Berger on evangelical Christianity as the most modern large religion

Sociologist Peter Berger argues evangelical Christianity may be so successful around the world because it is individualistic:

Why is this? David Martin, another British sociologist who has been a kind of dean of Pentecostalism studies, has shown in great detail how this astounding development can be understood as yet another incarnation of the Protestant ethic, which was a crucial factor in the genesis of modern capitalism.I think he is right.

But I think there is another important factor, which has been generally overlooked. Allow me to regale you with the Berger hypothesis on why Evangelical Protestantism is doing so well in much of the contemporary world: Because it is the most modern of any large religion on offer today. I am well aware of the fact that this contradicts the prevailing view of Evangelicals in academia and the media—so brilliantly expressed in President Obama’s priceless characterization of a demographic not voting for him in the 2008 election as economically challenged people “clinging to their guns and their God”. In other words, seen from the perspective of Harvard Yard these are the great unwashed out of step with modernity. But curiously this is also how diehard Evangelical fundamentalists see themselves—as defenders of the true faith against the intellectual and moral aberrations of modernity. They are both wrong.

Evangelicals believe that one cannot be born a Christian, one must be “born again” by a personal decision to accept Jesus. What can be more modern than this? This view of the Christian faith provides a unique combination of individualism with a strong community of fellow believers supporting the individual in his decision. It allows individuals to be both religious and modern. That is a pretty powerful package.

Berger isn’t the first to note the individualistic ethos of evangelicalism. This reminds me of one of the conclusions of Souls in Transition where Smith and Snell suggest that while conservative churches are the ones that have thrived in the United States, particularly compared to mainline churches, they too have accepted the tenets of liberal Protestantism including individualism, declining adherence to authority, and pluralism.

If Berger is right, can this tension between individual religiosity – notable dubbed “Sheilaism” in Habits of the Heart – and community (adherence to a larger umbrella of conservative Protestantism, going to church regularly, etc.) continue to propel evangelicalism or tear it apart?

NYT lays out three options for how personal religious faith could influence sociological work

At the end of a column looking at this summer’s public debate over research findings from sociologist Mark Regnerus, the writer suggests there are three ways personal religious faith could influence a sociologist’s work:

So if there is not really a Christian method in sociology, but there is a role for a self-described Christian in sociology, as Dr. Regnerus once averred, then what is that role? One can imagine several answers.

First, the religious — or atheist, for that matter — sociologist might have a set of topics that she finds particularly relevant to her beliefs. Given their traditions’ emphasis on traditional family, for example, a conservative Catholic or evangelical Protestant could reasonably gravitate toward the study of family structure.

Second, a scholar might have faith that good research ultimately brings people to God or furthers his plans. A Christian historian might trust that even a modest study of the Spanish-American War, or of Rhode Island history, would do a small part to reveal the providential nature of all history.

Finally, a scholar might be a “Christian scholar” by virtue of the pride he takes in his faith, especially in the secular academy. Dr. Regnerus was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs.

Option one presented here seems to be the one that would probably be most acceptable to the broader scientific community. Lots of researchers have personal interests that help guide them to particular areas of study but then we tend to assume (or hope), a la Weber’s arguments about value-free sociology, that the findings will not necessarily be influenced by these personal interests. At the same time, some might argue that completely separating personal life and research results may be a modernist dream.

I suspect options two and three wouldn’t get as much broad support.

It would also be interesting to see how this would play out if we weren’t talking about personal religious beliefs but other personal beliefs. For example, Jonathan Haidt has been looking at politics within social psychology and thinking about how these personal (and more collective) beliefs might influence a whole field.

Claim: America illustrates Gesellschaft

Daniel Askt compares the more Gemeinschaft society of Italy versus the Gesellschaft found in the United States:

Still, there’s no going back. On the contrary, it seems inevitable that societies move from what the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies called Gemeinschaft, or a society more like Italy, to Gesellschaft, or a place more like America. Gemeinschaft refers to something like village (if not clan) life; what mattered was who you were and whether you belonged. In Gemeinschaft local rather than universal standards prevail, cooperation is emphasized over competition, and the goal is simply to keep this system of mutual regard and support going. The family is perhaps the ultimate example.

