It’s a measure of the tenor of the times that I spotted two pieces today considering why the most rigid and illiberal forms of religious observance seem to be gaining ground: One, by Judith Shulevitz at Slate, offers a sort of rational choice explanation in terms of barriers to entry as a way of ensuring high internal commitment and discouraging free-riders. The other’s an essay in the New York Times Book Review by my erstwhile prof (and, briefly, academic advisor) Mark Lilla, who writes:
It appears that there are limits to the liberalization of biblical religion. The more the Bible is treated as a historical document, the more its message is interpreted in universalist terms, the more the churches sanctify the political and cultural order, the less hold liberal religion will eventually have on the hearts and minds of believers. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in Protestantism, which heightens the theological tension brought on by being in the world but not of it. Liberal religion imagines a pacified order in which good citizenship, good morals and rational belief coexist harmoniously. It is therefore unprepared when the messianic and eschatological forces of biblical faith begin to stir.
The first works in part, though it doesn’t do a whole lot to explain variation in doctrinal strictness and illiberalism over time. I expect one could explain it as a response to the dissolution of other potential communities, on a Robert Putnam–ish line. But I’ve never found Putnam’s main thesis that plausible: He famously bemoaned the death of bowling leagues, but it seems pretty obvious that many other new forms of created-community have arisen to supplant those.
One hypothesis that occured to me as I was reading Olivier Roy’s excellent Globalized Islam and Reuel Marc Gerecht’s more recent monograph The Islamic Paradox is that it may be a byproduct of secularization. I don’t just mean that traditional religions tighten up in a backlash against secular modernity, though there is that.
I’m thinking instead in terms of A.O. Hirschman’s analysis in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The option to exit an organization and the power of one’s voice within it are tangled together in a complex dynamic. Up to a point, the option to exit—as, say, by taking a voucher and leaving the local public school for a private alternative—can impel those in charge of an organization to be more responsive to the concerns of a constituency they’d previously treated as a captive audience. On the other hand—and this is what the people who make “creaming” arguments against vouchers are worried about—the escape valve can also rob an organization of active members who provide an important internal check. In the case of schools, that may mean (so argue the voucher critics, anyway) that bad ones just get worse when relieved of the most vocal agitators among parents, rather than responding to competition. (That’s most likely to happen, of course, when voucher money doesn’t “follow the students”—leaving administrators happy to be relieved of a squeaky wheel without losing any funding.) When, through politics, an organization can continue to affect even those who’ve exercised the “exit” option, the dynamic’s potentially more interesting.
A problem for Western liberals that both Gerecht and Roy point up is that the moderate, liberal folks in the Islamic world who we’re most likely to find congenial are precisely those who don’t have much role to play in the internal debate over what “Islam” means. It’s the less-extreme among the hardliners—folks we’re still apt to find unpalatable—who actually have the power to exert a moderating influence.
So think about the West—”Christendom,” as they used to say. Go back about 200 years and recall that philosphers were very much concerned with working in a Christian context, even when reason, not revelation, was doing the heavy lifting. I haven’t done a random sample, but I’ll bet that the vast majority today are atheists. However heavy social pressure to maintain an overt religiosity might be in some parts of the country, it’s relatively easy to opt out of religion now, in a way that I don’t think was the case even 50 years ago. Sure, you’ve got to toe the line to some extent if you want to be elected to national office, say, but for the most part a secularist can head out to an urban area and find social circles where it’s pretty much taken for granted that everyone else is either an atheist too or at least doesn’t find it remarkable (let alone scandalous) that the others they’re associating with are.
In a lot of ways, that’s great: I’d be pretty miserable in a monolithically theist community. But it also creates a kind of theological “creaming” effect, where many of the most moderate and rationalistic people end up ditching the faith game altogether. We are—if there’s anything to this explanation, anyway—seeing the results.