Saturday, May 31, 2008

God vs. Mammon = Mammon Wins

{ Podcast this essay } This picture (click it for a larger view) tells quite a story, especially given the U.S. as an exception to a discernible curve on religion as compared to wealth. The picture is taken from an excellent article which came out in March 2008 in The Atlantic. As Alan Wolfe, the author, puts it:
[I]intellectual fashions are fickle, and the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. Last October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious belief, gauged by the responses to several questions about faith (a rendition of the Pew data appears on the opposite page). The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.[1]
Wolf explicitly notes that the U.S. is an out-lier, and stands alone as a country which is both wealthy and religious. Also it turns out that Kuwait has a similar disposition, but is not such an acute case. Perhaps the U.S. had more in common with Kuwait than its people (and, of course, Saddam Hussein) ever knew. In another comparison, it's pretty well known that the U.S. is more religious than Europe (a cause of consternation for their diplomats who try to figure out what our politicians are thinking), but it's somewhat surprising that we even out-pious some of the Latin American countries. What can be said of all this?

For some time now, I have felt that religion is actually a market-based, evolutionary phenomena. Religion grows more powerful as a cultural force when it polymorphs in order to survive within the ecosystem of ideas. Religious ideas compete for citizens' allegiance in terms of practicality and believability. An open society is productively thought of, metaphorically of course, as a host with many religious ideas. Now a flexible system of ideas tells the people what their itching ears want to hear, and if a religious system offers a pragmatic course of action and organization for living -- well, that system is more fit than the other contenders. Given time and different rates of gathering adherents (or losing apostates), soon a few religious systems will come to dominate. Christianity has shown itself remarkably flexible in many different western contexts. Moreover, South Korea seems to show that it works well in western-like contexts too; where S. Korea, I hear, has many affinities to U.S. market and cultural systems.

Again, to reiterate the point, U.S. and similar capital/cultural systems would seem to allow Christianity to survive in its current formulation so long as it addresses the day-to-day pragmatic concerns that the general populous has. Notice I am avoiding any reference to best explanation or even 'truth' here. As an illustration of why I avoid such, take as an example Mormonism. Mormonism maintains a very silly pantheon of mythological claims,[2] yet has a superb social system for family organization and for middle-class (or higher) existence. Kudos are rightly accorded them for offering a viable code of living. But as for such beliefs being evidentially warranted or true, that's an entirely different matter. But picking on a heretical sect of Christianity is easy. As a second illustration, orthodox Christianity, too, can take some lumps here as being (seemingly) silly. Sam Harris (the "baby bear" of atheism, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga dubbs him) gives a similar thumbnail snub of traditional doctrines:
We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad,’ ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ ‘’ To cite but one example: ‘’Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?’’ The danger of religious faith, he continues, ‘’is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.[3]
Alas, whether mythful wishing or faithful believing, religion will be around for some time to come, contrary to the predictions of some dominant intellectuals of the 19th century. Again, a quote from Wolfe:
If proof is needed that religion will remain a dominant force in history for a long time to come, the fact that the world’s most affluent society is also well up among the faithful would seem to provide it. When the president says that his decision to invade another country was influenced by a call from God, or when school boards decide to include creationism in their curriculum, it appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud.[1]
Karl Marx thought he had figured out the laws of history, but at best he probably only discerned some trends, the money-religion one showing itself in the graph above. And Sigmund Freud got one thing right: there's more going on in the mind than what we are conscious of, but the rest he got wrong, particularly about religion: God is not the Sky-Daddy we all desperately long for, but we do have longings for a transcendental something, and these longings seem to come from parts deeper than what humans are explicitly conscious of.

Alas -- physical beings that we are -- perhaps there's a genetic component influencing the vast majority of people to be religious. (Yes, I count myself among them.) Apparently, Dawkins and some of his friends didn't inherit this gene. Too bad -- I think he (and others like him) would be more fit for the contemporary environment, and thus happier, if he had.


[1] "And the Winner is" The Atlantic March 2008 (Accessed May 30, 2008)

[2] As regards odd mythological claims by Mormons, these are all de-emphasized in their official web site, with the exception of claims about "the importance of eternal families" and that a utopian Zion "will be built upon this [the American] continent." (See "The Articles of Faith" Mormon Beliefs (Accessed May 30, 2008) There's lots and lots more weirdness for anyone who wants to skim the internet for summary accounts of their strange beliefs. However, few care about what their church doctrines are, only how their church addresses the practical needs of their lives. But, of course, even otherwise nominal protestant theological doctrines are pretty much ignored by parishioners.

[3] "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. By Sam Harris." New York Times Book Review Sept. 5, 2004 (Accessed May 30, 2008) It's a rare and valuable thing when an atheistic, intelligent person trash talks orthodox (as opposed to fundamentalist) Christianity. Richard Dawkins too often trashes only Christian fundamentalism, and too rarely gives explicit arguments. In contrast, "Baby bear" Harris does not make these mistakes, and thus forces theologians to defend the Christian creeds instead of the Christian cretins. Protestant theologians have been given an easy time of it for far too long, in my opinion.


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