Religion and Modern Man
Unsecular Man: The Persistence of Religion.
by Andrew M. Greeley.
Schocken Books. 280 pp. $7.95.
In his most recent book Andrew M. Greeley takes on the ghost of positivism and tries once and for all to lay it to rest. Greeley argues that it is the deepest conviction of the “conventional wisdom”—a term which by turns seems to stand for the thought of social theorists, radical theologians, and intellectuals in general—that social change is evolutionary by nature and that consciousness necessarily proceeds away from religion toward abstract thought and technology. In a world “come of age” man is weaned away from dependence on myths and acquires the capacity to live without the sacred and the primordial. The mysteries before which he once yielded are those he now possesses the tools to lay open and, with a glance toward the year 2000, solve. In his social relations “secular man” is adept at what theorists call gesellschaft relationships, casual and contractual ties which, in their avoidance of deep loyalties (gemeinschaft), engage only one or a few aspects of man's total social being. Able easily to sink roots, he moves from place to place and from group to group with little sense of loss or dislocation. Secular, temporary man, although not yet prevalent everywhere, is nevertheless the emergent type toward which society, in its irreversible and one-directional movement, is at present tending. Consequently, traces of religious belief and practice that remain can only be viewed as vestigial and retrograde.
This, Greeley claims, is the model that classical sociology has put forth: religion is on the decline and secular technological man on the rise. Greeley, relying heavily on the work of Robert Nisbet, goes to great lengths to refute this notion. To begin with, the doctrine of organic evolution is based on a metaphor from biology for which there is no substantive evidence in human affairs and no possible application to abstract universals such as social systems. Ideas about the rise, maturation, and decline of religions involve an assumption of continuous and one-directional change which is usually a fiction imposed by the observer who has a stake in seeing things move in a particular direction. Regarding social relations, Greeley persuasively maintains that the historical relationship between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft values is one of addition rather than replacement. Not only do the primary ties of friendship, land, faith, and common origin persist undiminished, but, on occasion, they are even strengthened. Modern marriage, for example, combines for the first time in the same relationship the once disparate claims of friendship, sex, and love. Fragmentary, purposive, and casual relationships have, of course, vastly proliferated in modern life, but they have formed only a “corporate” structure which rests on an enduring base of primordial relations.
And finally, there are the data: as a director of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, Greeley has at his disposal a prodigious number of tables and charts. In Secular Man and in an earlier volume, What Do We Believe?, he demonstrates that in the past twenty years there have been very few changes in the high degree of group affiliation and religious belief among Americans. Where most of us would expect to find significant decline Greeley shows us evidence of even more astonishing continuity. Why is this so? To explain, Greeley posits a universal and unchanging need for “meaning systems” which provide “an ultimate explanation” of the world, a need which penetrates and transcends man's rationalism and self-sufficiency precisely at critical moments: the sense of bafflement about the nature of things, the need to integrate “the troubling forces of sexuality” into the rest of man's life, the crises in the stages of the life cycle, the experience of moral outrage that goes beyond the self. No matter how far a man lives his life outside of traditional religious categories, such experiences force him to ask questions which are in fact essentially religious and prompt him to use myth in attempting to formulate and answer them.
The case is appealing, and one appreciates the clarity with which Greeley's mind cuts through the rhetoric that has been churned out about the “inexorable unfolding of modern man.” But in looking closely at Greeley's thesis one discovers that his presentation succeeds only by allowing several critical qualifications. For example, he excludes from his generalizations persons who occupy important positions in government, in the media, in university faculties, and in the larger corporate businesses, for among such groups, apparently, secularity has made significant inroads. Even though this does not, of course, include the great mass of Americans, one would be hard pressed not to grant this group a significance beyond its absolute numbers. To pretend to chart the state of belief while disregarding the creators of the culture in which belief must exist only reinforces a mistaken notion about the utter separation of a society from its intellectuals.
