In telling my part of the story (some of which I've discussed before on this blog) I began with the analysis of Peter Berger and Anton Zinderveld in their book In Praise of Doubt. In the book Berger and Zinderveld evaluate "secularization theory," the notion that as modernity advances people will give up religious belief and become "secular." According to Berger and Zinderveld if we look at the evidence secularization theory has been falsified. Belief continues to flourish in modernity.
What has happened in modernity, argue Berger and Zinderveld, is not secularization but plurality. What we see around us isn't a binary choice between faith and unfaith. Rather, we face choices amongst faiths, unbelief being one choice amongst these. What characterizes modernity is the radical range of choices now in front of us, a marketplace of beliefs and ideologies. Modernity creates a Walmart of Belief where I can choose to be a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, or an atheist. And I can change my mind. Faith hasn't been eliminated. Rather, faith has become radically open. The options available to us are dizzying. We live in the wake of what Charles Taylor calls "the Nova Effect," this explosive expansion of choices, worldviews and lifestyles.
Berger and Zinderveld explain how this happened in the following way. According to secularization theory the shift that was predicted to occur was this:
faith to unfaith
But what really has happened in modernity was this:
the-world-taken-for-granted to choice
To understand this shift we need to grasp some sociological terminology. Sociologists distinguish between the background and the foreground of human culture and cognition. The aspects of life that are assumed, instinctive, unconscious and taken for granted function in the background of life. Rarely do I reflect upon or evaluate the background structures of my life. In contrast to the background, the foreground of life is the location of choice, reflection, and decision making.
Consider the following example given by Berger and Zinderveld to illustrate the point. When I wake up in the morning I have to decide what I want to wear. These considerations are in the foreground of my life. I reflect and make choices about what clothes to put on. However, I never really question the assumption that I will be wearing something. That is assumed. It functions in the background.
The point is, a great deal of life is regulated to the background. There my worldview hums away, largely unnoticed. And this makes good adaptive sense. As Berger and Zinderveld note, if 100% of life was up for grabs, in the foreground, we would be cognitively and socially crippled. Everything would be a matter of conscious reflection and deliberate choice. I'd have to wake up and devote time to the question, "Should I put on clothes today? Or go to work naked?" Some things just have to be assumed.
With these understandings in place we can now see how modernity has affected us. Modernity has increased the foreground relative to the background. That is, things that used to be assumed and taken for granted have now moved into the foreground and have become objects of choice and reflection. Think about the choices you face that your forebears a 1,000 years ago didn't even consider:
What should my career be?In the not so distant past all these things were taken for granted, they were in the background. People a 1,000 years ago didn't worry about what their college major should be or if they should change careers. Their "life work" was largely determined by circumstance. And importantly for our purposes, people 1,000 years ago didn't think about what religion they would adopt. This was taken for granted.
Should I change the job I'm in?
Should I get married? When? Should I get divorced?
Where should I live?
How many kids do I want to have?
What church should I go to?
Should I be Protestant or Catholic?
In short, modernity didn't undermine the contents of religious belief. What modernity did was change the location of belief in the mind. Specifically, faith moved from the background to the foreground. From taken-for-granted to an object of choice.
And what this means is not that modernity has made faith unreasonable. But it does mean that faith is more fragile and unstable. As are all things in the foreground. The fact that faith is a choice means that faith can be revisited and the reasons behind that choice opened up to scrutiny. Further, we are constantly in contact with people making their own shopping choices in the Walmart of Belief and can't help but be affected by the reasons behind their selections. No longer taken for granted, faith is always exposed to reflection and revisitation. When faith is a choice it needs to be daily reasserted, like all our other choices. It's like waking up every morning and deciding what to wear. The choice is an everyday object in the mind. Thus, we need to keep choosing faith, over and over. And, like all things in the foreground, this take a lot of time and effort. Faith is now hard work. And some people, not surprisingly, just get tired.
The additional point I went on to make in my class is that because faith, being a choice, feels fragile and vulnerable (e.g., I can opt out at any moment) we now carry a heavier existential burden. A taken for granted faith settles and puts to rest a host of existential anxieties about the meaning, significance and purpose of life. But when faith is a choice all those existential questions get pushed out into the foreground where we can worry and obsess about the significance and meaningfulness of life and our life choices.
In a simplifying move, I argued that Christian people to tend to face this existential challenge in one of four ways:
1. UnfaithI compare and contrast these last two in my most recent book The Authenticity of Faith.
Some people do follow the predicted path of secularization theory and opt out of faith.
2. Spiritual But Not Religious
In the marketplace of faith many people buy a lot of different products and cobble them together into a personal bricolage of spirituality.
3. Winter Christianity
Some Christians learn to life with doubt, reconciling themselves to the fact that faith is always going to be tentative and fragile.
Some Christians, unable to live with the anxieties produced by modernity, will seek existential solace, comfort and consolation in dogmatic certainty.
Happy shopping! BTW, Buddhism has got a great sale going on in Aisle 5. And Evangelical Christianity has a great two-for-one coupon: You get to go to heaven while getting to damn a person of your choice to hell. Most are going for a gay person or Obama these days...