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Book Review of
Guenter Lewy's
Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and its Discontents

Peter A. Taylor
June 8th, 2007

On the Larry Niven science fiction email discussion list, there was a thread that drifted from a tunnel under the Bering straight, through the Va. Tech shootings, to a discussion of religion and ethics training in public schools. I ended up posting a rambling sort-of-review of Lewy's book there.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

This book deals with the crisis of secular modernity and the relevance and contribution of the Christian religion to America's moral life. Since I am neither a Christian nor a theist, some remarks about why I undertook this project and how it evolved during the course of my writing may be of interest to the reader.

For some time now, prominent American religious thinkers have argued that the real challenge of our age--an age of secularism--is not the threat of war or of economic decline but the crisis of unbelief. According to their argument, the severance of morality from fixed values and standards, the discarding of theological sanctions, has created a situation of moral anarchy in which everything is permitted. The grim statistics of violence, broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and so on are held up as the outward manifestations of a moral crisis rooted in rejection of God. The prevalence of secular humanism and moral relativism are said to have undermined the meaning and significance of human life, to have created a debased world of modernity in which there are no firm values and nothing is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

I started this book with the intention of refuting this thesis....


A funny thing, if one can call it that, happened on the way to the completion of this book.... This change in my outlook began with the realization that with regard to certain crucial moral issues concerning the meaning of life and death, I had more in common with religious moralists such as James A. Gustafson, Paul Ramsey, and Richard A. McCormick than with most secular humanists. I found much of the writing of the analytic philosophers, to the extent that they at all tackled substantive moral questions such as euthanasia and abortion, arid hair-splitting that was of little help in the resolution of urgent moral dilemmas.... On the other hand, much of the best writing on the burning moral issues of our day made no reference at all to the kind of methodological (meta-ethical) questions I had always been preoccuppied with, such as how to justify or prove moral judgments.

.... What role does or can religion play in elucidating, confirming, and supporting moral beliefs and conduct?

The title of this book reveals my overall conclusion as well as my focus on contemporary American society. Inasmuch as at least 86 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians, I talk about Christianity for the most part, instead of dealing with religion in general. This concentration on the religion of the great majority of the American people does not reflect disrespect for the worth and contribution of other religions to moral discourse but simply represents the recognition of a sociological reality.

In the introductory chapter, conceived as a historical prologue, I examine the disagreement between those who have seen Christianity as the source of moral inspiration for Western civilization and those who have condemned it as a force for intolerance and ignorance. In Chapter 2 I look at the ambiguous legacy of the Enlightenment and trace the rise of secularism. Chapter 3 is my description of some of the destructive consequences of the modern, secularist mind-set such as the crisis of the monogamous family and the related problem of the inner-city underclass. In Chapters 4 and 5 I present an empirical report card on the question of whether America is becoming a more secular society and of whether the conduct of believing Christians with regard to crime, out-of-wedlock births, and other indices of social disorder is different from that of less religious individuals. These questions have often been the subject of anecdotal reporting; the large quantity of empirical data in existence has been neglected. In Chapter 6, the conclusion, I discuss the role of moral education and of the churches in achieving moral renewal. I also outline my own personal view of the relationship between religion and morality.

I end this intellectual journey with some of my previous ideas intact and many others discarded. I remain a religious agnostic, but, unlike most atheists, I not only am not hostile to traditional religion but consider it a highly valuable, not to say essential, social institution. I am convinced that the moral regeneration and repair of a frayed social fabric that this country so badly needs will not take place unless more people take their religion seriously. I continue to question the claim pressed by many Christian theologians that they have a hold on moral Truth, yet I find myself in agreement with not a few of their moral positions--my appreciation of the Judeo-Christian moral heritage goes beyond its social usefulness. Useful or not, widely accepted or contested, many precepts of this moral heritage have assumed a new importance in my moral outlook. In sum, in this book I argue for the central role of religion in providing society and its members with a moral anchor. The urgent task for believers and nonbelievers alike, I submit, is to replenish the moral capital that was accumulated over many centuries from a unique stock of religious and ethical teachings, a fund of treasure that we have been depleting of late at an alarming rate.

[Guenter Lewy, Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and its Discontents, pp.ix-xii]

Here is my (slightly edited) review:

I had lunch this past Tuesday [4-17-2007] with a militant atheist friend, and it left me in a sour mood. Please forgive me for painting with a broad brush. Theoretically, there is no reason why atheists can't teach morality and socialize children well. However, in practice, Christians have been taking this problem seriously for ~2000 years. In contrast, atheists have shown up late to the game, and too often with a cavalier attitude.

