I thoroughly enjoy reading David Brooks’ columns in The New York Times. I particularly enjoy his columns parsing social science literature. How many columnists in the United States, or anywhere else for that matter, are well versed in the current trends in evolutionary psychology or biological anthropology? And so I was quite pleased to delve into his op-ed column in the April 25, 2011 Times, “Creed or Chaos.”
The first few paragraphs were going along splendidly, reviewing his experience seeing the hit new Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.” I took this as a noble undertaking as the show is notable not only for its splendid theatrical qualities but also for somehow avoiding sparking religious furor and resentment while painting a less than flattering picture of Mormon beliefs.
Then the column took an utterly bizarre turn from a theatrical review to the worst reflection paper ever written by an undergraduate in an “Introduction to Religion” course in college. Had the column been turned in as such, the professor surely would have returned it with a big fat “F” on the top. Unless, of course, Stephen Prothero was the professor in question, in which case he would have returned the paper with a big fat “F” while sobbing uncontrollably that all of his hard work on Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t had gone to waste.
What went wrong? One sentence from the column serves as answer: “The religions that thrive have exactly what ‘The Book of Mormon’ ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.” Let us endeavor to unpack this.
First, Brooks manages to make his way through the whole column without even offering an operational definition of what he means by “religion.” Nor does he ever give a concrete example of what he would take to be a religion, with the attendant belief systems he describes as constitutive. Given that the term is fraught with definitional intractability within every sector of the religious studies discipline, one or the other, if not both, would seem to be de rigueur for someone who prides himself on being scholarly literate.
Brooks goes on to make five functionalist claims about the theological underpinnings of the religions he claims are thriving:
1. “Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality.” This claim was going along reasonably well, at least with reference to communities that seek to implement an absolutist theological worldview of the type Brooks wants to call “rigorous.” But then he goes on to invoke a centuries-old tradition of accumulated wisdom. The problem is that absolutist theologies are almost always radically novel projects desperately unaware of the intellectual history to which they should be indebted. Theologies that are aware of their intellectual heritage would not qualify as “rigorous,” for Brooks, because they would then necessarily also be aware that on the maps theology has attempted to provide, the roads do not line up between the blocks of the grid.
2. “Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally.” The problem here is that absolutist theologies cannot be intellectually honest. This is because the religious symbols that make up theologies, within a single religious tradition, are inevitably incoherent and inconsistent with one another. Intellectually curious people who do get involved with religious communities that adhere to what Brooks would describe as a “rigorous theology” quickly discover this and either flee, fight, or suppress the intellectual instinct.
3. “Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity.” Actually, absolutist theologies insist that people sacrifice one form of conformity, to the wider culture, for another, to the community. While it is true that this communal conformity increases loyalty among adherents, (Mr. Brooks may wish to look up the literature on costly signaling theory), conformity is still conformity.
4. “Rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us.” Aside from the fact that this claim seems to contradict the second, above, it also makes the assumption that too many religious leaders today make: that their congregations are not capable of thinking deeply about the issues at stake. Furthermore, it assumes that the function of religion is to safeguard mysteries, as opposed to invite the community to participate in mysteries.
5. “Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character.” I agree wholeheartedly with Brooks’ turn here to ritual as the locus of building up habits that constitute moral character. The problem is that ritual is mutually exclusive to rigorous codes of conduct. Rigorous codes oblige people to behave out of a sense of duty, and punish people for failing to live up to their duties, whereas rituals provide frameworks for practicing behaviors in a wholesome context, which can then be modified for use in living a moral life in a broken world.
It turns out that Brooks is concerned to explain why the absolutism of many growing religious communities in Africa is better able to alter risky behavior in an AIDS-ravaged region. This is a noble endeavor. Unfortunately, the explanation he came up with turns out to be woefully inadequate and inconsistent. I would beg your indulgence for a moment as I attempt to help him out.
It is in fact the case that many of the thriving religious groups in AIDS-ravaged Africa espouse absolutist theologies of one sort or another. The problem is not in this factual assertion. Instead, the problem lies in the assumption that adherents to absolutist theological worldviews are inevitably more motivated to avoid risky behavior because of the particular nature of their belief system. To give a more adequate account, it is important to explain the ongoing interaction between individuals and the communities to which they belong: between psychology and sociology.
Religious groups attract adherents because of the goods they have to offer. In Africa, many of the groups growing the fastest flat out promise material goods and wealth to those who belong to them. Others promise health and healing. Of course, plenty still proffer the classic conception of a religious good: salvation in the afterlife. The cost of the religious goods on offer is adherence to the worldview and way of life espoused by the group.
An individual member will continue to adhere to the worldview and way of life of the group until one of two things happens: either the goods the group promised are not delivered, or the worldview and way of life espoused by the group interferes with the member’s ability to acquire other goods they deem important or necessary. When this happens, frustration gives rise to doubt, and doubt drives individual adherents to either splinter off or demand reform. In a group that offers health and healing, for example, an adherent may not receive the healing they joined the group for, or they may not be willing or able to tolerate the attendant sexual restrictions. The former would be more likely to cause them to disaffiliate. The latter may cause them to seek a certain relaxing of the restrictions.
All of this is to say that the notion of “organized religion” as a static belief system, worldview and social order is comically farcical. Religious communities are in a constant state of negotiation. Ralph D. Winter probably stated it best when he described religious groups as in a constant dialectical movement between modality, or institution, and sodality, or movement.
The problem with Brooks’ notion of “rigorous theology,” then, is that it fails to account for process by which religious communities seek a balance between clarity as to the religious goods they have on offer and enough vagueness that the requirements of adherents do not become stifling and the goods can be claimed, in some way, to be delivered. Brooks is right to criticize “vague humanism,” a leading cause of ecclesial death in the global North, but he fails to acknowledge that extreme absolutist theologies are unlikely to retain members who have cause to doubt or needs the theology interferes with fulfilling. Brooks’ church ladies may be somewhat successful in the short term, but their effectiveness should be expected to decrease over time as the effects of doubt and the impact of needs not attended to by the community play out. Until religious leaders arise who can situate themselves in the negotiating space between clarity of vision and practice for the group, and attention to the particular needs of individual members, it will be impossible for religious groups to serve as the stable reserves of social capital necessary to fund a robust civil society and to address the catastrophic health, wealth and environmental crises of our day.