Religion as Consumerism

We’ve talked a lot about recent LDS growth numbers here including my post on the drop in missionary numbers and Wilfried’s post on the controversial consolidation of units in Europe. Since then the Salt Lake Tribune has weighed in as well.[1] My argument about church growth is that while there are things we could do to improve numbers, we shouldn’t expect a return to the numbers we had in the 1980’s or early 90’s. There are many reasons for that but the basic one is a huge cultural shift in how religion is perceived. Given my relative ignorance of Europe, I’ll try and restrict myself to the US and Canada.[2] The rise of the Nones as a demographic category is the biggest development of the past 20 years here. There are many reasons for why the Nones are rising. I want to discuss a component that I don’t think many have looked at as much. This is the idea of a shift from religion as a duty we have to God to viewing religion as just an other consumer good with a focus on short term benefits to the self. That is religion is coming to be seen the way we might view a concert, clothing, or a movie.

The Canadian sociologist François Gauthier has noted how many elements of consumerism have become characteristic of religion. He noticed that people attending large dance festivals in the 90’s (raves) saw them as religious. He thought that the definition of religion that excluded events like Burning Man as religious was missing something. The traditional view of religion often saw it only in terms of institutionalized religion or religion on the model of state.[3] Gauthier and others instead look to a more generalized model of the economics of consumerism to explain the rise of a post-nationalist religion.[4] For them consumerism isn’t just about immediate function such as a dish washer to wash dishes. Rather the brand component gets wrapped up into questions of identity and expressing your individualism. The style of clothes you wear, the music you listen to, all becomes a deep expression of ones individualism in a fashion that religion used to fulfill.

I’m not sure I buy all of Gauthier’s claims. It’s worth noting that the main alternative view is a kind of mix and match view of religion we tend to disparage as gospel cafeteria theology.[5] What’s fascinating though is how both these views of religion are essentially viewing religion as consumerism. The main difference is merely over what is privileged, a kind of brand identity view of consumerism as spirituality or a more functionalist view of what religions as products do for the person. Yet note how alien this is to the traditional conception of religion. Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age is probably the best known treatment of how religion transformed with the modern age. Going back to the ancient world religion was wrapped up in duty and obligations as well as providing a fundamental ordering of the world and ones place within it. “It is not a matter just of doing one’s duty in the world, but of waging active struggle for the good.” (Kindle location 1902) Taylor quoting John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1694, notes “And nothing is more likely to prevail with wise and considerate men to become religious, than to be thoroughly convinced, that religion and happiness, our duty and our interest, are but one and the same thing considered under different notions.” (3649)

Taylor feels that this shift to consumerism has come with a cost. “They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer sumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets…” (4965) While Taylor is not writing of the consumerist model of religion, I suspect he’d see it as the same. It’s into this view that Gauthier’s view of consumerism as brand identity yet spiritual seems so significant. It is the transformation of consumerism into something far more meaningful than Taylor would accept yet that is keeping with his thesis about pre-secular religion. People develop religious views (in Taylor’s sense) of consumerism not just in terms of actual normal consumer goods, but in terms of consumer practices. The dionysian characteristic[6] of not just concerts and raves but also protests becomes a true type of religion from this basic anthropological view.

There remains a difference though that I think is key for understanding this as a social shift away from traditional religion. In say the Great Awakening of the early 19th century the question was what religion to join. But the choice was primarily about which was right. Fundamentally while religion was already shifting in response to modernism, the question was still wrapped up much more in a pre-modern conception of religion as giving us a place and providing us with duties to deal with our sin. Finding the right religion was in fact part of our religious duty. Today a large component of this new post-religion religion is not our religious duty but finding something that resonates with us. Far from the criteria being God the criteria has become ourselves. Now once we choose our identity, much of the traditional trappings of religion come with it. There are sins, unclean things, demons, angels, and priests. The objects that fulfill these roles merely change.

Now the more cynical would argue that as soon as sectarian religion became a choice, this notion of consumerism of religion quickly arose. The fact Joseph Smith, for instance, could choose between Methodism, Campbellitism, Catholicism, Baptists, and so forth meant that religion already was wrapped up in an economy of consumerism. I fully agree and think that change enabled the current change. The switch to our current situation wasn’t abrupt but was a process. Indeed given that so many are still embracing traditional religion it is a process that is still going on.

The problem in terms of religious demographic then becomes that our analysis of religion is flawed. If a raver of the late 1990’s is engaged in a fundamental religious practice, as is an anarchist protestor against globalism, then the rise of the Nones is not really about no religion. You can, I think, already see this in the explanations by the Nones for why they left religion. Politics is a common explanation (often a disagreement with the more socially conservative politics of more conservative religion) but so too are traditional beliefs. Yet, I think the notion that humans have a basic religious drive is a very strong hypothesis. We’re thus seeing through consumerism the rise of non-religious religions that can provide the sense of meaning and “spirituality” people seek.

It is into this fundamental shift in society that I think we need to see Mormon growth numbers. The problem is that our entire strategy of missionary work for the past 150 years has been oriented around converting Christians who feel dissatisfied with their own religion but who typically still accept the basic traditional stance of religious seeking. In countries where people are not as Christian, such as Asia, our missionary work has always struggled relative to competing religions. What I think we are seeing now is that more and more in the west, religion has ceased to be Christian. The very questions we seek to answer regarding authority and sin no longer have play culturally. They are completely alien to many in the rising generation. We have to adjust our approach not only in Asia but even here in the United States. We’ve just not yet figured out what that stance should be.