The short version: regardless of whatever you may think of Mormon theology, statistically, they're doing something right.

One of the interesting points in Lewy's book is that the statistics on religion and social problems don't make any sense unless they are broken down in a way that separates regular churchgoers from occasional churchgoers. (Update 8-19-2012: For some webbed statistics along these lines, see The Elusive Wapiti.) If you guess at the statistics on the occasional churchgoers by interpolating between the regulars and the unchurched, your guesses will be wildly wrong. The occasionals are the worst group in many respects (e.g. domestic violence). So maybe I'm being too harsh on the unchurched. There are also some not entirely intuitive peer group effects.

Also, it is Europe, not the US, that is anomalous from a religious standpoint.

I salute Lewy for having obviously waded through a mountain of tedious social science papers in order to write this book, but I have two complaints, one minor and one major.

My minor complaint is that Lewy blames "individualism" for behavior that is bad for the person who engages in it. This makes no sense to me. Accusing me of cutting my own throat is different from accusing me of cutting someone else's throat. Lewy confuses failures of rational self-interest with lack of altruism. It's not like most street crime is committed by crazed followers of Ayn Rand.

Moral Criteria:

My more serious complaint (putting on my engineer's hat) is that Lewy never clearly explains the criteria by which he judges moral doctrines. We have to have objectives before we can carry on an intelligent discussion of whether our objectives are being met. So suppose that I pick up a book at the local bookstore purporting to be a guide to living a moral life. I thumb through it, perhaps thinking of buying it for myself, perhaps for my children, or perhaps for my neighbor's children. What would be my motive for embracing a particular moral doctrine? What exactly is a moral doctrine supposed to accomplish?

Several broad possibilities some to mind:

  1. Some moral rules may help produce private goods. These rules, if I follow them, help me live well according to my current tastes. For example, don't eat food that is likely to be contaminated with trichinosis, and don't unnecessarily piss off a potential regular customer of my business.
  2. Some moral rules may help produce public goods (and suppress public nuisances). These are mutually beneficial rules that I want other people to follow so that I can live well according to my current tastes. Don't overgraze the commons. Contribute a fair share to the common good. Reward others for altruistic behavior, even if only in terms of granting them higher social status.

    To elaborate on this point about social status, part of a minister's job is to channel the competition for social status so as to get people to compete with one another in how much they contribute to rebuilding New Orleans rather than in how nice a car they drive. Other members of the community have to cooperate by metaphorically tipping their hats to the doers of good deeds, which is itself a minor good deed. There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in this: social status accrues to people who act altruistically because social status accrues to people who act altruistically. (This discussion of social status is partly an attempt to answer Mancur Olson's question in The Logic of Collective Action about how organizations provide "selective incentives" for members to produce collective goods. Robert Frank's book, Choosing the Right Pond: Human Behavior and the Quest for Status, is also relevant here.)

    In order for me to want to buy this hypothetical book for myself, the author is going to have to do a good job explaining the incentive structure for producing public goods, and balancing it against self-interested behavior. But certainly, a social milieu that rewards people with social status for being transgressive is unhealthy.
  3. Some moral rules are fraudulent. These might be rules that I want to trick you into following for my benefit, contrary to the common good, or rules that are impossible to follow that I want to impose on my enemies.

    Another kind of fraud is to make up arbitrary rules (perhaps that only some people can reasonably keep) and to misrepresent adherence to these rules as evidence of moral superiority. An obvious example would be having to hire an outsider to turn lights on or off on the Sabbath.
  4. Some teaching of morality involves attempts to alter people's tastes. If I develop a taste for altruistic behavior, it blurs the distinction in my behavior between selfishness and altruism. This is where Lewy's blaming immorality on "individualism" starts to make a little bit of sense.

    Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, U. Texas, gave a good lecture on this some years back. There was a Biblical passage (Mark 10:18) where someone addresses Jesus as "good teacher," and Jesus says, "Why do you call Me good?" She explained this in terms of the breakdown of the distinction between self-interest and altruism. Instead she distinguished between doing good deeds versus seeing another person's interests as one's own. Her slogan for this was, "When doing becomes seeing, the good becomes automatic and disappears." (Note also Luke 11:11, where Jesus asks, "If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone?")

    She also talked about "the path of service." Sometimes service to others is therapeutic. This again blurs the distinction between self-interested and altruistic behavior. She emphasized that this "path" is not intuitive for most people. It must be taught.

Update: See "What Does 'Morality' Mean?"

