In his most recent book Andrew M. Greeley takes on the ghost of positivism and tries once and for all…
Religion and Modern Man
Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion.
by Andrew M. Greeley.
Schocken Books. 280 pp. $7.95.
In his most recent book Andrew M. Greeley takes on the ghost of positivism and tries once and for all to lay it to rest. Greeley argues that it is the deepest conviction of the “conventional wisdom”—a term which by turns seems to stand for the thought of social theorists, radical theologians, and intellectuals in general—that social change is evolutionary by nature and that consciousness necessarily proceeds away from religion toward abstract thought and technology. In a world “come of age” man is weaned away from dependence on myths and acquires the capacity to live without the sacred and the primordial. The mysteries before which he once yielded are those he now possesses the tools to lay open and, with a glance toward the year 2000, solve. In his social relations “secular man” is adept at what theorists call gesellschaft relationships, casual and contractual ties which, in their avoidance of deep loyalties (gemeinschaft), engage only one or a few aspects of man's total social being. Able easily to sink roots, he moves from place to place and from group to group with little sense of loss or dislocation. Secular, temporary man, although not yet prevalent everywhere, is nevertheless the emergent type toward which society, in its irreversible and one-directional movement, is at present tending. Consequently, traces of religious belief and practice that remain can only be viewed as vestigial and retrograde.
This, Greeley claims, is the model that classical sociology has put forth: religion is on the decline and secular technological man on the rise. Greeley, relying heavily on the work of Robert Nisbet, goes to great lengths to refute this notion. To begin with, the doctrine of organic evolution is based on a metaphor from biology for which there is no substantive evidence in human affairs and no possible application to abstract universals such as social systems. Ideas about the rise, maturation, and decline of religions involve an assumption of continuous and one-directional change which is usually a fiction imposed by the observer who has a stake in seeing things move in a particular direction. Regarding social relations, Greeley persuasively maintains that the historical relationship between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft values is one of addition rather than replacement. Not only do the primary ties of friendship, land, faith, and common origin persist undiminished, but, on occasion, they are even strengthened. Modern marriage, for example, combines for the first time in the same relationship the once disparate claims of friendship, sex, and love. Fragmentary, purposive, and casual relationships have, of course, vastly proliferated in modern life, but they have formed only a “corporate” structure which rests on an enduring base of primordial relations.
And finally, there are the data: as a director of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, Greeley has at his disposal a prodigious number of tables and charts. In Secular Man and in an earlier volume, What Do We Believe?, he demonstrates that in the past twenty years there have been very few changes in the high degree of group affiliation and religious belief among Americans. Where most of us would expect to find significant decline Greeley shows us evidence of even more astonishing continuity. Why is this so? To explain, Greeley posits a universal and unchanging need for “meaning systems” which provide “an ultimate explanation” of the world, a need which penetrates and transcends man's rationalism and self-sufficiency precisely at critical moments: the sense of bafflement about the nature of things, the need to integrate “the troubling forces of sexuality” into the rest of man's life, the crises in the stages of the life cycle, the experience of moral outrage that goes beyond the self. No matter how far a man lives his life outside of traditional religious categories, such experiences force him to ask questions which are in fact essentially religious and prompt him to use myth in attempting to formulate and answer them.
The case is appealing, and one appreciates the clarity with which Greeley's mind cuts through the rhetoric that has been churned out about the “inexorable unfolding of modern man.” But in looking closely at Greeley's thesis one discovers that his presentation succeeds only by allowing several critical qualifications. For example, he excludes from his generalizations persons who occupy important positions in government, in the media, in university faculties, and in the larger corporate businesses, for among such groups, apparently, secularity has made significant inroads. Even though this does not, of course, include the great mass of Americans, one would be hard pressed not to grant this group a significance beyond its absolute numbers. To pretend to chart the state of belief while disregarding the creators of the culture in which belief must exist only reinforces a mistaken notion about the utter separation of a society from its intellectuals.