But the future belongs to Gesellschaft, and the decline of the family in Western nations reflects this individualistic trend. What matters in Gesellschaft is not who you are but what can you do. Gesellschaft is open, meritocratic, diverse, mobile, competitive, anxious and most of all modern. It’s the way we live now. It’s a great place, free and bursting with possibility, though fraught as well, since people are always having to prove themselves, and one’s offspring can’t assume their parents’ status.

Several thoughts:

1. I wonder how much this reflects all of Italy or an older image of the country. Birth rates are down for the whole country but particularly so in the north where life may be more closely tied to northern Europe.

2. It may be easy to paint the United States with this broad brush but there has always been a tension between individual and community life. While Americans have rightly often been portrayed as individuals, an image burnished by Hollywood and other cultural works, commentators from de Toqueville onward have noted the propensity of Americans to join civic groups (Bowling Alone notwthstanding).

3. This is a linear view of history: we have inevitably moved from Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and aren’t going back. This may be the trend since the Industrial Revolution and what piqued the attention of many of the early sociologists but it is not necessarily a process that will continue ad infinitum.

The age of “neophilia”

A new book cites a sociologist who says we are in a world of “neophilia”:

We are addicted to new products, say Botsman and Rogers. They cite Colin Campbell, a professor of sociology at the University of York, for the diagnosis – that we suffer from ‘neophilia,’ where novelty seeking is the new phenomenon. “Pre-modern societies tend to be suspicious of the novel. It is a feature of modernity that we are addicted to novelty.”

As a stark example of how obsolescence was built into our minds, the book traces the tale of how GM’s Alfred Sloan launched Chevrolet by convincing his team ‘to restyle the body covering of what was essentially a nine-year-old piece of technology under the banner of product innovation.’ The Chevrolet was a remarkable success and the idea of ‘perceived obsolescence’ and ‘change for change’s sake’ was born, the authors note.

“GM went so far as to define its strategy as choreographed cosmetic ‘upgrades’ to ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.’ In 1929, Charles Kettering, director of research for Sloan, wrote an article declaring, ‘The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction…’”

Of course, this obsolescence means more products are sold. It would be intriguing to be privy to some of the conversations corporations must have about particular products: “do we make it a little cheaper so the consumer has to buy a similar product sooner or do we aim for a higher reliability rating in Consumer Reports“? (Do the reliability rankings in Consumer Reports necessarily correspond with the longevity of products or how long consumers hold on to them?)

The contrast between the pre-modern and modern world is interesting: we moderns are skeptical of tradition and conservatism. Does this mean “neophilia” is a product of the Enlightenment?

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman influencing British politics

The Guardian offers some insights into how sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has continued to influence British politics and thought:

Despite officially retiring in 1990 as professor of sociology at Leeds University, the 84-year-old has remained remarkably productive – churning out a book a year from his home in a leafy Yorkshire suburb. His latest, entitled 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World, is a collection of columns written for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper featuring pithy potshots at Twitter, swine flu hysteria and the cultural elite.

Such is his star power that when Leeds opened the Bauman Institute for sociology in September, more than 200 foreign delegates flew in to listen to the octogenerian thinker. Despite the plaudits, Bauman appears to be a prophet everywhere except in Britain. This may be because until now he had proved unwilling to provide politicians with grand overarching theories to explain what they were doing and why – unlike Lord (Anthony) Giddens, the sociologist whose “third way” political approach was embraced by Tony Blair’s New Labour.

That has all changed with the arrival of Ed Miliband as Labour party leader and his Baumanesque analysis that the party had lost its humanity by embracing the market. The sociologist says he was encouraged by Miliband’s first speech as leader to the Labour party conference, saying that it offered a chance to “resurrect” the left on a moral basis.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. It is interesting that Britain has sociologists who are influencing politicians and policies. Does any sociologist in the United States play a similar role?

2. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Bauman called a major thinker. And yet, how many Americans (or even American sociologists) have heard of him? I think I once read a piece by him regarding modernity but other than that, haven’t really encountered his work.

3. This all is a reminder that there is a role for the public intellectual in Britain and Europe that doesn’t really exist in the United States.

Additionally, Bauman comments on the ability of sociology to help solve the major problems in society:

Despite such interrogative success, Bauman today is sanguine about his own discipline’s ability to find answers for such problems. He warns that sociology, with its falling student rolls and insular outlook, is caught between number crunchers and philosophers. “The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of,” he says.

What kind of freedom is Bauman talking about? Freedom from repressive dictators? Freedom from traditional metanarratives? Freedom from restrictive social structures?