Digressing even further:

One reason why ethics are associated with religion is that moral doctrines are typically "credence goods" (it's prohibitively difficult to verify their correctness), and the pre-eminent institutions for the promotion of credence goods are religious institutions. Promoting credence goods typically involves, at the very least, lying about uncertainty. I discuss morality as a credence good here.

It's relatively easy to imagine public schools teaching morality or ethics (I don't distinguish between the two) if the rightness of a particular set of moral rules is an objective scientific fact. But if the rules themselves cannot be verified, and are being used for "tribalistic" partisan purposes, it becomes much harder for me to imagine public schools doing this without making a pig's breakfast of it, turning schools into pseudo-religious institutions. I argue at the above link that one of the reasons that morality is a credence good is that people aren't really honest about the criteria that they want to use to verify their rules, and they can't be honest about them because social status is a primary motive for many of the rules.

Follow up (from the Niven list):

> > The short version: regardless of whatever you may think of Mormon
> > theology, statistically, they're doing something right.
> What specifically (that other Christians or other churches are not)?

Mormons stick out in the statistics largely because the statistics are grouped by state, and Mormons are concentrated in Utah in a way that few other religious groups are concentrated.

Lewy notes (p. 97) that a state having a high percentage of Catholics correlates with a low incidence of rape (a better predictor than alcoholism), and Catholics have fewer divorces and annulments than Protestants.

Table 5.1, p. 98:
1993 violent crime per 100,000 population
violent crime746589301
aggravated assault440410195


P. 106: Utah is 75% Mormon, has abortion rates 1/3 the national average, is at or near the bottom in numbers of births to teenage mothers, and similarly at or near the bottom in numbers of out of wedlock births (15% vs. 28% national average in 1992).

P. 111: 57% of Americans married in civil ceremonies were on their first marriages vs. 87% of those married in Mormon temples. Regular churchgoers in Utah report higher measures of marital stability and happiness.

> One problem here is that some rules which may seem arbitrary may
> actually have more to them than it appears at first. Frex the OT
> admonition against eating pork because the pig is considered ritually
> "unclean" preceded the scientific discovery that eating undercooked
> pork is the primary way that humans become infected with trichinosis
> (this example chosen because you mentioned that disease above). Of
> course, whether one believes that such rules that later turned out to
> have a scientific basis which could not have been known to the humans
> who wrote down those rules into scripture constituted just a lucky
> guess on the part of those humans in making up arbitrary rules or is
> evidence that such rules were revealed to those humans by a higher
> power who knew more than the humans at that time will most likely
> come down to whether one already believes that such a higher power
> does or at least could exist or not . . .

I assume that this works by natural selection. One tribal head priest doesn't like raw oysters and decides that they are "unclean." The head priest in the neighboring tribe likes them and gives them a central place in the religious ceremonies. The latter tribe is weakened by hepatitis, loses a war, and is wiped out. No one understood what happened, or thought it had anything to do with food. They just saw that the former tribe's god was stronger.

> > But again, I don't see how any of this is relevant to a discussion of
> >serious mental illness.
> Unless (as some do) perhaps one considers religious belief as a type
> of mental illness, or as a symptom of some type of mental illness . . .

Human intelligence is like the human eye. There are blind spots. Religion, when it's working correctly, orients the mind's eye so that the blind spot points in a direction that doesn't matter very much. Atheism doesn't cure blindness, it merely allows the blind spot to be oriented in whatever direction is currently fashionable. I'm sorry if this sounds overly cynical, but the militant atheist I had lunch with last Tuesday didn't exactly cover himself in glory.

>> Also, it is Europe, not the US, that is anomalous from a religious
>> standpoint.
>Care to elaborate ?

Laurence Iannaccone refers to the "secularization thesis," "...the popular but untenable view of religion as a fading vestige of prescientific times."

It is clear that religion is not going away in the US (there are statistics ad nauseum on this), so people who cling to the secularization thesis have to present the US as an aberration, and Europe as the norm. Lewy argues (pp. 82-84 of Why America Needs Religion) that religion is thriving in the US and in the Third World, and "Europe, not the United States, is unique." He invokes Andrew Greeley's explanations for how Europe got this way. Church attendance in Europe may be more a reflection of local religious institutions than religious beliefs. It's not until p. 84 that Lewy really twists his knife. As in the US, dull, mainstream churches shrivel and lively new ones grow: "While traditional religious denominations often encounter considerable indifference on the Continent, various American-based movements such as the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Assemblies of God report great success there. Denmark and Sweden surpass the United States in their receptivity to Scientology.... In some cases, left-wing politics serve as the functional alternative to sect and cult movements...."

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