Friday, June 15, 2007

Secular Tribes Here, Religious Tribes There

Paul Waldman wrote a piece in The Prospect in which--after pondering this study on the tribalization of evangelicals--he wonders if secularists are going to tribalize themselves. This has prompted some discussion by Ross Douthat (who also wrote a piece based on the same study) and the guys at The Corner. First, Waldman:
David Campbell of Notre Dame describes how evangelical voters are affected by the demographic makeup of their environment -- but not in the way you might think. Building on the "racial threat" hypothesis -- which states that as the number of African-Americans in a community increases, the more likely white voters are to support conservative candidates and oppose policies that benefit African-Americans -- Campbell set out to see whether he could identify a similar effect among evangelical voters. It turns out that, even when you control for factors like party identification, the more secular people there were within a county, the more likely that people from evangelical denominations living there would vote Republican.

In other words, the more that evangelicals saw non-religious people around them, the greater the likelihood they'd walk a straight line from the church door to the voting booth and pull the GOP lever.

So the question now is whether non-believers will, in large numbers, begin to define themselves as a tribe of their own. In order to do so, they'll have to feel at least some measure of antagonism toward those on the outside. That's what makes a tribe a tribe, after all. (What would Red Sox fandom be without the Yankees, or punk rock without the conformist corporate tools?) But one key question for secular people is who, exactly, the Other is. Is it anyone who is religious? Those who want to convert you to their beliefs? Those who want their beliefs to be enshrined in government policy?
Douthat summarized his take on the matter:
The argument, in short, is that just as the elite-level secularization of the 1960s and '70s (in the intelligentsia, the Courts, and the Democratic Party) produced backlash in the form of the religious right, so now that backlash has bred its own backlash, in the form of a mass secularism whose attitudes toward religion, politics, and church-state separation are more European than anything we've seen before in American political life. This, not the supposed right-wing religious revival that conservatives champion and liberals dread, is the newest new thing in American political life, and the trend that's likely to have the most impact on the culture wars over the next decade or so.
Jonah Goldberg, John Podhoretz, and Mark Steyn have all weighed in and Douthat has responded. Read their posts to see the argument over the particulars of how the tug-o-war between secularism and religion has played out over the last 40-odd years.

And then there's this study which indicates that adults who graduated from college during the last 10 years or so are more religious than their non-college educated peers.
Researchers found four-year college students and college graduates are the least likely to curb church attendance, to say religion is less important in their lives, or to completely disassociate from religion. Young adults who do not pursue a college degree are the most likely to abandon their faith.

"Many people assume college is public enemy number one for religion," Mark Regnerus, assistant professor of sociology and author of the book "Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers," said. "But we found young adults who don't experience college are far more likely to turn away from religion."

The evolution of campus culture might explain the surprising results, Regnerus said. As more universities shift attention and resources from liberal arts to professional programs, students are increasingly sheltered from philosophical questions or debates that challenge their beliefs. When they are challenged, they can gain support from campus religious organizations and like-minded peers.

"Religion and spirituality are becoming more accepted in higher education, both in intellectual circles and in campus life," Jeremy Uecker, graduate student and lead author of the study, noted. "Religious students are encountering a much less hostile environment than in years past."
It appears as if this study supports the idea of religious tribalization indicated in the study cited by Douthat and Waldman. Further, if a majority of the next generation of college-educated kids is more religious than their peers and if it can be assumed they will comprise the future "leadership class" in the U.S. Does that mean that their secular, college-educated peers will indeed be pushed toward tribalization? Well, I guess we'll see.

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