[1] We didn’t comment on the Trib story since there wasn’t a lot of information there we’d not already discussed. The article even made use of interviews with Wilfried over the European situation.

[2] My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that Europe is more religious than most Americans think but it’s an odd religion in many ways tied more to traditional culture and a nostalgia for local nationalism than real religious belief. This is why you have the oddity of atheists who regularly attend church services.

[3] It’s a common view among evolutionary psychologists that religion and government evolved together – often in inseparable ways as priests and bureaucrats had similar functions. It’s hardly surprising that religion in more complex societies has a structure very similar to government.

[4] The Religious Studies Project has an excellent interview with Gauthier that’s worth reading. I’m not necessarily embracing Gauthier’s view, which is that even consumerism has come to have a spiritualist component. Rather I’m using his ideas as a jumping off point.

[5] This mix and match theology is termed bricolage. It explains why Christians will pick up pieces of traditional European religion like druidism along with kabbalism, buddhism and more. Again the Religious Studies Project has an interesting discussion of this. The idea originally comes out of the more structuralist project of sociology and anthropology that arose from Levi-Strauss’ writings on religion.

[6] Here I’m thinking of Nietzsche’s extremely influential categorization of art into apollonian and dionysian types. The rise of music as a kind of dionysian orgy of emotional fervor in jazz and rock concerts has long been noted.

53 comments for “Religion as Consumerism

  1. Something stinks about these SLTrib numbers. The Church reports on numbers at Conference. And is certainly NOT accountable to the SLTrib. Perhaps this reported trend is similar to “leaving the Church in droves”?

  2. Well the numbers they are quoting are just the ones released in Conference and by the newsroom. It’s really not new information. The decreasing rate of growth and corresponding decrease in missionary effectiveness was what that post of mine was about. I did a similar post during conference and an other one at the prior conference. So I think this is about what we expected. I think that fundamentally the Church has taken the perspective that decreasing missionary effectiveness is worth other benefits. I personally think though that we’re seeing some fundamental problems with the missionary program combined with larger social changes in society.

  3. I can tell you the missionaries out here in the field are perfectly nice, but less focused. They’re doing less, teaching less, have less powerful testimonies (which is a function of their having done less imo and not their worthiness, of which I have no idea). It’s a shame. I don’t know if it’s age based solely it a combination of age based and preach my gospel, which well great maybe isn’t best for young inexperienced types still developing their own testimonies. From my interactions with missionaries over the last decade if you told me baptisms were trending down over the last 10 years I wouldn’t be surprised.

  4. While missionary quality and the types of lessons and approaches they are trained in definitely have an effect, here I’m much more interested in the social changes in society. So to draw an analogy missionary work in Europe has been hard for decades because the people aren’t receptive to the same class of missionaries and methods that were extremely successful elsewhere. That suggests a large social difference in Europe.

    Now I actually think we should have ended the “one size fits all” approach that served us so well during most of the 20th century long ago. However part of the process to being able to do that is to look at what is changing. I’m not saying my analysis is complete or even correct. But something is definitely changing in our culture.

  5. I totally agree, Clark. As a former missionary to Japan I have long thought that missionaries are prepared with answers to questions that people are simply not asking. I think this is now more and more true in the “Christian” world. Maybe rather than “Which church is true,” we should be focusing on the questions “Does God exist?” and “Why should I care?”

  6. Didn’t Adam Smith write a fair amount about religious competition–perhaps using principles of economics? I may be wrong, but I recall reading somewhere (or someone telling me) that Adam Smith said that the notion of one church’s being the exclusive way to heaven gave that church an arguable competitive advantage. That is, why join a church that says all churches are essentially the same–better to join a church that provides the exclusive way to heaven (while all others go to Hades–see Southpark episode). Thus to survive, religions must claim to be the only way. At least in theory. Although I think exclusivity is less commonly claimed, or more rarely believed by the people at large.

  7. I’ll confess I’ve not read Adam Smith directly so I can’t comment there. The idea of using economics to judge religion certainly wasn’t that uncommon. You could argue that Pascal’s wager the century before was just an example of that.

    With the rise of modernism you definitely have big shifts in diversity of thought about religion. It was always there although often underground. But as Protestantism allowed diversity people had more options. I’d argue that it was precisely in the United States where pluralism developed in a robust fashion that choice really became more of a live choice. That then expanded in the 19th century as religious violence and pressure decreased in Europe and choice became more “live” for people. That then entails, as you note, a certain economic component.

    That’s why the bricolage view develops in the 20th century. It doesn’t take much to recognize that even within sects there’s a fair diversity of views so people are believing based upon what they like.

  8. “People are believing based on what they like,” – a “customized” church, or as I’ve heard it explained by someone I know – “A church of one.” It is both a church and a philosophy, and to me, it means, “I’m the only person that believes like me, and I can’t accept what anyone else believes that is any different, unless I change my mind.” That lets you be anything from very religious to hedonistic. Very convenient.

  9. “Today a large component of this new post-religion religion is not our religious duty but finding something that resonates with us.”