Another freedom Greeley allows himself is to be exceedingly broad in defining religion, a habit he shares with most other sociologists of religion. This is not the quibble it might seem, for to define religion as a “meaning system which offers an ultimate explanation of the world” is, in a telling way, to allow a great deal. Greeley is thus able to hedge on the crucial difference between religions as we have known them and social movements which merely evince and gratify religious needs, a confusion which often undercuts the otherwise strong arguments of the book. What is one to say, for example, about socialism, liberalism, evolutionism, Zionism, and the other secular ideologies of the 19th century? Surely they were systems of meaning which, except for the customary replacement of the divine referent by terms like Humanity and Society, came replete with their own dogma, liturgy, and eschatology, and undoubtedly went very far in satisfying the demand for an “ultimate explanation of the world.” The history of the 19th century, viewed in this way, is the history of “conversions” out of traditional religions into the new ideologies of the age—the initiates usually pausing very little to alter the forms of their enthusiasm and doctrinal fervor. But were these in actuality de facto religions or only creedal schemes onto which the need for religion was displaced? Greeley hesitates here and leaves us to wonder if, in the end, he escapes by simply equating religion with value or world-view.
In addition to this imprecision there is the related problem of Greeley's habit of speaking about religion in general rather than about particular religions. I do not believe that he intends to grant independent reality to the abstract universal, Religion, but rather to discuss developments that are occurring in parallel yet particular ways within the various religions of America. The distinction, however, is often unclear. Greeley, for instance, does not deal specifically with Jewish life, yet one senses that he means his remarks to extend also to Jews, and as a way of giving meaning to Greeley's general statements, it would seem proper to ask how a Jew might respond to their claims.
To comment on Greeley's skepticism about the extent of secularization, a Jew need only, I believe, look back one or two generations in his own family. Even if he tries not to sentimentalize the past, he cannot help feeling that something has profoundly changed. That something is not only the curious amalgam of ethnicity and belief which commonly serves social scientists as the analytic model for the study of the Jews; it has to do more accurately with a matrix of historical symbols, ethical relations, and ritual gestures—as well as belief and kinship ties—which simply is no longer. Some Jews do manage to live within this totality, and many are in touch with elements of it, but for the majority secularization has been a reality: increasingly more areas of experience have ceased to be mediated through religious or traditional categories. To the Jew who inhabits a historical consciousness and feels at least ambivalent about this change, Greeley offers little comfort when he assures us that while historical forms come and go, something called religious needs endure.
Whatever comfort the fact of that endurance does yield lies in its capacity to enlarge our understanding of the “religious” nature of the Jewish community, especially the so-called “secularist” Jews who stand outside the formal framework of the religious tradition but continue to think of themselves as committed Jews. Presumably, according to Greeley, these people too have religious needs, experience religious moments, and live within coherent systems of meaning, non-theistic though they may be. They may stand outside for a variety of reasons: because a secular ideology like Zionism has seen itself historically antagonistic to religion, because the symbolic language of the tradition seems impenetrable and esoteric, or because the tradition does not appear closely to touch upon or support areas of experience in which their religious feelings most often arise. Their situation is an example of the variance between the historical symbols of Judaism and the perennial religious needs of Jews and it seriously puts in question the customary use of the labels “religious” and “secular” in describing the identity and behavior of Jews. What remains possible—and this is a promising direction—is the future thawing of the polarity and the development of a fuller integration of historical symbols with felt experience.
The need for such an integration is especially pressing now, because, Greeley claims, man is changing in ways which make commitment to a unitary system like Judaism increasingly difficult. Man's new freedom to choose how to satisfy his religious needs is one of the few changes Greeley does, in fact, acknowledge. In the place of the fiery convert of the 19th century who stood firmly within his adopted ideology, there has emerged a more cautious type: man, in Thomas Luckmann's phrase, as a “consumer of interpretive schemes.” Avoiding the limitations imposed by total systems, post-ideological man pieces together from the marketplace of traditions and values his own, self-fabricated framework. These frameworks combine to form churchless “invisible religions” such as the civil-rights movement of the 60's and the “counter-culture” of recent years. In these formations, it is important to note, one finds no special allegiance to the celebrants birthright religions: these phenomena are heterodoxies composed of whatever materials are at hand. Greeley presents this closing picture, in which I believe there is a great deal of truth, with feelings that are obviously divided. As a sociologist he is gratified by evidence of the enduring need to form “meaning systems,” but as a Catholic priest he is disturbed by the implications for the future of the Church. Jews who are similarly concerned with the integrity of Judaism also might have mixed feelings on this score. While they might welcome and wish to participate in new movements and social phenomena, they might also be displeased at the prospect of Judaism's being reduced to one element in a more overarching system. Once absorbed into one or another invisible religion, Judaism would become merely an antiquarian resource in the world-construction of future generations of Jews. Some will wish to expedite this development, others to arrest it, but, in any case, the possibility of its happening should be pondered carefully indeed.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Unsecular Man, by Andrew M. Greeley
Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?