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Survival of the Fittest Religion

April 1, 2004
book cover

The following book review of Mark Oppenheimer’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (Yale University Press, 2003), (originally published in the Los Angeles Times) ran in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (4/1/04). I used the book review to further support the group selection thesis proffered by David Sloan Wilson in his book Darwin’s Cathedral, as well as my own analysis in The Science of Good and Evil, to explain the success of religion. It was published as Countering the Counterculture. My original title better describes my thesis and what the book is about. But it is an unalterable law of nature that all book review and opinion editorial editors must change the author’s original title or else they will go to editorial hades.

In April, 1993, in his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pope John Paul II acquitted Galileo for his heretical belief that the earth goes around the sun, explaining that “the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences.” Three years later, in his October, 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, this same Pope avered that Darwin was right because the theory of evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” and assured believers that it is possible to be both a Christian and an evolutionist because “truth cannot contradict truth.”

Scientists who perceive religion as a dinosaurian relic incapable of adapting to an ever-changing cultural landscape should take note. Religion is inescapably Darwinian, evolving to fill empty niches and mutating to compete with cultural competitors. No where is this adaptability more apparent than in America, where the separation of church and state has forced religion to compete with other cultural traditions and social institutions for the minds, souls, and dollars of consumers. A spiritual free market has produced a mélange of cults, sects, and religions, from Mormons and Moonies to Scientologists and Southern Baptists, all of whom have adopted the uniquely American style of advertising and marketing their products and services.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the secularization of society, mandatory public education, and the rise of modern science, over the past century Americans have become more religious than ever before. Pundits who call for America to return to the good ol’ days of our Christian foundation have their history bass-ackwards. Historians and sociologists have demonstrated that belief in God, religiosity, and church attendance have all steadily increased over the past two centuries. This is the American religious paradox, resolved if we think of religions in Darwinian terms as social organisms competing for limited resources to try to pass on their ideological genes to the next generation.

A splendid test of this theory is how religion faired in the turbulent 1960s, the subject of Mark Oppenheimer’s insightful and charming cultural history in Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. In Europe, where religion and government are inextricably intertwined, change comes about glacially, if at all. “The Lutheran Church in Sweden is not much affected by rebellious youth culture or the fall of foreign governments; the Church of England is anemic whether the radio is playing the Beatles or Oasis,” Oppenheimer asserts. “But American religions must constantly sell themselves, and the ones that last are the ones that discover ways to exert imaginative sway.”

Busting the myth that mainstream religions suffered irreversible blows from their 1960’s countercultural competitors, Oppenheimer demonstrates that, for example, Catholics, Mormons, and Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God saw their membership rolls swell. From 1963 to 1976 the Southern Baptist Convention grew by 2.5 million members, while Unitarians saw their ranks bulge by 30 percent (from 147,000 to 191,000 members), and Catholics by 15 percent (from 43 million to 49.5 million). The perception of the 60s as an era in which Americans dropped out of mainstream religion in order to hitch rides “on the paisley bus of religious experimentation” (in one of Oppenheimer’s many clever phrases that break up copious statistics) such as TM, EST, and Silva Mind Control, is simply wrong. Americans may have experimented with alternative religions, but they did not inhale.

In a 1973 study conducted in San Francisco, for example, only one percent said they knew a lot about Hare Krishna while 61 percent knew nothing; three percent knew a lot about Zen Buddhism, 27 percent knew a little, and 70 percent knew nothing; only 8 percent had participated in yoga, 5.3 percent in TM, and 2.6 percent in Zen. “In other words,” Oppenheimer deduces, “in a famously liberal, iconoclastic city, a random sampling of the population revealed low, even minuscule, levels of familiarity with prominent alternative religions.”

What did happen in the 60s (itself something of a myth, Oppenheimer argues, since the decade of social and cultural turmoil is more like 1967 to 1976) is that traditional religions evolved to remain “the spiritual homes for most Americans.” Although “many people pass through periods of religious seeking, often shopping at different churches, they finally settle into membership at one.” Oppenheimer defines religion, in fact, as “a sacrificial system whose adherents do not ascribe to another religion.” It is one thing to be titillated by alternative belief systems (and maybe even briefly sample one or two), it is quite another to tithe a percentage of your hard-earned income to one. Oppenheimer defines counterculture as “a self-sustaining alternative model of culture.” Alternative religious movements were not truly countercultural because, for the most part, they did not displace mainstream religions. Instead, what happened is that traditional religious cultures evolved just enough to survive and outlive their would-be competitors (whatever happened to Silva Mind Control?)