    Not sure there is such a strong distinction here. Was young Joseph Smith not searching for a religion that resonated with him? And all those who joined the Church once it was established?

  10. Good analysis. Overly flexible definitions of religion are as bad as overly tight ones. In my work, I tend to analyze it based upon how many of Atran’s (In God’s we Trust) and Wilson’s (Darwin’s Cathedral) group dynamic behaviours are expressed. Within those necessary but not sufficient factors, sacred values and identity fusion get extra weighting.

    With that aside, I wonder the main dynamic change occurring within “religious shopping” arises from a decreased need for strong Moral Big Brother’s (i.e. mutually agreed upon supernatural agents and punishments). The decreased need for Moral Big Brothers occurs due to sustainable successes with rule of law. Societies with a strong, long lasting rule of law, require less real/embodied moral agents. Rule of law is a functional replacement. This frees people to opt for “good enough” adaptive group replacements. This might be radical politics, zealous social activism, post-modern academic-activist cults, kekistanity, etc. It might also be a simple but robust group protection racket (pro-active & re-active).

    As you mention, in this landscape, traditional things like religious authority and sin are memetically opaque. They have little resonance. Perhaps shared experience, ritual, and adaptive support matter have replaced a need for absolute correctness. Groups no longer need certainty of belief, they simply require a sense (real or false) of cultural richness and legacy, or a sense of authorization & protection.

    Right now there’s a really interesting cognitive psych paper up discussing the adaptive fitness of false beliefs in group settings. (Secular) religious beliefs don’t have to be “right”, they just have to be “right enough”. Here are a couple of twitter previews (the article abstract is awful compared to the article itself)

  11. Yes, I think until we listen carefully and figure out what questions people are actually asking in our current culture, we will have limited missionary success. Questions I sense are about how to live meaningful, deep, connected lives, how to reconcile sin and evil with a loving God, how to deal with unfairness and inequity and failure in a productive way, how to live in harmony with diversity and difference. I think we have some powerful answers to those questions, with our doctrines of covenants, community, connectedness, service, sealing and family, progression, redemption, and atonement.

  12. That’s a good point about rule of law Chris. As society becomes more predictable certain aspects of religion can be fulfilled by the state. The philosopher Richard Mohr has written a bit on that too. He argues that for secularism to function you need rules that all religions will accept. That entails that they be on par with religious conceptions of law. Effectively that means that secularism is the law all the religious and non-religious agree upon. Almost inexorably due to the place this law needs to be for it to function as common law it will replace religious law. Eventually when secular law and religious law come in conflict secular law will come to have a higher place precisely because it is the common law.

    Carl Schmitt, still influential despite his ties to Nazism, made a somewhat similar claim.

    All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts … The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.

    Mohr makes the interesting claim in “The Christian Origins of Secularism and the Rule of Law” (from where the above quote was excerpted) “My argument is not that secularism has no place in political or legal decision-making. It is rather that an unexamined secularism retains its theological origins beneath the surface, masking other approaches, interests, and histories.” While his use probably isn’t one we’d necessarily agree with (since it advocates not being tied to these religious origins) it is interesting that he notices it.

  13. I think religion in general has spent all its social capital and credibility. We have just had a Royal Commission into sexual abuse of children and nearly all the perpetrators were religious originations.

    We are not much better with racism in our recent past, and present sexism and homophobia.

    Unless we have a prophet who actually prophesies, or moves mountains, all we have is the Gospel, but it comes packaged with major discrimination, so is pretty unpalatable.

    I have been a member for many years but would not join the present church.

    I am too embarrassed by the discrimination to promote it either.

  14. “The very questions we seek to answer regarding authority and sin no longer have play culturally.”

    Yes, we have an authoritarian view of religion based on an authoritarian god. But I think an authoritarian god is going the way of landline telephones. Telling similarly authoritarian based people that we have the priesthood power to seal families for eternity was productive for about 60 years after WWII but now that same statement frequently produces puzzlement, “Why wouldn’t a loving god let me and my family stay together for ever?”

  15. “This is the idea of a shift from religion as a duty we have to God to viewing religion as just an other consumer good with a focus on short term benefits to the self.”

    I think we have done this when talking about the temple. Temple discourse used to be focused, even in my childhood in the 60s to early 70s, on the concepts of being saviors on Mt. Zion for those who had passed on and on completing a chain of sealings from Adam to our current generation. I can’t remember the last time I heard those concepts mentioned when I’ve been exhorted to attend the temple. Today, based on how we talk about it to encourage participation, the temple is a spiritual spa treatment that will make us happier and more spiritual. The emphasis has gone from our doing vicarious work to our doing something for ourselves.

  16. KLC: Your experience might not be universal. We hear about the need for vicarious work all the time here. We have been teaching our youth to do their own family history research. The “spiritual spa” idea may also apply here. That is, people are told that the temple can be fulfilling, and can be a recharge. But the need to tie the temple to our multi-generational families is repeatedly emphasized in my neck of the woods.

  17. I dredge up a quote occasionally from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) He was a popular rabbi in NYC, and was profoundly influential in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles of religious thought and practice. He was professor of Jewish mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, authored a number of widely read books on Jewish philosophy and was active in the Civil Rights Movement. (The last line was from Wikipedia.)

