Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The old old time religion   posted by Razib @ 12/23/2009 10:55:00 PM

Ross Douthat, Into The Mystic:
But as the Pew chart suggests, there is one sense in which religion was less influential in mid-century American life than it is today, and that's the realm of personal mystical experience. Slightly more people went to church in 1962, but many fewer people went out looking for their own private encounters with the numinous. This isn’t a surprising correlation, since the traditional Christian churches tended to either discourage mystical freelancing or (in the case of Catholicism) encourage it only within the framework of monastic discipline. The churches constrained and channeled Americans' religious impulses; their declining influence let a hundred mystic flowers bloom. Christianity became less culturally powerful, but religion itself - whether you were a tongues-speaking Pentecostal, a Gaia-communing pantheist, or some combination thereof - became much more freewheeling and intense.

Whether atheists, agnostics, and secular-minded Americans should prefer this dispensation depends on which raises their hackles more: Having laws and moral norms that are heavily influenced by Christianity, or having a culture that's heavily influenced by mysticism and supernaturalism. If you favor legal abortion, no-fault divorce, and easy access to pornography, today's America is a more pleasant place to live than the America of mid-century. (Especially if, like some atheists, you find pantheism to be the most congenial form of theism.) But if you don't like having your seatmate on an airplane ask if you've been born again...if you don't like being harangued at cocktail parties about the Mayan apocalypse or the healing power of crystals...if you don't like seeing the shelves at your local bookstores filled up by authors who claim to have conversed with the Almighty...well, then you might legitimately feel nostalgia for an earlier, less mystical America.

I recently recorded a diavlog with Nicholas Wade on The Faith Instinct. In that book Nicholas outlines the change in religion from its "primitive" state to what we would term "higher religion." Higher religion is built on the foundations of primitive religion, as institutional religion becomes less powerful in the lives people in the Western world people seem to be reverting back to their cognitive "default" settings. More often when you strip away adherence to theology you do not get atheism, you get animism.

Is this good for the small set of atheists and asupernaturalists? On an interpersonal level it might add a bit more confusion to one's life, as you never know which direction someone trying to sell you on supernaturalism is going to come from. But on a societal level it probably reduces the ability of religious elites to manipulate sects as cohesive functional units toward their ends.