Unitarians and Gay rights, Roman Catholics and the folk mass, Jews and communal worship, Episcopalians and feminism, and Southern Baptists and Vietnam War protestors are Oppenheimer’s case studies in how remarkably adaptable religions are even in the most turbulent times. Oppenheimer chose these five religions because they are well established enough that, in his pragmatic definition of mainstream, “adherents can run for office without having to explain their religion.” How each of them adapted to these challenges to their orthodoxy determined, in part, how well they survived into the post-60s world. Unitarians (so called because they reject the trinity), for example, with a history of liberal support for progressive causes, took well to feminist, antiwar, and civil rights movements, such that an openly Gay minister would quickly find succor in most Unitarian churches (with feeble resistance from southern and midwest congregations). As a cultural species, Unitarians were already well-adapted for the countercultural challenges and thus they passed through the crisis unscathed.

As did the Jews, who had already undergone profound changes earlier in the century under Reform Judaism, and whose essence was more cultural than religious. “Jews are Jews because of descent,” Oppenheimer opined, “they don’t have to be under a synagogue roof, in communion with other Jews, or in good standing with a religious hierarch. They were always freer to experiment outside the established religious bodies.” Which they did with the havurah, a counterculture movement of small communities who gathered to study or worship outside a synagogue and away from the rabbi. As an example of religious plasticity, even in what constitutes religion per se, Oppenheimer notes: “Jews could be profoundly, traditionally Jewish while rebuking Jewish institutions.” This is how to survive a cultural crisis.

Episcopalians and Southern Baptists were not nearly as liberal as Unitarians and Jews, so the feminist movement for the former and Vietnam War protestors for the latter were not so easily incorporated. Yet in these case studies one can find in religion a certain controlled tolerance, even if it is implemented for the purpose of preserving power and control (in the former) and gaining additional members (in the latter). The Catholic Church is a case in point when it abandoned the Latin Mass in 1967 in order stop the bleeding of weekly Mass attendance, which was declining an average of two percentage points a year throughout the decade. Both Catholic school enrollment and conversion rates were dropping, along with vocations to the priesthood. Pope John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento, or updating, of the church came none too soon. Vatican II was the result. Mass would be celebrated in the vernacular rather than in Latin, the priest would face the congregation, and dry Gregorian chants would be replaced by the innovative sounds of the electric guitar.

Rock of ages.

(Vail-Baillou Press, 2003, ISBN 0300100248)
This review was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.

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3 Comments to “Survival of the Fittest Religion”

  1. Dr. L.J. Sidethink Hp. D. Says:

    “an openly Gay minister would quickly find succor in most Unitarian churches”

    I hope the pun is not intentional!!!

  2. Brian Myres Says:

    How wonderfully ironic that the religions are utilizing an artificial selection that copies natural selection. In my talks, I used the evolution of gym shoes (sneakers, tennis shoes, etc.) as an example of selection and evolution that was human-oriented. From now on, if I’m asked to speak anywhere, I’ll use this delicious example! The lord has delivered them into my hands! (Sorry, Mr. Huxley) One of my favorite essay questions was to ask students to describe a human system that doesn’t adapt to new circumstances, and compare that with a biological system that doesn’t….they always seemed to get the point!

  3. Gary DeVaney Says:

    Hi. This is Gary DeVaney of “The God Murders” web site and “The Shocking God” YouTube videos.

    The article above – “Survival of the Fittest Religion” by Michael Shermer – is excellent, informative and well written. It covers acres in a sentence. It certainly connects a lot of dots in the evolution of religions.

    As a fundamentalist Bible critic, I view that as insane as Pastor Fred Phelps comes across, Fred accurately preaches what the Bible documents, Chapter & Verse. I view that – concerning the 5 main Bible-based religions mentioned above – if any believer insists on promoting, supporting and financing the Biblical God – it is only fair that the believer should know what the Bible documents C&V that its God has done.

    You may find the “shocking” Pastor Fred Phelps on YouTube.

    Regards, Gary DeVaney

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