    I find his following quote to be a warning to all religious leaders; including those of us who are LDS.

    “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined, not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

    I would agree. If Mormonism growth is ebbing, if it is losing in popularity, it was not because it has been refuted, but because it is seen as irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid.

    There is MUCH we can do to fight this.

  18. I haven’t really thought this through, but I’m wondering if the Mormon missionary approach, which often seems based on a consumerist model, has anything to do with the grand shift that took place in the Church in about 1960 with Harold B. Lee’s Correlation movement. Ed Kimball, in his biography of his father’s presidency years, pointed out that Lee adopted a corporate model of management for the expanding Church as part of the Correlation equation. The other half was curriculum coordination and auxiliary subordination to priesthood, but with Correlation, the Church officially adopted American corporate practices and values, and I can tell you from recent experience that these methods are alive and still doing damage in the COB.

  19. “KLC: Your experience might not be universal. ”

    Yes, I agree. I happen to live in the LA temple district that has seen its member base shrink from the building of newer temples and from changing demographics in what remains. There is a lot of persuasion for us to go to the temple, I’m sure that much of that stems from spiritual concerns but not a little also comes from a need to keep a very large and very expensive temple effectively utilized. That persuasion almost always dwells on what personal benefits we can gain by attending.

  20. KLC, while the benefits of the temple to individuals is certainly emphasized, I’ve also heard the duty to redeem the dead part taught pretty regularly.

    Wally, not quite sure what you mean by “corporate practices and values.” I think some aspects are important. Indeed I think neglecting them was what got the church in so much trouble. I’d suggest that many of the practices came about during Pres. Kimball’s time as President when N. Eldon Tanner was his counselor and trying to fix the mismanagement of the church. I’d go so far as to say that many of the problems of the church came about because it wasn’t corporate enough. (Thinking here especially of the era of the 80’s when often people weren’t necessarily picked for roles due to experience or capability in those functions)

  21. Clark, I think I need to make more clear a distinction I only implied in my earlier comments. I too hear lots of talk about redeeming the dead when temples are talked about in lessons, when we expound on the purpose of temples we still speak of vicarious work and of our responsibilities. But when we are encouraging people to attend, when we are exhorting the saints to be more active temple goers it seems in my experience that it is almost always for personal benefit and not for the benefit of others.

  22. Ah that makes more sense. Yes, that is certainly the emphasis in most talks. The duty aspect is also taught, such as in the recent Howard W. Hunter manual, but the blessings of the temple get discussed far more.

  23. I agree with the analysis but tend to expand it beyond consumerism to the more general category of choice. In other words, people have more choice in their lives in ways that aren’t just purchases. People can choose to volunteer for the military for example. People can choose to divorce or not marry. Wealthy people from the USA can choose to live abroad. Many of these choices aren’t new but i would say the number of people with choices, the number of choices for those people, the speed of the choices, the social support of uncommon choices have all increased in recent decades.
    The management consultant and author Peter Drucker said that more people have choices and that society is unprepared for what it means for people to have real choices.

  24. I don’t think it’s just about choice though. Again the Great Awakening in the early US was in some ways about choice. But the choice wasn’t really oriented the way people tend to view religious choice today. The main concern was truth and duty to God. Today the main issue seems to be immediate effects on the person.

  25. Clark, I’d suggest it may not be about the immediate effects upon the person. Rather people (as statistical aggregates) are probing the adaptiveness of different levels of belonging. At a societal level, the biological role of religion has been supplanted by rule of law. This frees religion up to function at a medium to large group level (i.e. a smaller level). Secular activist ideologies are able to stretch up into this level and now directly compete with religion, gradually adopting and adapting successful religious like dynamics.

    Quasi-religious politics is a bit of an odd duck. I almost wonder if people are trying to make it work at the level religion once held (and to a decent extent still does) (i.e. at a societal level). It is just faring very poorly at that level. At least in a pluralistic society where rule of law can support no competitors.

    So lots of religion is going down to a lower level of selection. Some things are moving up to test out this newly vacated space (politics). Other things (secular activist ideologies) are moving up a level of selection and are now competing on the ground religion has dropped down into.

    Of course testing the validity of such conjectures is wildly unlikely. Lots of time before evolutionary tools get sophisticated enough to parse out any fuzzy, ephemeral levels selections.

    But the main implication of this conjecture is that religion will probably continue to bifurcate. Stable points are probably theocratic states like ISIS (competition with rule of law for societal level operation) or comfort/convenience groupings like
    -social ideologies (I’m progressive or blue collar), and,
    -cultural traditions (I’m latino or Red neck).
    Of course these will be infused with a decent amount of morality such that they function adaptively. But the recent intersectional wars suggest this is already happening.

  26. I think there are three levels. There’s more traditional pre-modern religion where the emphasis is on sin, duty, and orienting ones place in reality. There’s then the more cafeteria type where it’s akin to therapy. There you have religion proper viewed primarily in terms of what it does for a person that the person can immediately detect. This opens up non-religious groups such as alternative medicine and the like but is blurry. Psychotherapy during its heyday probably would fit in there. Then lastly there’s the identity type in which religion is seen as brand identity and the non-religion types of marxists, anarchists and so forth fit in there.

