I admit I’m a little disappointed. I was hoping for lots of studies and statistics and figures and finality—and while there were some statistics and lots of interesting quotes, the whole project entailed him sitting down for hour long chats with random friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends…
So not entirely scientific.
Half of the people he interviewed were from California, for example. I don’t know what that means—maybe it doesn’t mean anything—but it also wouldn’t surprise me that people from California, on average, have a different approach to religion than people from the Midwest. I’d like to know more about that before I have to decide whether the Californian journey out of faith is universal, you know?
And while I understand that surveys like these are always going to rely heavily on people’s own accounts—and will therefore be incredibly subjective and possibly/unwittingly distorted on certain points—I would’ve appreciated a little more of the old double-blind, a few more numbers and a few less unedited rambles about how one day the story of Noah just didn’t make sense anymore.
Ok, and then in the chapter “Sex and Secularity,” he writes,
Once a strong Christian, Jayme is now an agnostic. And it took her many years to stop feeling shameful or guilty after having sex, even with her husband—a common fate for women from similar backgrounds.
There’s a footnote after this sentence, and since I’ve heard anecdotal rumblings about this phenomenon before I thought, AH! A footnote! He must be citing a study, and I’d be curious to see the actual numbers on this.
This is the note:
As Lauren Winner (2005) notes, many religious women who remain virgins until marriage often grapple for years with emotional trouble based on such extensive religiously inspired sexual denial. See also Purcell (1985).
Which is pretty much what he said in the text of the book, so this isn’t terribly helpful. Also brow-raising is the fact that I recently read a book by Lauren Winner, and while I enjoy her writing, she’s an essayist, not a sociologist. So probably no statistics there either. Out of curiosity, I also checked his list of references, and it turns out that while “Purcell (1985)” definitely looks like a real-deal research paper, he never actually bothers to give us the statistics, and the study is more than 25 years old at this point, so…
Not to be all smarty-smart, but while my opinion of God was not dramatically altered by reading this book, when it comes to Zuckerman you might say my faith, at that point, was a bit shaken.
Anyway, those are the negatives, and most of them have to do with my own expectation that I was getting a hard-nosed, thesis-driven book of research instead of a rambly, interview-heavy book of musing. So it may not be fair to blame the book for that. I don’t know.
On the plus side, I did actually enjoy it.
These were my overall impressions:
- Apostasy is almost a given if your view of religion is narrow enough. If faith required the kind of beliefs discussed in this book, then I would have apostatized a long time ago too. My religious beliefs are not particularly threatened by bad things happening to good people, by carbon dating or science in general, or statistics that show that secular women have better sex lives. I think it’s incredibly likely that the Church hasn’t quite got it all figured out when it comes to hell, the end times, the “role” of women, homosexuality, and how to love our neighbors. And while I may rant at times about those topics (and so many more), in the end none of those things change the fact that I believe in God, that I believe in salvation and eternal life, and that I think a deepening practice of love is part of the abundant life God desires for us on earth today.
- A religion centered on childhood doesn’t work very well for grown ups. You can argue with me on this one if you want, because I can already think of a couple Bible passages that would seem to support your point (I believe Matthew 18:2-4 is the one you’re looking for right now). But the more I think about it, the more it seems to be true. We know, for example, that the more educated people are, the less likely they are to be religious. We also know that people who are poor, belong to a racial minority group, are female or otherwise disadvantaged when it comes to the power pecking order are more likely to be religious than those who are “in control.” Religious people generally stamp this one as PRIDE and move on, but I think it’s also possible that Christianity has run a bit too far with the God-as-divine-parent analogy. The analogy is intimate and comforting, and in that sense highly useful. But it can’t be expected to explain all of life. If God is the divine parent of a helpless infant humanity, it’s almost impossible to believe in a good, moral God and explain the immense suffering present in the world today. Don’t blame education for correctly identifying the logical flaw, blame a too-narrow view of God. If you threaten me, I will tell my Daddy on you and he will beat you up. As the Church continues to teach God primarily as the Father of all power-pez-dispensors, we’ll probably continue to see the same pattern of apostasy we have today.
- A religion for grown ups requires a morality for grown ups. When reflecting on their moral development both before and after their apostasy, many of the people Zuckerman interviewed expressed the belief (and could occasionally back it up with facts) that they were more moral people after leaving their religion. As long as morality is taught as a complicated set of rituals designed to “make God happy,” we’re basically asking people to skip on down apostasy lane. In the chapters on sexuality and politics this became glaringly obvious. What’s ironic is that the morality most apostates now claim actually comes from Jesus. That whole love other people and especially look out for the weak? Yeah. That was Jesus.
- (And here’s an LBGT freebie). Almost a third of the people Zuckerman interviewed cited the religious campaign against gay rights as one of the reasons they finally broke with their faith. I’m not going to unpack that one, but it’s definitely one of the statistics that stuck with me, and if I had to hazard a guess I think it has a lot to do with points 1-3 above.
- Ultimately, faith—and the lack of faith—may not be something we can fully explain. That was basically Zuckerman’s conclusion, and it’s an interesting one for a sociologist who (more or less) dislikes religion. People say they leave their religion for a lot of reasons: because a loved one died a terrible death, because a member of the clergy turned out to be a hypocrite, because carbon dating says the earth is millions of years old, because they’re democrats, because they wanted to have sex with their boyfriends. But as Zuckerman points out, many people experience all of those things and don’t go on to apostatize. There are markers, but there are no rules. And in some cases it truly becomes a chicken and egg debate. Do people stop believing because they find an issue that causes their faith to crumble? Or does the belief simply evaporate, leaving whatever issues the person had (and we all have them) as the “obvious” explanation? An interesting question…
And one that Zuckerman can’t answer. Ergo my general sense of frustration when I finished this book. It’s a great starting place, but a lousy end zone. I see that I’m going to need to read more on this topic.
But it’s going to have to sit on the back burner for a while, because I’m already half way through Comfort: An Atlas for the Body and Soul, which is launching another whole wormcan of thoughts.
Also my body informs me every day with increasing persistence that there is a small person who will require some attention shortly. I think the accepted wisdom is to start freezing meals and cleaning the house when that hormonal energy kicks in, but I seem to have gotten the less familiar version: