Sunday, February 24, 2008

America's Religiosity Overstated?

Writing in the Atlantic, Alan Wolfe thinks

one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths.
That Americans are "shallow" and vague in their religious convictions is not quite the optimistic factoid that Wolfe takes it to be (supposing for the sake of argument it qualifies as a factoid at all). Christianist zealots like James Dobson and Pat Robertson are perfectly content to overlook doctrinal shortcomings in the "flock" and dovetail this inattentive Christianity with an equally inattentive narrow-band "family values" politics, thus using matters like homosexuality and abortion to push political outcomes and discourse sharply rightward. Americans who have not thought clearly about their religious beliefs and have not read or wrestled with the texts are open to manipulation by those who are wielding the most money, screaming the loudest, and pushing an agenda.

The argument that atheists should ease up on Christianity because its "extremists" are few and isolated loses its force if the "moderates" barely know, or don't care, what Christianity is. In that case, what of value is salvaged by excusing the moderates? Christianity reduced to a 'have a nice day' bumper sticker? If the answer to "WWJD?" is shrug your shoulders and turn on American Idol, anyone who cares about ethics, science, or history is right to notice the shortcomings. Bush presidencies spring from these headwaters.

Wolfe continues:
[F]anaticism should not be confused with religious intensity. One can pray passionately to God and lead an otherwise balanced life, just as one can be monomaniacal about things having nothing to do with the divine.
No. Monomania purged of doubt because faithfully convinced of its alignment with a divine will has no non-religious counterpart.


N.Kateus said...

The majority of USA christians aren't Christian. If a Christian is one taught by Christ and has consciously adopted the attitudes and precepts of Christ, then a small fraction of 'christians' qualify--by his standards. Especially the politico-vangelists who use their 'belief' to (supposedly) support their platforms. Such 'christians' and their personal brand of 'christianity' accounts in great part for your view. It's really quite understandable! If I should be proven wrong and there is no God, it will not have any effect on you, presumably. If you, as an athiest, should be proven wrong in your feeling that there's no God, please note that I think it's reasonable that the God so misrepresented by 'christianity' will have some feelings about that gross misrepresentation. I'm very interested in watching the outcome. I have mixed feelings about individuals' reactions: Some just make me sad for them, some make me wish I could talk face to face and have a REAL conversation, and some--the two politicos--I hope to never cross paths with because I'm fairly certain my antipathy would hang out all over even if I kept my mouth 'respectfully' shut.

Dale said...

N. Kateus, I can understand (though I don't share the particulars, not being a Christian) the feeling of frustration as you watch people distort and highjack a belief system you cherish.

I must, however, ask a skeptical question: what validates your 'take' on Christianity as opposed to someone else's? How do you authenticate it? What makes your Christianity the real one?

I spend a lot of time railing against a literalist interpretation of the Bible because a) a large number of self-labeled Christians claim such, or something close to it, as their belief system; and b) because I can actually pin it down and make sense of it.

Put differently, I have no idea what to make of Christianity that only loosely follows the Bible. This strikes me as special pleading -- as saying, in essence, the Bible is the word of god unless and until I find it inconvenient, at which point I wave my hands and declare the offending passage extrinsic to the "real" creed.

I want to be clear that I am not accusing you of anything, just asking the question. I am open to discussion on the point. In fact I consider it central to the choice of either embracing or rejecting Christianity because to embrace or reject something, you have to start with knowing what it is.