There are some topics which I have some interest in, such as prehistory illuminated by genetics, in which there is constant change and new discoveries every few months. If a new paper doesn’t drop in a six month interval, I think something is wrong.
There are other topics where I don’t perceive much change, and have stopped paying much attention. Psychometrics for example is one area where I basically just stopped paying much attention after reading The g factor. I understand that it’s a live field, but at this point to me the details are academic, as the broad sketch seems well established (this will change in some ways over the next decade due to genomics, but since I think genomics will confirm what we already know it won’t be very revelatory for me).
The scientific study of religion is another topic where I once had a lot of interest, but where I concluded that the basic insights have stabilized. Since I stopped reading much in this area I stopped writing much about it too. To get a sense of where I’m coming from, Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion is probably the best place to start. It’s about 15 years old, but I don’t see that much has changed since then in the basics of the field.
And what are those basics? At its fundamental basics religious impulses must be understood as an outcome of our cognitive mental intuitions. All religion operates on top of this basic kernel of our mental OS. Religion may have functional utility as a social system of control, or channeling collective energies, as argued by David Sloan Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral. Or, one might be able to fruitfully model “religious marketplaces” as argued in Marketplace of the Gods. But these are all basically simply applications installed into on top of the operating system.
Why does this matter? For me this is a personal issue, because I’m one of those people who has never really had a strong religious impulse. Since I didn’t have a religious impulse, my model of religion was as that of an outsider, which led to some confusions. For example, there was a point perhaps around the age of 18 where I thought perhaps if someone just read a book like Atheism: A Philosophical Justification they’d be convinced. Just as if I’d been a Roman Catholic I would have thought a reading of Summa Theologica would have convinced. This was all wrongheaded.
Very few are Roman Catholic because they have read Aquinas’ Five Ways. Rather, they are Roman Catholic, in order of necessity, because God aligns with their deep intuitions, basic cognitive needs in terms of cosmological coherency, and because the church serves as an avenue for socialization and repetitive ritual which binds individuals to the greater whole. People do not believe in Catholicism as often as they are born Catholics, and the Catholic religion is rather well fitted to a range of predispositions to the typical human.
One thing that the typical human does not have is intensive need for rationalization of our daily life, and the totality of their beliefs. There are a non-trivial subset of Catholics who have heard of the Five Ways, or might be conversant in the Ontological Argument. But this is a very small minority of Catholics, and for even these this philosophical element is a sidelight to most of their spiritual practice and orientation.
Here’s something I have never figured out. In theory, Catholics ought to be a lot more theologically conservative on such matters. They have a clear teaching proclaimed by a clear church authority, with a deep Biblical theology behind it. And yet, on the whole, it doesn’t seem to matter to lay Catholics. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have the Bible, but no binding interpretive authority to keep them from diverging. Yet, on these issues, they are more morally conservative than Catholics — even by Catholic standards.
The best book to fully address this paradox would be D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. But that’s the generality. If you want specifics, see Jay P. Dolan’s In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension. Though American Catholics retain identity and affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church, it has operationally become Protestantized when it comes to how people view their relationship to the religion (in a similar way, American Reform Jews also transformed their religion to conform with American confessional Protestantism).
There are a subset of believers who are not well captured by the generalizations in books such as Slone’s, or in ethnographic descriptions which trace the assimilation of Catholicism into the American scene. They are usually highly intellectual and analytical in their orientation. Often, they seem to be converts. Rod Dreher was a convert to Catholicism from Methodism, before he became Orthodox. Leah Libresco and Eve Tushnet also seem to fall into this category. Highly intellectual. And, converts to Catholicism.
Because they are analytical and articulate, these sorts of religious people are highly prominent on the public stage, and, they also write the histories that come down to us through the centuries. These are also the type of people who are overrepresented in the clerical apparatus of any organized religion. This is a problem, because their prominence can obscure the reality that they are not as influential as you might think. As a metaphor, imagine mountainous islands scattering amidst a featureless ocean. The islands are salient. But it is the vast ocean which will ultimately be determinative. Similarly, the vast number of believers who move along a nexus of inscrutable social forces, and driven by powerful universal psychologies, may be hidden from our view.
And yet even for the “analytics” reason does not dictate. Both Dreher and Tushnet have made references to mystical and emotional occurrences and impulses which are beyond my ken. I have no need, no wish, no impulse, and no intuition as to what they are talking about in that dimension (Libresco seems a somewhat different case, but I haven’t read much of what she’s written; I suspect I’ve been in the same room with her since she worked for an organization which I have many personal connections with, but I’m not sure).
It isn’t a surprise that I think Hume was onto something when he asserted that “reason is a slave to the passions.” In many instances I suspect theological analysis is simply the analytic engine being applied to a domain whose ultimate rationale is driven by a passion.
Addendum: Leah Libresco seems to have been associated with the broad umbrella group of Bay Area rationalists. I’ve been associated in some fashion with these people as friends and acquaintances for nearly 10 years. I will admit that I’ve generally found the conceit of rationality as an ends, as opposed to a means, somewhat off-putting. Ultimately I’m more of a skeptic than a rationalist I suppose at the root.