    So I don’t deny what you are saying but see it as only dealing with that latter category. I think I agree that stable rule of law makes this brand identity more likely because some of the immediate benefits of religion that helped both the pre-modern and cafeteria types now is successfully done by the state. I’d add that it’s not just rule of law but also other things done by the state such as the safety net.

    That safety net aspect we’ve not discussed but accounts for much of the rise of say secret societies in the early 20th century. So groups like the masons grew because they offered health insurance and life insurance policies as well as providing a practical brotherhood in time of need. Many religious groups also did that. The shift to providing a safety net from FDR to Johnson changed that. My guess is that in Europe the more extensive safety net accelerated that change more than in the United States where religious congregations still provided important services.

    I do agree that as people move into the alternative quasi-religions that conflicts will start to erupt as values conflict. You of course saw that in the 19th century with Mormons and arguable huge rifts over racial issues such as the formation of the southern baptist convention. This would then be tied into larger social stresses.

  27. What I’m trying to point out is that ” immediate effects on the person” is a much broader category than “consumerism”. How do you distinguish between a term like individualism and consumerism? You state “Far from the criteria being God the criteria has become ourselves.” Maybe it is just terminology and not important to your points, but I think consumerism is tied closely to economic structures and purchases of goods and services and that the phenomenon you are discussing which includes identities that go beyond purchases into areas like political and ethnic identities. Your analysis misses the aspect of “whiteness” and the issue of the American Christian God being associated with European nation states and their colonies.
    It also seems to me that the connection is lost in this type of analysis between the decline of religion and the declining status of religion because of its relative loss of status in educated elite culture to other types of expertise such as scientific and economic worldviews.
    I see this in the way that younger people roughly post baby boomers thinking of religion mostly in terms of morals and communities and not in terms of explanatory theories. It seems beside the point for them for religion to make predictions about the world in all its complexity.
    My main point an din this I agree with your analysis in many ways is that I think expanded choice as a consumer changes the way people make choices in other areas. It is not precisely that religion has become a consumer good, it is that the way one functions as a consumer, say by becoming sophisticated about advertising and “who benefits” in economic transaction changes the way one behaves religiously, politically and culturally.

  28. Chris g,
    If you are using adaptive in the biological sense then it means reproductive success. It is not clear to me that the rule of law competes very strongly with religion for the simple reason that the rule of law seems to lower reproduction lower than is biologically sustainable absent a non-rule-of-law factor like religion. The world over the religious have more children than the non-religious which makes any explanation of the expansion of rule-of-law from adaptiveness problematic. Currently in the wealthy parts of the world, religion is strongly selected for, but particular religions do not appear to be highly conserved genetically although they may correlated with some traits related to religiousness.
    It seems like you are using “levels” in terms of larger aggregates of people, but I’m not sure that is the case, you may be using it as some other conceptual way. If it is in terms of aggregations, all of the aggregations of the scale we have now with cities, nations and global networks are much more recent than any biological variation. In some sense it is biological because humans are doing it and humans are biological but it is not clear what ways those humans are acting in concordance with biological selection, say by “probing the adaptiveness of different levels of belonging.”

  29. Clark,
    There is another area I’d like to ask you about that I don’t have a well-developed opinion but that I think is a key issue.
    You say in one place “Yet, I think the notion that humans have a basic religious drive is a very strong hypothesis.” and then later “The very questions we seek to answer regarding authority and sin no longer have play culturally. They are completely alien to many in the rising generation.”

    So the question relates to what is fundamental to your definition of religion and what is fundamental. For example, it would seem that neither authority or sin are fundamental to your concept of religion unless you think that the rising generation is an exception to the “basic religious drive”.
    I would tend to lean to the view that “religion” is not a particularly useful concept cross-culturally, but I’m not strong in that leaning. It does seem to me that if a religious drive is strong among humans, then it is an extremely varied thing.

  30. Martin, I don’t really have a single definition of religion. Typically when I’m talking about it I’ll talk about religion for the beliefs and practices of long recognized religions and quasi-religion for similar structures in communities not traditionally called religion. But the meaning of the term really depends upon what you are talking about and particularly what texts you’re referring to. In this post I’m intentionally being blurry about what constitutes religion since I’m inherently raising questions about the term.

    As to how to distinguish between individualism and consumerism, I take the later to be about how one judges while the former is a kind of nominalism where effects (including duties) are seen only in terms of the individual rather than the community. In theory it’s possible to have consumerism that’s simultaneously non-individualistic although in practice I suspect it’s rare. So one might see Huey Long’s promise of a chicken and fridge for everyone as a kind of communal consumerism.

    To the question of race, I think that’s largely orthogonal to the questions I’m asking although I’m open to being wrong there.

    As for elites, that’s an interesting question I’ve not considered. That is religion is less important because elites have more power via other structures. However while that might be a feedback loop of sorts intensifying the rate of change at a certain point, I don’t see how it could be the prime driver. After all the obvious question is why elites start to see religion as having less power and thus not as useful for their drive for elite power.

    While I agree with your economic point, what I meant by consumer was less the ability to pick a religion and thus have religions compete so much as the question of what grounds they compete. Once they competed in terms of supplying better the old pre-modern role of religion. Then that changes. In one sense both are consumerist but I think the change makes religion more like other consumer services and products.

