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Christian Smith on Why Christianity 'Works'

Plus: Baylor publishing woes, and other news from the higher education world.
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Journal Watch: Sociology of Religion
Peter Berger once imagined that the end of the 20th century would witness believers huddled together in small sects as they tried to survive a worldwide secular culture. He's now a critic of the theory that humankind is slowly outgrowing religious faith, but the question persists: Why isn't the world more secular? And why are there still so many Christians?

Sociologists have many answers, as Christian Smith notes in the summer 2007 issue of Sociology of Religion:

The moral and emotional uncertainties of the transition from communist order to now-emerging market societies, for example, might be thought to explain the growth of Christianity in China and Russia. The social dislocation resulting from the mass migration of Latin Americans from rural to urban areas is believed to explain the powerful appeal of Pentecostal faith in that region. The competition and "product" richness of America's de-regulated religious economy are theorized as explaining its high rates of theism and churchgoing.

"Such sociological accounts are valid as far as they go," Smith writes. "They often can illuminate the social processes influencing the extent and shape of religious practices. But in the end, such sociological accounts possess limited abilities to explain the persistence over millennia and into the modern world of religion generally and—for my purposes here—Christianity in particular."

What sociologists sometimes miss, Smith writes, is that there's something in Christianity itself that may explain its persistence.

"[T]he belief content of the Christian faith gives rise to certain practices and experiences—particularly emotional ones—that many people find highly engaging, compelling, persuasive, and convincing," he says. "[T]he very internal logic of doing Christianity persistently produces events, interactions, and feelings in and among people compelling enough to keep the tradition flourishing despite many countervailing forces."

This explanation, he writes, is "entirely compatible with the perspectives of Christian believers and unbelievers alike. [It] is explanatory both if God exists and Christianity is true and if God does not exist and Christianity is not true. In other words, [my] argument itself—although it presents experience from a Christian point of view—does not take a side about the actual validity of Christian truth-claims." I followed up with Smith in a brief interview.

CT: So what does make Christianity work?

Smith: According to my argument in this article, Christianity "works" from a sociological perspective because it is able to successfully address a whole set of basic human needs and desires, particularly offering an emotionally as well as cognitively satisfying experience for ordinary believers. Whether or not various philosophers and scientists raise objections to Christianity, the fact seems to be that in believers' phenomenological experience, there is tremendous power in living in a theistic universe, having a way to deal with moral failure, believing one is loved and cared for by God, having communities of worship and belonging to be a part of, and so on. For many millions of people, that is much more compelling than arguments Freud or Darwin might have made.

CT: You explain the health of Christianity in terms of the questions it answers and the communities it creates and sustains. That explanation belies the usual approaches which emphasize structural factors like religious markets, social dislocations, government arrangements, etc. What are the merits of dealing with the faith on its own terms rather than looking for external forces to explain its fortunes in a society?

Smith: A full understanding of human life has to account both for social structural forces at work, as well as personal experience and action. Structural and institutional analyses are good and important, but to understand the fullness of how and why life works the way it does, I believe we also need an account of human actors who engage the world with particular kinds of personal capacities, needs, and interests and who perceive, evaluate, make choices, and live in relationships for reasons that are meaningful to them. People are not mere pawns shoved around by "social forces." They are participants in the making of their own lives, even though they do not have absolute control over or perspective on that. So if we want to understand religion, we have to work to see how it is experienced by the people actually involved in it; otherwise we miss a crucial dimension. Of course, this is not only true of religion but of any human social reality.

CT: In explaining how Christianity works for and in the lives of believers, you mention the apparently failed prophecies of the church's demise by Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. You say flatly that Christianity is not likely to die anytime soon. Is this a message the scholarly community needs to hear? If so, why?

Smith: This is a message worth continuing to say. It is becoming more commonly accepted in the academy that religion is not going away anytime soon, although more than a few, I think, still view religion as irrational and destined to be displaced by science, reason, etc. In the sociology of religion as a field, secularization theory is far from dead, it is still a live debate. My piece is an attempt to contribute to the debate from a different-than-usual angle.

