Is modern consciousness defined by perpetual “cognitive bargaining” and efforts to avoid “cognitive contamination?”
To quote James Hunter at length from his book American Evangelicalism, which contains arguments that have much wider application than just the religion he focuses on:
‘Human beings require constant and present social confirmation to sustain their beliefs about reality, and where the social composition of a society is diversified, that social support necessarily dwindles. The net effect is the rendering of a commitment to a certain world view precarious if not altogether implausible. The most fundamental and enduring experience a person is likely to encounter, then, is cognitive dissonance, an experience of confusion and anxiety about the certainty of his own understanding of reality. At the least, this leads to the questioning of the veracity of his beliefs and the consideration of the possibility of the truth of the beliefs of another (“There are gods other than my own. Is it possible that…”). Given a major collision of his view of reality with an alien conception in the absence of social conditions that confirm his own beliefs, it is highly probable that his beliefs with be compromised. He will feel constrained to modify aspects of his world view to account for this plurality in a conciliatory way.’¹
‘When the world-disaffirming qualities inhering in modernity […] reach a certain level, modern people will resist or protest against these discontents.’² Without “given” community, though character isn’t possible nor a certain manifestation of “the banality of evil,” populist backlash that leads to authoritarianism is still likely as people try to reestablish existential stability. And in Pluralism, existential anxiety is great: ‘[w]ith the growing plausibility of the modern world view resulting from the extension of the modernization process in American society, came the increased pressure to accommodate,’ leading to a decline in ‘plausibility structures’ and rise in cognitive dissonance.³ ‘Although only a small percentage of modern people have abandoned a commitment to religious truth, most people in modern societies have at least become deeply perplexed by the ambiguities posed by these structural features of modernity.’⁴ Though religion is one of the clearest examples of community, the problems facing Evangelicals, for example, are the problems facing all Pluralists. ‘The principal constraint structural [P]luralism imposes on religion is privatization,’ but this is arguably what Pluralism demands of everyone’s “ultimate beliefs” — except that is when people privately hold “unjust beliefs,” which are occasions that justify violating people’s private spheres and forcing them to reestablish “justice” again (a massively consequential exception).⁵
In line with the “turning inward” Berger discussed and the arguments of Conyers, Hunter wrote:
‘Religion is pressured into becoming depoliticized. Its ‘proper’ role is defined exclusively in terms of the satisfaction of personal or subjective needs. As an institution it is formally expected to provide subjectively meaningful interpretations of experience at the major events of the life cycle, a foundation for personal identity, and moral coordinates along which to order daily life. Thus religion has a legitimate role in modern life, but a role sharply circumscribed in relation to its former status in relatively non-modern situations.’⁶
‘Yet privatization generally only solves the problem of pluralism in its political dimensions, not at the cognitive level.’⁷ In fact, privatization very well worsens the existential instability caused by Modernity and Pluralism, increasing the likelihood of an authoritarian backlash (it should be noted that “turning inward” isn’t necessarily the same as “withdrawing”). Even though Pluralism is irreversible, withdrawing is an option for some:
‘avoiding the confrontation with modernity entirely by refusing to participate in the modern social system and in modern culture in every way possible. A good example of this is the Amish community’s attempt at almost total isolation. This option is not possible, however, not even desirable, for most religious groups.’⁸
As privatization occurs (“turning inward”), individuals will increasingly suffer existential destabilization. This is because ‘there is a constant casual reciprocity between consciousness and social structure […] At the level of consciousness, the dynamics of this interaction may be labeled cognitive bargaining.’⁹ In other words, people have to change what they believe into that which is more socially acceptable: they have to change their subjective realities to better “fit” with the social system. This weakens the “robustness” of beliefs and robs beliefs of “givenness” (helping bring about what Joyce called in “The Dead” ‘a thought-tormented age’). Where there is a significant lack of “fit” there is existential anxiety, but there is also anxiety where people feel like they have to abandon what they believe. Hence, where there is “cognitive bargaining,” there will be anxiety that can make authoritarianism appealing.
