the price of the sacrifices we make, and the risks we expose ourselves to by embracing the illusion.
The best-known adaptationist ideas about religion link it to the striking fact that people must cooperate to survive. Generating resources jointly is an ancient feature of human lifeways, and we are adapted to and for cooperative social worlds. Wilson, Joseph Bulbulia and others have argued that religious belief is one of those adaptations. A community that believes in an immensely powerful and knowledgeable enforcer gets the benefits of its norms being followed without paying the costs of policing them. Dennett does not discount this hypothesis completely, but he is more inclined to endorse less obvious proposals that link religious belief to psychic benefits.
One such argument is that religion facilitates placebo effects: Perhaps the belief that you are the object of divine concern has real and crucial health benefits, particularly in a premodern world. Another is Boyer's hypothesis that religious belief simplifies choice-making in an informationally complex world.
Dennett has long been involved in synergistic interaction with Richard Dawkins, so it is no surprise that Dawkins's memetic view of religion plays a role in Dennett's theory. Religion thrives, according to Dawkins, because its tenets and customs - its "memes" - like so many DNA or RNA-based genes, are structured to ensure that they are passed from one generation to the next (the Shaker practice of celibacy not withstanding).
Here Dennett's theory is nuanced. He points out that today's organized religions are reflective, self-conscious systems, which include not just beliefs about the supernatural but also rather strict ideas about how these beliefs are to be interpreted, warranted and fit together. Early religions may have a more or less direct biological explanation of the kind we have been discussing. But modern religions depend on massive investment in the mechanisms of cultural transmission. They cannot exist without the apparatus of holy books, seminaries, catechisms, theologians. So here a theory of cultural inheritance and cultural evolution comes into its own. Biases in preservation and transmission will be central to the explanation of the success and failure of modern religions. In contrast to Dawkins, though, Dennett does not assume that the dynamics of religious memes are virulently pathological. For him, this is an open empirical question.
But there is that bit about religious belief simplifying choice-making in an informationally complex world. It just doesn't make the choices any better.