    I can’t speak for Chris, but I think by adaptive he means more in a memetic sense rather than in terms of biological evolution. That is structures that are successfully maintained. There may be more biological components under those but I don’t think that’s ultimately what he’s focused on.

    To your final point, I think the basic biological drives are for a sense of transcendent and so forth. When I said authority and sin don’t have cultural play I meant in the particular theological form they had in Christianity. I think there are similar structures still in play such as charismatic authority by leaders of groups and sin as a kind of uncleaniliess due to certain behaviors, beliefs, or even place in society. You see that for instance in how some intersectional groups view race and gender. But it’s not really sin proper in a theological sense although it is a kind of de facto social uncleanliness with very similar treatment by the group.

  31. Clark,
    Thanks for the answers. Religious change is an enormously complicated and intertwined topic and I appreciate your efforts to share your process of understanding it. In general, I might agree that race is orthogonal to religion, but I don’t that is as true for a religion with Gods that have bodies and a more literal interpretation of man being made in God’s image. If God has a body, that body like ours the question will come up as to what race God is and why. That and other natural questions lead to a lot of issues for the LDS conception of God that don’t come up for other religions. This also correlates with the american cultural setting of the LDS church and the relationship of missionaries to other forms of cultural imperialism and colonialism. They are logically tied, but I think they are tied closely together in many ways. Traditional religions are tied to traditional practices for many young people. One of those traditional practices seemed to be less transparency around things like abuse, for example. Is it that force for transparency part of consumerism or is it a more traditional reaction to hypocrisy?

  32. Another way of putting my question to Chris g, but I’d be interested in Clark’s opinion also is the relative difference between rule of law or government and religion in the creation of purposes. It seems to me that religion helps create purposes but the rule of law only allows for purposes created outside of law to exist. In Clark’s terms, does anyone see the rule of law as providing transcendence?

  33. Sorry Martin, I had a response to your question, but looks like it got eaten.

    Yes, I am using fitness in the classical sense of the word.

    In short, timescale of analysis also matters. So, in conflicts, who wins US and its low birthrate or Iran and its high, religiously inspired birth rate?

    Norezayan’s “Big Gods” go through all the details here, including full discussion of the interaction between religion and society. He establishes a causal arrow which suggests, in the chicken and egg problem of which came first, that religion did.

    After the meeting I’m in, I’ll see if I can dredge up some of my lost comments…


  34. Martin, I don’t think it gives ontological transcendence but when you are in a group battling for something bigger than oneself then there is a kind of practical transcendence. So you see that a lot in say Marxist revolutionaries in the 20th century.

    I don’t think rule of law provides that. What rule of law does is offer a space where certain concerns about stability are taken care of. To draw an analogy, the reason people are able to complain about vaccines is because the diseases vaccines were designed to take care of aren’t afflicting people. Likewise church gave stability because of general social instability. Once you have social stability then people are able to be more critical of church. Now of course that’s a loose analogy so don’t push it too far. It’ll quickly break down in a variety of ways.

    Chris, when you say classic sense of fitness you mean darwinian?

  35. Another way of putting my question to Chris g, but I’d be interested in Clark’s opinion also is the relative difference between rule of law or government and religion in the creation of purposes. It seems to me that religion helps create purposes but the rule of law only allows for purposes created outside of law to exist. In Clark’s terms, does anyone see the rule of law as providing transcendence?

    Martin, Norezayan’s Big Gods is the best stuff I’ve read on the interplay between rule of law and government. I suspect your analysis fits in well-enough with his (and my) approach. There is strong suspicion that real of law and governance paced each other (with one leading at times, and another leading at times). Such complex interplay fits well with basic evolutionary reasoning which suggests complex cycling occurs when two adjacent levels of selection are close to equally fit. Norezayan makes the case that religion had to emerge before governance. Not everyone agrees. But, I certainly do.

    Transcendence can be seen religiously (there is a heaven) or phenomenologically (an experience of connection). My own understanding of evolution is that experiences of transcendence are biologically evolved signals of adaptive group resonance (a group is likely to be fitness enhancing, and stable enough to pursue). From this perspective, both religion and rule of law can be transcendental (they can both signal adaptiveness). Which one is real? They both lead to real effects here and now. They both lead to real effects for future generations.

    Can one believe in something false and still get benefits? Certainly. So, perhaps I’m missing what question you’re asking…

  36. Chris, isn’t Norezayan primarily talking cultural evolution not biological revolution though? He says there’s an analogy but the difference has to be kept in mind. Although they’re also intertwined since we are cultural creatures because sharing information and behaviors has biological fitness advantages.

    I confess I’ve not yet read Norezayan although he’s in my Kindle app waiting for me to finish my other books. Glancing at it he seems to switch between the two senses of fitness. So for instance the supernatural watcher hypothesis improves fitness of the group in a darwinian sense by reducing the types of punishment which reduces biological fitness. So cognition biased towards a supernatural watcher would be selected for at the individual level biologically.

    If I have you right, rule of law reduces the need for a supernatural watcher hypothesis. Where I have some problem is that you’d assume the cognition for such a view would persist even if the social need has ended. I suppose Bentham’s panopticon is a similar idea without the supernatural component. One could argue that the modern security state allows this type of evolved cognition to persist tied to government and the rule of law.

