On the Power of Explanation

From the Department of Interesting Dovetails:

-Survey data shows that the number of Americans identifying themselves as “Christian” has dropped from 86% to 76% since 1990, with the rise in self-identified evangelicals unable to compensate for the decline in “mainline” Protestantism. Meanwhile, those identifying with “no religion” have climbed from 8% to 15% over that time (h/t Michelle Cottle). Researcher Mark Silk’s explanation:

“In the 1990s, it really sunk in on the American public generally that there was a long-lasting ‘religious right’ connected to a political party, and that turned a lot of people the other way…In an earlier time, people who would have been content to say, ‘Well, I’m some kind of a Protestant,’ now say ‘Hell no, I won’t go.’”

-Meanwhile, Tad McIlwraith notices that students in his Introduction to Religion class are having difficulty understanding syncretism, and hypothesizes:

I wonder if the difficulty in conceiving of these possibilities is the result of media coverage of religious extremism or fundamentalism which says something like ‘You are a Christian and THEY are not’. In essence, the questions suggest, being Christian (or whatever) is only possible in the absence of other beliefs.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to establish what evidence Silk and McIlwraith have for their claims, though it’s intriguing enough that they reached similar conclusions from such disparate phenomena. Assuming they’re (even partially) correct, though, this concept of an “absolutist” Christianity needs to be more fully teased out, in particular the difference between belief and practice.

I’m not sure that media coverage of fundamentalist Christianity would be enough per se to persuade mainline Protestants that they’re not religious, or students that religion is naturally exclusive; after all, there will always be people in a given congregation who are “more religious than” everyone around them. Instead, perhaps it’s a qualitative difference: because media coverage of evangelical Christianity so closely hews to particular political controversies, evangelism is presented not as religious practice but as a set of explanations and justifications for positions on the issues of the day. In other words, it’s seen as a totalizing worldview. Mainliners who suspect their beliefs deviate from the accepted line could be declining to call themselves “Christian” because they don’t see Christianity as an explanation for everything, and therefore suspect they don’t “deserve” the label. They may continue to go to church, or they may not; the distinction is one of belief.

Such people are, of course, probably more likely to stop attending church. That’s because contemporary Western culture tends to stigmatize participation in a religious community that’s not accompanied by a profession of (roughly proportional) faith, calling it hypocrisy. Part of this is likely due to the destigmatization of “those of no faith,” a phenomenon Silk notes. But it’s a shame nonetheless, as it ignores the very real benefits religious practice provides even to syncretists, skeptics and those who are merely insufficiently dogmatic.

Focusing on explanatory power also provides insight into another of McIlwraith’s observations about his students:

More than usual, some of my students are interested in grand theories that explain everything (most things?). Evolution (ie adaptation to specific environments) is popular as an explanation for cultural difference…Is this the ‘Jared Diamond Effect’ where people gravitate to seemingly tidy explanations that cover every possibility? Why are big explanations more appealing than presentations of local nuance?

I think Diamond, who uses Darwinian evolution mostly as a metaphor, has been successful because of the enduring interest in evolution “as an explanation;” Steven Pinker might be a better avatar. The students McIlwraith is teaching have come from a high-school science education that simultaneously preached evolutionary theory as dogma (in most cases) and expressed excitement at its unexplored frontiers, which promise to link the full range of human tendencies and behaviors to textbook evolutionary principles. In fact, this is one of the few parts of the standard high-school curriculum that doesn’t have to fight to assert its “relevance” to prove it’s more than mindless memorization: evolution is with us every minute of every day! It’s the comprehensive explanatory power of evolutionary theory that’s elevated it to such a reverent position among secularists, even those not otherwise of a deterministic bent. (Of course, current research indicates that understanding “local nuance” is necessary to make evolutionary explanations mean anything—a point Pinker articulated quite well here —but I haven’t seen that percolate into the popular narrative yet.)

So is it any wonder that McIlwraith’s students, armed with only one theory that has comparable explanatory power to religion, should expect him to present them with another one in its place if his class challenges their assumptions? And that, if it fails to do so, they will see no reason to abandon the theory they have, which equips them with more “relevant” understanding without having to memorize all the seemingly trivial facts?