Another freedom Greeley allows himself is to be exceedingly broad in defining religion, a habit he shares with most other sociologists of religion. This is not the quibble it might seem, for to define religion as a “meaning system which offers an ultimate explanation of the world” is, in a telling way, to allow a great deal. Greeley is thus able to hedge on the crucial difference between religions as we have known them and social movements which merely evince and gratify religious needs, a confusion which often undercuts the otherwise strong arguments of the book. What is one to say, for example, about socialism, liberalism, evolutionism, Zionism, and the other secular ideologies of the 19th century? Surely they were systems of meaning which, except for the customary replacement of the divine referent by terms like Humanity and Society, came replete with their own dogma, liturgy, and eschatology, and undoubtedly went very far in satisfying the demand for an “ultimate explanation of the world.” The history of the 19th century, viewed in this way, is the history of “conversions” out of traditional religions into the new ideologies of the age—the initiates usually pausing very little to alter the forms of their enthusiasm and doctrinal fervor. But were these in actuality de facto religions or only creedal schemes onto which the need for religion was displaced? Greeley hesitates here and leaves us to wonder if, in the end, he escapes by simply equating religion with value or world-view.
In addition to this imprecision there is the related problem of Greeley's habit of speaking about religion in general rather than about particular religions. I do not believe that he intends to grant independent reality to the abstract universal, Religion, but rather to discuss developments that are occurring in parallel yet particular ways within the various religions of America. The distinction, however, is often unclear. Greeley, for instance, does not deal specifically with Jewish life, yet one senses that he means his remarks to extend also to Jews, and as a way of giving meaning to Greeley's general statements, it would seem proper to ask how a Jew might respond to their claims.
To comment on Greeley's skepticism about the extent of secularization, a Jew need only, I believe, look back one or two generations in his own family. Even if he tries not to sentimentalize the past, he cannot help feeling that something has profoundly changed. That something is not only the curious amalgam of ethnicity and belief which commonly serves social scientists as the analytic model for the study of the Jews; it has to do more accurately with a matrix of historical symbols, ethical relations, and ritual gestures—as well as belief and kinship ties—which simply is no longer. Some Jews do manage to live within this totality, and many are in touch with elements of it, but for the majority secularization has been a reality: increasingly more areas of experience have ceased to be mediated through religious or traditional categories. To the Jew who inhabits a historical consciousness and feels at least ambivalent about this change, Greeley offers little comfort when he assures us that while historical forms come and go, something called religious needs endure.
Whatever comfort the fact of that endurance does yield lies in its capacity to enlarge our understanding of the “religious” nature of the Jewish community, especially the so-called “secularist” Jews who stand outside the formal framework of the religious tradition but continue to think of themselves as committed Jews. Presumably, according to Greeley, these people too have religious needs, experience religious moments, and live within coherent systems of meaning, non-theistic though they may be. They may stand outside for a variety of reasons: because a secular ideology like Zionism has seen itself historically antagonistic to religion, because the symbolic language of the tradition seems impenetrable and esoteric, or because the tradition does not appear closely to touch upon or support areas of experience in which their religious feelings most often arise. Their situation is an example of the variance between the historical symbols of Judaism and the perennial religious needs of Jews and it seriously puts in question the customary use of the labels “religious” and “secular” in describing the identity and behavior of Jews. What remains possible—and this is a promising direction—is the future thawing of the polarity and the development of a fuller integration of historical symbols with felt experience.
The need for such an integration is especially pressing now, because, Greeley claims, man is changing in ways which make commitment to a unitary system like Judaism increasingly difficult. Man's new freedom to choose how to satisfy his religious needs is one of the few changes Greeley does, in fact, acknowledge. In the place of the fiery convert of the 19th century who stood firmly within his adopted ideology, there has emerged a more cautious type: man, in Thomas Luckmann's phrase, as a “consumer of interpretive schemes.” Avoiding the limitations imposed by total systems, post-ideological man pieces together from the marketplace of traditions and values his own, self-fabricated framework. These frameworks combine to form churchless “invisible religions” such as the civil-rights movement of the 60's and the “counter-culture” of recent years. In these formations, it is important to note, one finds no special allegiance to the celebrants birthright religions: these phenomena are heterodoxies composed of whatever materials are at hand. Greeley presents this closing picture, in which I believe there is a great deal of truth, with feelings that are obviously divided. As a sociologist he is gratified by evidence of the enduring need to form “meaning systems,” but as a Catholic priest he is disturbed by the implications for the future of the Church. Jews who are similarly concerned with the integrity of Judaism also might have mixed feelings on this score. While they might welcome and wish to participate in new movements and social phenomena, they might also be displeased at the prospect of Judaism's being reduced to one element in a more overarching system. Once absorbed into one or another invisible religion, Judaism would become merely an antiquarian resource in the world-construction of future generations of Jews. Some will wish to expedite this development, others to arrest it, but, in any case, the possibility of its happening should be pondered carefully indeed.