  37. He’s on the cultural side of dual inheritance theorists.

    But I’d also suggest not reading too much into his use of purely cultural arguments.. It is much easier to publish and defend than a dual theory, especially if your book is already as ambitious as his. Easier to pull back a bit than overextend.

    On page 154 of Big Gods, when talking about religious fertility he makes allowance for gene-culture (dual inheritance) approaches. But he says “this provocative idea is just starting to receive attention” – 2013. It has. And that attention seems, at least to me, to have been pretty favourable.

    In my point of view, a dual inheritance approach fits the historical case much much better than a purely cultural approach. It explains the punctuated nature of the evolution and the time frames involved.

    Punctuated growth curves fit either dual inheritance or content + bias approach (see the last image here). The latter is purely cultural, but dualists argue that genetic influence make for really good biases!

    “Where I have some problem is that you’d assume the cognition for such a view would persist even if the social need has ended” – Clark

    Yes. That is they key difference between cultural and gene-culture interpretations: how long it takes for things to emerge and fade. Purely cultural practices are much more rapid. Although dualists are starting to find that interplay between culture and genes can happen much quicker than even the famous lactose persistence case suggests. (I’ll have to dig up some of those papers…)

    But, as I mentioned in my post which got eaten, the degree of embodiment of the supernatural agent changes. Both rule of law and religion have Moral Big Brothers, but they don’t seem to have the same degree of Moral Big Brother embodiment. Many religions tend to have fairly embodied Big Brothers. Rule of Law, perhaps due to the physical presence of judges and such, gets away with less embodiment. But the supporting architecture is still there (why does religion re-emerge in isolated populations or atheistic or secular groups?). It has been at least tens of thousands of years in the making. Not long “genetically”, but certainly long enough for dual-inheritance genetic effects.

    “So cognition biased towards a supernatural watcher would be selected for at the individual level biologically.” – Clark

    Most biologists (biased by Dawkin’s old gene’s eye view) say selection is always at the individual, or gene level. That restricted approach is holding water less and less well. D.S. Wilson makes some pretty convincing arguments that supernatural watchers (Moral Big Brothers) are best explained due to selection at the group level. It is only when individuals interact that Moral Big Brothers are fitness enhancing. And then, they are fitness enhancing for the group, which then is fitness enhancing for individuals within the group (in the aggregate). The other way around, while plausible, runs into some ontological problems. If interaction is required but not included in your initial framing, then parsimony suggests it should be framed in. Hence, one reason for the group interpretation. But, either way (individual, gene or group) is, as of right now, plausible.

  38. Chris, when you say classic sense of fitness you mean darwinian?

    …ummm… in laymen’s terms, probably. One usage of Darwinian is as a catch-all for anything that changes genetically due to some type of pressure. That is a good enough fit for me.

    Fitness at the most basic level is just the number of offspring you have. But you have to factor in time scales and your unit of analysis. Long time scales confound simplistic thinking, such as religion x has lots of kids, so it is fitter than those european 1 kid secularists. Perhaps, but over what time frame? Over 100y when the religion over-populates an area and gets caught in some terrible genocidal wars won by the Europeans?

    So in general usage like I’ve been doing, fitness just means the number of kids that reach maturity as measured over a time scale appropriate for the discussion at hand. In cultural evolution talk it becomes much more probabilistic. So much so that “fitness” really only makes sense for fairly large groups, and even then in a very probabilistic way.

  39. Well not to go down too much of a tangent but I confess I’m still not convinced by group selection except perhaps as a somewhat emergent phenomena. But I don’t think there’s a lot of non-human examples that are clear and convincing. But then I’m also not constantly reading on the debate so I might have missed something.

    I confess making a separation due to individuals interacting doesn’t offer much since most species interact to some degree if only sexually. However at the same time as a short hand I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about groups.

    Thanks for clarifying on fitness. I had thought you were talking more in terms of signs or memes and their success.

  40. “In say the Great Awakening of the early 19th century the question was what religion to join. But the choice was primarily about which was right.”

    I’m not sure that is totally the case. Preachers and revivals had many of the features of spectacle and mass emotion as a rave. Also, religions in that era tended to segment by social class. I’m not sure what the dynamics of a choice of religion based on truth were for the second great awakening as compared to other social features of religion.

    “What I think we are seeing now is that more and more in the west, religion has ceased to be Christian. The very questions we seek to answer regarding authority and sin no longer have play culturally.”

    I think a lot of this depends on what one means by “Christian”. Is there a strong difference between secular and religious values in the West today? Are people who are dissatisfied with conservative politics expressing or rejecting Christian values? I don’t think it is at all clear.

  41. Chris g,
    I enjoyed the links. The main thing they convinced me of is the spectacularly vague measures of culture that are being used and that we are a long, long way from having a decent science of human behavior.

  42. That’s a fair point I’d agree with Martin. It wasn’t purely what I’d call pre-modern religion. And even pre-modern religion wasn’t fully that stereotype either.

  43. Well, glad the link helped out…./grin

    Culture is very hard to define. There is a reason why the social “sciences” and humanities tend to full descriptor approaches and are content with non-generalizable ends.

