Abstract: The Enlightenment has created the basis for an explosion of knowledge, but when it comes to religion its bias toward privileging rationalist, materialist explanations too often leads to the kind of analysis that reconfirms the materialist biases of the analysis rather than comprehending the beliefs and practices of the religious adherents.
Modern western culture is still very much a product of the Enlightenment. While no scholar who wished to be taken seriously would oppose the Enlightenment, maybe it’s time to reassess some of its limitations. In particular, I think it is time to re-examine the kind of rationalism that privileges materialist explanations and dismisses non-materialist explanations as unworthy of discussion. This is especially true in much of the academic treatment of religion.
Two sociologists, Andrew Cherlin and W. Bradford Wilcox recently published a letter in the Wall Street Journal on the drop in marriage rates and church attendance among working class couples. They made the following observation: “Traditionally, working-class couples who are married and have steady incomes have attended church, in part, to get reinforcement for the “respectable” lives they lead. But now, when a transformed economy makes marriage and steady work more difficult to attain, those who in better times might have married and attended church appear to be reluctant to show up. Thus, working-class men and women aren’t going to religious services as often as they used to.”
To be fair to Cherlin and Wilcox, I am not questioning their work per se, but in some common assumptions of social science viewed through the prism of the Enlightenment. Nor do I claim that the authors do not recognize that there are other motivations for church attendance other than a kind of theatrical performance for the sake of the community. I would point out, though, that it is the only one found worthy for inclusion in their analysis.
The problem I have with this piece is that the authors feel no real need to grapple with the motivation of the adherents. It displays a kind of dismissive attitude toward religion, finding the real motivation of the adherents in a non-religious need to impress one’s family, friends and community. This kind of motivation is taken for granted as more “real,” because it can be defined and explained in more materialistic manner. The article presents this view as a kind of truism which does not need further explanation or analysis, demonstrating the kind of scientific demystification that cuts through the cloud of religious belief and practice to get to the real heart of the matter—the materialist basis for individual and group behavior. No argument is necessary where everyone shares the same common assumptions.
Even if we grant that it is true that some young couples feel reticent to get married and attend church in today’s economic climate, it is far from obvious that the explanation lies in their inability to demonstrate their respectability to friends and family. How is this not a classic post hoc argument? (A dog barks, the sun rises, ergo the dog causes the sun to rise.)
Sociology of religion does not need to be so facile. See, for example, any of Rod Stark’s works. They are some of the most insightful works available on the relationship between society and religion and the social significance of religion in the rise of Western culture. Like Stark, one does not have to personally believe in something to fairly assess its importance, but systemically ignoring the importance of the beliefs and practices is a sure way to confirm biases with facile analysis that serves no great purpose.
It does not need to be so. There are numerous interesting questions that the fact of declining marriage rates and church attendance raise. Is there a change in church teaching on religion, or is there a change in practice as churches seek to accommodate themselves to contemporary society? Have churches alienated young couples in the current economic conditions, failing to meet the needs of those couples in the current climate? Have they failed to meet their spiritual, or material needs, or both? There are all kinds of interesting and compelling questions about the impact of religion on society that could yield fruitful answers if one takes the ideas, beliefs and practices of religion seriously. But all too often, they seem to me to be dismissed out of hand as not conforming to the predetermined Enlightenment view of what counts as knowledge.
The problem is that Enlightenment rationalism that still undergirds scholarship so trivializes religion as to make it something insulting, and all too often leads not to insight but to banalities. When the answer is already well known and understood, it is easy to craft the questions to reach the pre-determined notion of what counts as the correct answer. But when the answer is already known, do the questions any longer have any relevance? It is a question worth pondering.