Friday, January 09, 2009

Christian Smith's "Why Christianity Works"

A year or so ago, sociologist Christian Smith published a provocative essay entitled "Why Christianity Works." I say provocative because he takes an old question in the sociology of religion--why has religion endured--and taken a fresh approach to it. Rather than talking about larger social forces, Smith links the persistence of religion, in this case a single religion--Christianity, to the desirable effects it has for those who practice it.

Quoting from a Christianity Today interview with Smith:

"Such sociological accounts are valid as far as they go," Smith writes. "They often can illuminate the social processes influencing the extent and shape of religious practices. But in the end, such sociological accounts possess limited abilities to explain the persistence over millennia and into the modern world of religion generally and—for my purposes here—Christianity in particular."

What sociologists sometimes miss, Smith writes, is that there's something in Christianity itself that may explain its persistence.

"[T]he belief content of the Christian faith gives rise to certain practices and experiences—particularly emotional ones—that many people find highly engaging, compelling, persuasive, and convincing," he says. "[T]he very internal logic of doing Christianity persistently produces events, interactions, and feelings in and among people compelling enough to keep the tradition flourishing despite many countervailing forces."

What's interesting about this approach is that it fits with both skeptics and believers' views of the faith. A skeptic says Christianity is a crutch, the believer says it's beneficial--both are giving a similar reason for the staying power of Christianity.

This approach reminds me of CS Lewis' writing on the rewards of Christianity.

"We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Needless to say, because Smith 1) didn't not emphasize traditional sociological concepts and 2) spoke positively (gasp!) about Christianity, a number of sociologists have written critiques of this essay (making for an interesting read in the latest issue of Sociology of Religion). Forgive my cynicism, but I wonder if the reaction to the article would have been much more positive had it been about paganism or some other non-mainstream religion.

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