    But genetic tools have made tremendous strides in the social sciences. But even quantitative evolutionary biology is subject to many of the same critiques and limitations of cultural evolution – the problems are usually just hidden from view and only crop up in obscure species. I’ll have to do a full post sometime to make a satisfactory case for Clark.

    I think Rubin Report tonight has GaadSad on talking about social justice as a religion. While Gaad isn’t my favourite person, and he certainly isn’t versed in cultural evolution, it might be interesting nonetheless.

  44. That’s interesting Chris. A few thoughts. It seems to me that for cooperation it’s true we cooperate with non-related individuals although I’d question how well we do the more unrelated the community becomes. This isn’t my field so I don’t claim to know all the research, but I’ve read several studies of early childhood development and trust. It seems like babies pick up in-group vs. out-group characteristics rather quickly in a presumably evolutionarily selected fashion. While babies obviously aren’t cooperating in social groups I’d rather imagine that those group detection manifest in biases towards adult cooperation. Put an other way, we can cooperate with people we’re not related to but have biases against doing so. Some might even argue that more universalist religions develop as a way to overcome such biases. But again those are relatively recent – likely only 2500 or so years ago.

    It seems a problem we quickly face regarding such cultural evolution is why such structures only appear 2500 years ago, given how rapidly they allow societies to develop. It’s somewhat analogous to the problem of human language. If language evolved around 100,000 – 150,000 years ago why did it take so long for complex culture and government to develop? Say around 10,000 years ago. (I’m not saying any of this is a problem – more that it’s a bit of a mystery)

    The usual arguments, which that article touches upon, relate to agriculture and domestication of animals and plants.

    I did like that they focused on the subspecies level especially in a given area where you can have fairly diverse traits. I think part of the problem – which occurs in biology as well – is figuring out what separates these groups. The tree example they give is a great one to show how that can be tricky. Oddly they don’t play up that angle. Obviously they touch upon in-group and out-group distinctions and the ways those boundaries are maintained. That’s interesting as it allows some groups in the same geographic areas to develop in unique fashions. Think say Jews in Europe. Those can given the right cues then provide information and cultural shifts into the main body. (Think of say the influence of Jewish thinking on the Renaissance, and on the rise of contemporary science in the first half of the 20th century)

    I’ve only read half the article thus far. But it really is quite interesting to think about. Especially about our own religion.

  45. We tend to cooperate when you have lots of religious-like expressions at play. That also happens temporarily during times of existential threat or genocidal gain. That’s why the slime-mold analogy gets used (individual at times, groupish at times). It’s also why we’re probably why we have some much evolutionary plasticity as a species – we are at an unstable equilibrium between two strange attractors (groupishness & individualism) which is complexly rich.

    I don’t think cultural-group aspects only emerged 3kya ago. That’s just wrong. They seem to have been evolving all throughout hominid history (100’s of kya). But there was certainly a punctuated change about 10-15kya ago. One hypothesis is that it is just lag associated with junk genetic change build-up. The evo-devo folks would say it takes a while until a master gene is methylated enough for phenotypical punctuation to happen. But you definitely see a see-sawing back and forth between levels of organization until successful cultural traits stabilize.

    But seeing religious groups in terms of ecosystem terms is an interesting approach…Niche creation produces feedback that effects biodiversity. Apropos for the current great religious awakening and the rise of secular-progressive cults (new religious movements).

  46. Sorry for the circularity in how I presented cooperation. The arrow is group factors –> cooperation, but where cooperation keeps cropping up individually with great frequency.

    Cooperation is a risk strategy largely mediated by probability of future encounters (kin selection can be made superfluous, but is not “wrong”, the data is just seems indeterminate in most cases). So the factors associated with “adaptive groups” (e.g. Religion) facilitate cooperation, but co-operation doesn’t necessarily lead to groups nor religions. You need between-group selection (in most cases. Nowak has explored the measures required via artificial simulations, and the cases where you don’t need between-group selection are pretty rare).

    In groups with weak norms and such, cooperation is quickly extinguished. But in groups with strong norms or sever threats it emerges. What is the most parsimonious causal arrow here?

    Cooperation is a natural tendency (whose expression is normally distributed) but which requires between-group selective pressure to stabilize. This logic breaks down at the family level where kin selection is more parsimonious.

  47. The structures I mentioned as appearing around 2500 years ago wasn’t cooperation (which clearly is in place by 10,000 years ago) but rather universalist religions that expand outward well beyond groups with similar genetics.

  48. That’s about the time civil government went past the “kingdom” stage and the population under effective control jumped up an order of magnitude. Basically – cultural solutions on how to stabilize at a kingdom level had solidified and natural experiments in how to go a step further and compete against other kingdoms were occurring. Interesting that this happened at generally the same time period in China, Indus Valley, etc. Pluralism as per Darius & Alexander was,t quite enough…

  49. But does seem like a necessary but not sufficient pre-requisite. Universalizing religion seems like appropriation of government’s solution to pluralism….”here’s all that matters, the extra stuff is polite’ but superfluous”.

  50. Religion must throw off all vestiges of consumerism. To be Mormon or just a regular every-day Christian and a consumerist is as mutually exclusive as being a Mormon and also an atheist. Bernays and others pushed consumerism on the USA and corporate America jumped on it. We need to go back to being real Mormons and not TV Mormons.

Comments are closed.