Friday, November 10, 2006

The Culture of Fear & Christianity

One of my favorite books in sociology is the Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner. His argument goes like this: Various social institutions have incentive to make us afraid. So, by overstating and even sensationalizing dangers, a news channel can get more viewers, a company can sell more safety-related products, a politician can get more votes, and so forth.

I wonder if a similar process happens in Christianity. Here, though, the fear is not any fear, like planes crashing or cancer, but rather moral fear. What got me thinking about this is Ron Sider's award winning book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. He starts his book with various statistics that suggest that Christians are no different in moral behaviors than anybody else, and so... we need to follow his prescriptions for how to be different. More generally, Christian authors and speakers have incentive to use moral fear to motivate the importance of their message/program/book. So, Christian children today are worse than ever/ the United States has turned away from Christian values/ Christians are no different than others, therefore listen to my message/ sign up for my program/ attend our church, read my book, and you'll be safe from this pervasive danger.

Well, there are a couple of problems with this approach.

First off, I'm pretty sure that the data usually given to support these fears are inaccurate. For example, with Sider's book, I'm starting to poke around with some data sets, so far what I've analyzed suggests that he's dead wrong--Christians are different, but I'll write more about that another day.

Second, it promotes a sense of futility about Christianity. If Christianity is so ineffective that it makes no difference in the lives of its adherents, one has to ask "why bother?" Now, maybe the particular message/program/book in question will make all the difference, but it's hard to accept the fear message and not feel disheartened.

Third, the main effect of fear messages is--no surprise--fear. If we hear these messages enough, than we will be afraid of all sorts of things, and this will push us toward withdrawing from anything that makes us afraid, which, if it's everything, than we become quite isolated, engaged solely with the message/program/church/book that will "save" us from whatever moral fear. To paraphrase the Christian singer Steve Taylor, we'll get to the point were we'll want to drink milk only from Christian cows.

What, then, should we do? There's lots that could be said about this, but for starters, we can be cautious of moral-fear appeals, and, eventually, come up with clear, accurate description of the moral behavior and dangers of Christians.
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Corey said...

I look forward to your re-analysis of Sider's data. I've always assumed that self-professed Christians are no different from the rest of society on most indicators... based primarily on my own perception and life experiences. But I welcome some data for comparison purposes.

Anonymous said...

Why do you like Glassner's book over say, those by Joel Best?

Brad Wright said...

I'm a big fan of Joel Best's work as well. In fact, I assign his book Damned Lies in one of my classes.

I think I just finished teaching Glassner's book and so it was on my mind...