What Hannibal Can Teach Religion

Economist Tyler Cowen had this to say about the struggles that religions face in our modern society:

For most mainstream religions, for most urban and suburban intellectuals circa 2012, it is hard to live a religiously observant life during the ages of say 17-25. American religion is left with late convert intellectuals and proponents of various enthusiasms, all filtered through the lens of America’s rural-tinged mass culture. Where is the indigenous and recent highbrow Christian culture of the United States?

Cowen wrote his thoughts in response to Ross Douthat’s new book, How We Became a Nation of Heretics in which he argues that “Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.” (Side note: How meta is it that I’m writing a blog post about a comment that Tyler Cowen has on a Ross Douthat book? The cycle will be complete when this post is quoted in Ben Casnocha’s blog, and Tyler comments on it.)

For me, the biggest issue that religions face in modern society is Hannibal’s First Law of Leadership: “Never give an order that won’t be obeyed.”

As Cowen points out, it’s hard to live a religiously observant life in modern society. Serious thinkers argue that the link between sex and love has been broken. Young voters strongly favor gay marriage. The result? People have to decide whether to follow religious codes or social mores.

I like to use ABC Family as an example of the evolution of America. The channel was launched in 1977 by Pat Robertson. Today, it’s most popular show is “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which focuses on a teen mom and features ample helpings of premarital sex. Mind you, this is a show that appears on a Disney-owned channel, and was created by Brenda Hampton, who had previously created the squeaky-clean and religious-themed Seventh Heaven.

Once people begin to pick and choose among the dictates of a religion, Hannibal’s law is violated. Just look at the damage that the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control has done to its standing in America.

Where is the indigenous highbrow Christian culture of the United States? It won’t come back until someone establishes a religion whose values are aligned with contemporary culture.

3 thoughts on “What Hannibal Can Teach Religion

  1. I'm not so sure about this. Religion isn't supposed to be a product pitch, but an interpretation by humans of God's will (whoever He (or She/It) happens to be). If the world is crawling with sin, so be it – the various sinners will do their penance in the appropriate Hell.

    The irony is that outside the West, with is both failing religiously and demographically – and the two are strongly linked – it is the more "harsh" and "judgmental" versions of religion that are doing well. "Do your own thing" approaches to religion simply don't offer the solid certainty that people seeking religious guidance crave in their lives.

    This is the reason why hardcore African bishops are taking over the Anglican church from milquetoast soft-left English churchmen. You see this pattern all over the world, in all religions.

    Disclaimer: I'm not terribly religious myself, but have always been interested in religion as a social and historic force.

  2. Foo,

    I think you're right about the certainty that religion provides. The problem that religions in the United States face is that the more hardcore religions have a hard time selling to a mass market.

    It is interesting to note that the hardcore religions seem to do best in regions of poverty and suffering–life is so bad that the only way for it to seem meaningful is to focus on the benefits of the next life.

    The counterargument is that radical Islam has gained many wealthy adherents in the Middle East. But again, those adherents are mostly the idle or troubled rich, and represent a tiny minority.

    In general, I feel like Religion is still largely a 1.0 product, and that there are definite opportunities for improvement.

  3. Its funny to look at religions as startups.

    There was time of innovation, many gods, many religions etc. But from it monotheistic dominant "product" emerged and consolidated trough dark ages. And it become a usual well known monopoly on morals and worldview that was trying to stomp any "competing" young startups.

    And we know how it all ends. At some point someone finds right way to disrupt it.

    Anyways. If anything my dislike of western religions has to do with:

    1. That it somewhat implies that morals are final and god said what is good and what is bad…
    And this is just not true, time goes, thing change, environment changes, and with it morals should too…

    2. Intolerance to other views, that's just not wise and such a tragedy in my view that such a mainstream "movement" teaches (may be not intentionally) intolerance to other views… And an unwise one at that, that turns grown up men and woman in to children who can't provide proper arguments for why they choose to be the way they are and just turn to offended "you are stupid" kindergarten level statements…

    P.S stumbled on to your blog trough venture-lab.org offer of mentorship
    So far like what yo share here a lot!

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