Religion: First You Cheapen It, Then You Lose It

This week we’ve got another great episode of the Research on Religion podcast, and it’s not just because host Anthony Gill gave this blog a shout out on it. It’s also because there’s a fascinating discussion with a scholar of American Judaism shedding light on important trends within that faith over the last 200 years.

Here are a few things that struck me in the episode:

  1. Jews were successful immigrants to the U.S. in large part because of their low time preference (these were not Prof. Chiswick’s words, but my inference from them). This tracks with the observations of Edward Banfield in The Unheavenly City, which I’ve referenced on this blog before.
  2. Jewish dietary laws produced many transaction costs for Jews attempting to “make it” in the broader economy outside Jewish enclaves by making business lunches, etc., more cumbersome to deal with.
  3. Reform Judaism provided an “out” for Jews trying to blend in more with the surrounding culture, and the economic benefits provided strong incentives for Orthodox Jews to abandon their traditional faith.
  4. After a generation or two, Reform Judaism helped lead to widespread secularization to the extent that large numbers of Jews today no longer see Judaism as a significant part of their identity, are willing to marry non-Jews, etc.

Anyone who knows anything about demographic trends in mainline Christian denominations and who doesn’t see any parallels here is simply not paying attention.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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5 Responses to Religion: First You Cheapen It, Then You Lose It

  1. Pingback: On the Way Out « This Little Plot

  2. Tony Gill says:

    Yep, the lessons of Judaism are transferable to Christianity here. The question is to what extent a church (synagogue) wants to accomodate itself to its surrounding culture as compared to trying to transform that culture.

    In Christianity, one of the first signs that your denomination is doomed to a watered down version of itself, is the creation of an institutionalized seminary program … particularly one attached to an elite research university. Seminarians, and their instructors, will want to conform to the more secular parts of the research university and give up some of the more “wacky” ideas that they held to. “Jesus walking on the water? Nahh… we know that this is not possible via physics. It was just a metaphor for nationalizing health care back or something like that.” This is not so much an argument against the intellectualization of the faith (as I think reason and faith can coexist comfortably), but rather the desire to individually be accepted by the surrounding (secular-intellectual) culture. Never underestimate the power of the personal invitation to the various faculty cocktail parties and how they transform how one thinks about the world.

    I think I’m just rambling here, but at least in my mind it all makes sense.

    By the way, we have an interesting follow up to this podcast next week when we explore why Jews remain solidly liberal (left) in their voting patterns despite their socio-economic mobility.

    • Dr. J says:

      Echoes of C.S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength” in your comment–the desire to be a part of the “in” crowd is extremely powerful and can lead people to do all sorts of things. It also reminds me of the conversation in “The Great Divorce” where the minister’s spirit is told that his supposedly “daring” sermon denying the Resurrection was nothing of the sort; its result was to bring him nothing but applause and respectability. (I’ve got Lewis on the brain, having just taught a course on him this spring.)

      I’m looking forward to the next podcast!

  3. Tony Gill says:

    Awesome. I never read C.S. Lewis, but I did see “Live Free or Die Hard” and thought it was a great movie.

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