CT: There's one thing I can't leave behind after our interview and reading the article. You explain why Christianity works, but I keep thinking the explanation would simply satisfy the person who says, "See, religion is a mental crutch!" I want to respond that I'm not a Christian because it accomplishes x, y, and z in my life. I'm a Christian because I believe Christ really did rise from the dead. You leave that point unaddressed. Isn't it the case that many Christians embrace the faith, not for its effects but for what they believe is its truthfulness?

Smith: Sure. But those are not mutually exclusive things. Both can be true. In most cases people really do believe it. But believing it may also have certain often-positive effects for people emotionally. Why can't it be both? To call religion a "crutch" is a negative way of saying people rely on it. But people do rely on it. So what? That's fine. Everyone relies on lots of things. This can be interpreted from a believing perspective or a non-believing perspective, as I say in the article. But nothing in the article per se needs to undermine faith.

Baylor takes down faculty member's Intelligent Design webpage
William Dembski's Polanyi Center, which was to pursue Intelligent Design research at Baylor University, is a distant memory but the controversy continues. Baylor engineering professor Robert Marks has been using his faculty website to publish research in "evolutionary informatics." The university shut down his website, claiming Marks failed to get prior approval. Marks says the university doesn't exercise similar control over other faculty webpages.

In the world of First Amendment law, one often analyzes whether various measures have a "chilling effect" on speech. Mention Intelligent Design and chill winds start blowing. Getting too close to the idea without adequate job security is career suicide and can be extraordinarily damaging to one's academic reputation. The question is, Are scholars who want to work within the area of Intelligent Design being treated fairly? There's more than a hint of McCarthyism in the air. "Are you now or have you ever been interested in investigating Intelligent Design?"

It's no wonder Baylor is nervous about Marks's website. Critics of Intelligent Design have worked to create exactly this kind of climate. Administrators at Baylor are forced to weigh their regular academic priorities against a likely backlash from any perceived resurgence of Intelligent Design on campus.

At the same time, one wonders whether some advocates of Intelligent Design have contributed something to the nearly intolerable climate that now persists. Had the debate remained at the university level and had advocates made no move to take I.D. to the high schools, one wonders whether researchers might have more freedom and would now be working under less suspicion.

Regrettably, the debate has been far too full of politics. It would be nice if members of the academy could discuss Intelligent Design without making a career-check before so doing. We might all learn something about civility, collegiality, freedom of inquiry, and, oh, maybe human origins, too.

Speaking of Baylor, The Baylor Project: Can a Protestant University Be a First-Class Research Institution and Preserve Its Soul? (to which I've contributed a chapter) is soon to be published by St. Augustine Press after originally being planned as a Baylor University publication.

Stanley Fish on secularism
Stanley Fish was long a poster boy for the type of left-wing professors considered a danger to the minds of young people by conservatives. More recently, though, the anti-foundationalist scholar has sacrificed a different brand of sacred cow by arguing that secularism is anything but neutral and merely represents one group of persons enforcing their preferences for social arrangements on other groups.

Academic freedom bears unexpected fruit, sometimes.

More News

About that title
We're a few posts into this biweekly column, and it's probably worth mentioning that the standing title of the column is a reference to Mark Noll's influential book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This column discusses research, higher education, and news of interest to evangelicals interested in the life of the mind. It does not mean that everyone discussed or quoted in it is an evangelical Christian.

Hunter Baker is special assistant to the president and director of strategic planning at Houston Baptist University. Got a tip regarding academic research or higher education? E-mail him at hunterbaker@gmail.com.



Related Elsewhere:

Previous Evangelical Minds columns include:

David Dockery on Christian Higher Ed's Key Challenges | Plus: Fearing secularization and "fundamentalization" and whether "Christian economics" exist. (August 30, 2007)
Why College Doesn't Turn Kids Secular | Also: Richard Land on the footbath controversy, Falwell's big Liberty gift, and other stories about higher education and research. (August 16, 2007)
Christian Higher Education Goes to Russia | Plus: One more argument against U.S. News rankings, and Silver Ring Thing goes to Harvard. (August 2, 2007)


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