Findings & Footnotes September 2017

  • Much of the current issue of the journal of Religion, Brain & Behavior (May) is devoted to developing a research program and theory that explains religious diversity just as Darwinian scientists have sought to explain biological diversity. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have had difficulty in explaining the persistence and diversity of religion. Those anthropologists and other scientists studying religion tend to “read back” religious beliefs and practices to evolutionary history, usually describing them as “adaptations”; fewer engage in fieldwork much as a natural scientist would do to explain the diversity of species and organisms. Biologist David Sloan Wilson, the author of the 2002 book Darwin’s Cathedral, calls for evolutionary scientists to study religious diversity using a “cultural ecosystem approach,” where religious communities are treated as “functionally organizational units” that cooperate, compete, and colonize niches just as species do. Wilson writes that using an “axis of variation” approach for studying different religions, such as anthropologists do in characterizing cultures as “loose” and “tight” in their norms (somewhat similar to “strict” and “lax” churches), would provide a framework for understanding their evolution.

    Subsequent articles responding to Wilson and colleagues’ proposal range from enthusiastic to mainly negative, with one critic writing that neither religions nor their adherents operate like “functionally organizational units.” Wilson responds by offering some hypotheses from an ecosystem approach that could be used to study religious diversity. For instance, in studying why strict churches do better than lax ones, he notes that in 19th and early-20th century America, it was necessary to belong to a church to be socially respectable, making lax (or non-demanding) churches very popular. “It was the [later] availability of a third option (no church) that made lax churches weak.” Wilson has spearheaded such research in his recent study of Binghamton, New York, though he declined to discuss any findings. For more information on this issue, visit:

  • The popular opposition to the establishment of Islamic sharia law in the U.S. may be misinformed, but the drive to establish alternative means of arbitration inspired by religious faith is likely to become more common among Christians and Jews, as well as Muslims. That latter point is the main premise behind Michael J. Broyde’s new book Sharia, Rabbinical Courts, and Christian Panels (Oxford University Press, $85). The increasingly secular basis of legal rulings and the feeling that they “have lost control of the law” (as seen in the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage) is already pushing some believers—whether Muslim, Orthodox Jewish, or conservative Christian—to set up their own forms of arbitration. Broyde spends many pages in the beginning of the book exploring what religious arbitration actually entails. He sees the Jewish tribunals and their expertise on deliberating on Jewish law within the framework of secular law as the most effective and balanced form of religious arbitration. The Christian version often takes the shape of mediation and negotiation of conflicts (following the New Testament injunction for believers to settle conflicts outside of secular courts), though such practices as covenant marriages have also been popular.

    The Islamic attempts at religious arbitration in the U.S. have been more recent but also more controversial. But Broyde does not see anything in how sharia is structured that could not be aligned with American law. The two main obstacles are many Americans’ opposition to any such possibility and American Muslims’ lack of judicial expertise, organizational machinery, and practices that could legitimize its various tribunal rulings in American courts, especially on sensitive issues of family law (involving unequal treatment of women) and theological rulings. To overcome fears that Muslims are setting up a parallel legal structure alongside secular law, they may have to borrow practices from their counterparts in the UK as well as from American Jews who have been able to balance secular and religious legal norms. Broyde concludes that while religious arbitration faces church-state and religious freedom hurdles (how does a secular court deal with religious leaders disciplining a member on doctrinal matters through their arbitration systems?), accommodating a plurality of faith groups’ legal traditions and practices to deal with internal matters (such as same-sex marriage) may be the best way to overcome endless culture wars where a winner-takes-all scenario prevails.

  • Christian Smith’s new book Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, $35) represents the University of Notre Dame sociologist’s attempt to develop an in-depth theory of religion and its influence in the world. His theories are informed by the philosophy of critical realism, which is defined as an alternative to positivism and postmodernism, bringing together the concept of reality operating independent of human awareness with the view that human knowledge is always socially situated, though affirming that people can make truth claims about reality. At first, it is not clear how this philosophy relates to Smith’s treatment and definition of religion—which, he writes, is based on beliefs and practices related to “super-human powers”—and the role it plays in contemporary society. When discussing how religion exerts “causal powers” in the world, however, he argues that the critical realist concept of “emergence” best explains how religious practices and teachings take on a life of their own, creating “other new powers and capacities…which exert strong and widespread causal influences….” He cites the case study of Mormonism and how it created secondary and derivative offshoots in politics and family life.

    Even for readers wary of wading into philosophical waters, the book offers interesting arguments —with many contemporary examples—of how religion influences society, even as it is changed by such encounters. For RW readers, the conclusion on secularization and the religious future may prove the most intriguing part of the book. He argues that the same trends can often mean both religious revitalization and decline, depending on the contexts in which they take place. For instance, secular states that seek to control religions typically suppress religious vitality. At the same time, the same kind of secular political control of religion tends to intensify religious identities and commitments. In other words, religious dynamics tend to “ricochet” off each other, creating a more contingent and complex religious scene than both practitioners and scholars might expect. Smith concludes by providing dozens of research questions based on his chapters in order to promote coherent and cumulative lines of inquiry.

  • Reginald Bibby has written several books on religious trends in Canada, but in his latest work Resilient Gods (University of British Columbia Press, $29.95), the Canadian sociologist broadens his lens to the global level as well as revises some of his earlier ideas and theories. As with his other books, Bibby analyzes fresh data on religious attitudes and practices in detail, but in this new volume he moderates his earlier forecasts about Canada’s religious institutions undergoing a period of revitalization and goes into more depth about his theory of religious polarization. Bibby has long seen the mainline churches in Canada as undergoing a crisis amidst the growth of a new pluralism, but his analysis of surveys at the start of the new millennium picked up on new interest in religion among Canadian teens and even a slowing of the mainline decline, along with continued evangelical growth. But an overall comeback of religion has not taken place, and what seems more likely is long-range polarization, a three-way split between what the book’s subtitle calls the “pro-religious, low religious, [and] no religious.” Bibby writes that many of the surveys are constructed to capture the pro-religious and a growing number of no-religious (non-affiliated or just secular), but they have left out the huge swath of the “religious middle.” The low religious show inclinations that are both pro-religious and no-religious. Bibby sees the situation as polarized because he sees a process of religious revitalization taking place at one end and secularization at the other, while those in the middle are up for grabs among both camps—a process that he argues is now seen worldwide.

    Bibby adds that this religious middle could be seen as “spiritual but not religious,” but they have not really abandoned religion; they may be infrequent attenders, but they identify with a religion. The book finds that the Canadian low religious are holding steady (perhaps in distinction to the U.S. case, where they are thought to be shrinking), and they do not differ much by gender or even age and education. “It suggests that whether one is attracted to religion or chooses to take a pass is pretty random,” he writes. Regionally, the pro-religious are still in the Atlantic region, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan (with the Bible Belt shifting away from Alberta), and the no-religious in British Columbia, leaving Quebec, which is often characterized as secular, as the home for the low-religious. Other chapters in the fact-filled book look at the social effects of religion and non-religion and the role of death in the growth of religion and spirituality. Bibby concludes that in the case of Canada, continuing immigration will buoy religious fortunes up for the foreseeable future, though for some traditions more than others (such as mainline Protestantism), though the secular-religious polarization is likely here to stay.