Religion and “Schismogenesis”

The escalation of religious intolerance has reached a point, according to the noted anthropologist T.M. Luhrman, that people are becoming reluctant to own up to being religious at all.

She notes that since the early 1990’s, the number of people without religious affiliations has “more than doubled to 20 percent from less than 10 percent.” For people under 30, it’s “close to a third.” She cites the political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell who found that “recent years have seen the sharpest points of disagreement between religious believers — of nearly all stripes — and those who denounce religious belief of all types.”

“The last few election cycles have made it clear that many evangelicals think that those without religion are dangerously wrong on many issues. A crop of equally committed atheists and agnostics have reciprocated, with vigor.” She calls this process of the growing divide “schismogenesis,” borrowing a term from Gregory Bateson to describe how positions diverge and harden.

Luhrman adds: “We know that most of these people still believe in God or a higher power, whatever they mean by that. It’s just that they are no longer willing to describe themselves as associated with a religion. They’ve seen that line in the sand, and they’re not willing to step over it.” (See, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect.”)

This is particularly interesting as Americans have tended in the past to emphasize – if not to actually lie about – the extent of their religious behavior. When asked about going to church, two out of five say they attend regularly. But observational data as well as the reports of ministers, priests and rabbis tell us that the actual figures are way less.

Slate covered that story over 2 years ago: “The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are.” (See, “Walking Santa, Talking Christ.”)

So how to make sense of all these contradictions? Back then, when I wrote in my blog about that, I thought the American affirmation of religion was a disguised and indirect form of patriotism. There are so many cultural and ethnic differences among us that we may well feel that all we have in common is the affirmation of being “One Nation Under God” (See “Americans Go To Church.”) What politician would admit to being an atheist or, even, an agnostic?

Has it gotten worse? Have the tensions and conflicts among Americans reached the point that we no longer even have god in common? Or, have religious disagreements gotten so intense can we no longer use the fiction of religious belief to cover our disagreements? Either way, god has gone into the closet. “Religion” has become so politicized that it is almost entirely now about such social issues as abortion, marriage and sex education.

In the past, people fought and died over their different faiths. Was god a trinity? Was he strict or forgiving? Did he really live in heaven? Now he has become an ideologue, and an embarrassing one at that.