Furthermore, ‘it is likely that the cognitive bargaining between the structures and processes of modernity and a religious belief system taking place in the arena of people’s world views would result in cognitive contamination of the religious world view.’¹⁰ In other words, what people believe will be changed and influenced by the outside world, potentially and gradually changes what they believe into something they no longer recognize (causing alienation) or something that no longer (easily) “fits” with their religious texts, traditions, etc. Considering this, ‘[a] rise in apologetic activity can be understood as a tacit recognition of a growing implausibility of religious authority’ (the same can be said of “neoreading,” as discussed in “What is a Judge to Do?” by O.G. Rose): where Christianity is “given,” there is little need for apologetics (though I don’t mean to suggest that apologetics shouldn’t exist: that’s a different topic, and apologetics certainly seem psychologically important).¹¹ The society’s acceptance of LGBT marriage, for example, forces Christians to reexamine the parts of the Bible that they believe forbid LGBGT marriage, and this very act will likely bring into question the authority, reliability, and “givenness” of the whole Bible.¹² Whether this is good or bad, the point is that cognitive dissonance will increase.
To discuss Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age again, I would argue that I personally think “The Nova Effect” (which to Taylor suggests that secularization has unleashed religious belief) is actually like the growth in apologetics, an ironic acknowledgment of the weakening of religion, though it resembles a flourishing. Apologetics is a robust field, making religious intellectual life appear rigorous and growing, and certainly there are some impressive arguments to be found in apologetic works. However, the growth of apologetics can be seen as evidence that religious authority is weakening; likewise, so I believe is the case with “The Nova Effect.”
Taylor’s work claims the past idea that religions would fade away under secularism is proving false, but I believe all that is happening is that the way religion is fading is providing different than what was expected. As has already been argued, religion is dying via inflation versus effacement: it is expanding itself thinner and then into nothingness and/or irrelevance, versus shrinking inward and away. Though the amount of religious activity is perhaps increasing, the capacity of religions to function as “plausible” and hence provide existential stability is dropping (for good and for bad).
‘Deinstitutionalization […] is closely related to secularization,’ and secularization ruins religious belief by paradoxically expanding the number of religions: it increases quantity until there is no longer any quality.¹³ Religion becomes a matter of individual conviction and choice, which is to say that it is relegated to the private sphere, and there religion loses its authority over the individual (being created “arbitrarily” and/or accepted by the individual).¹⁴ In this state of anomie, I doubt religion can be fully exercised as what Taylor called a “lived experience,” plagued by existential instability. Ruining “mediating structures” and “plausibility structures,” ruining “givenness” (and hence contributing to the likelihood of authoritarian backlash), secularization is still a major threat to religion, just proving to be more subtle.
To quote him extensively, Hunter wrote:
‘If institutions pattern human thought, behavior, and social relations in a habitual and socially predictable manner, as well as provide human experience with an intelligibility and sense of continuity, then [the deinstitutionalization of religious reality] is the process whereby the patterns of human behavior and social relations become unstable and the commonsense coherence of traditionally valid reality definitions become unreliable and undependable. In human terms, deinstitutionalization means that people are faced with an increasing number of choices concerning the manner in which to carry on the events of daily life. Modernity is characterized by an unprecedented degree of deinstitutionalization affecting all of the dimensions of private-sphere activity. Religious definitions of reality are particularly vulnerable to this process. The picture of the world presented in religious doctrine and symbols is not necessarily denied as a result of these structural tendencies, but is disaffirmed and therefore becomes less plausible in the minds of those confronting these forces. The truth or falseness of religion becomes a matter of individual choice.’¹⁵
Our Secular Age is where authoritarianism seems ever-appealing.
¹Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 13.
²Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 17.
³Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 47.
⁴Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 14.
⁵Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 14.
⁶Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 14.
⁷Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 16.
⁸Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 15.
⁹Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 15.
¹⁰Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 15.
¹¹Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 16.
¹²It should be noted that where a people have failed to understand the meaning of what they believe when there isn’t pressure, it is doubtful they will understand themselves when so pressured, or at least not the majority: pressure, in my view, tends to break the majority. Hence, if people aren’t ready for pressure, when the pressure comes, it is probably already too late.
12.1 I would also note that it is the private sphere that suffers more pressure from Modernity than Modernity suffers from the private sphere.
¹³Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 14.
¹⁴This problem is like what “character” today faces: if what defines character is felt to be “from the self outward” versus “down onto the self,” it loses authority when opposed by individual will.
¹⁵Hunter, James Davison. American Evangelicalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983: 14.