Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, August 7, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Frustrated by the slow pace of secularization, researchers turn to artificial intelligence for answers
One of the most important books on American religion in the 20th century came out in the year 1985. The title, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Religious Life. The primary author of the book was Robert Bellah, then a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Bellah was a very important observer of religion on the American scene in the 20th century. He, more than anyone else, is credited with the term civil religion, that is the religion that comes down to patriotism and national identity, a religion that's not all that religious in theistic content, but does have binding authority within the larger culture.
Bellah noticed the shift to civil religion in the United States, but he also noted the great shift towards the individual, the autonomous individual. The book, Habits of the Heart, again, it came out in 1985, came just as many Americans began to detect that great worldview shift away from the community and away from authority, and towards the individual, the autonomous, privatistic individual as the unit of meaning.
In the project that became Habits of the Heart, Bellah and his team of researchers went out and talked to Americans about what they actually believe, and one of the most fascinating of all the interviews was with a young nurse named Sheila. She became rather famous in the book for her own understanding of religion, which she was honest enough to name Sheilaism.
I read from the book, quote, "Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as Sheilaism. This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us." That refers, of course, to the fact that the population of the United States was then about 235 million, thus he said, "Given this logic, we could end up with 235 million different religions, one named for each of us."
Sheila was quoted as saying, "I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic." Bellah then noted that in our culture, any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism. But, she went on to say quote, "I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism, just my own little voice."
Bellah said, "Sheila's faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many." In defining what she calls "my own Sheilaism," she said, quote, "It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself, you know? I guess take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other." Bellah then said, "Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points." End quote.
"My own Sheilaism," she said. "Just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself." Bellah's larger point was that this individualism had now reached the point where American religion was becoming so individual that the religion came down to one's first name plus ism, Sheilaism in this case. Keep that in mind, not for 1995 but for 2018, wherein the last several weeks, articles have appeared in The Atlantic, two in particular, both by the same reporter, Sigal Samuel.
Now, when you're looking at The Atlantic, you're looking at one of the most mainstream American publications informing the cultural elites. In both of these articles, we could say we're standing at the intersection of religion and technology, and in both of these articles, that intersection is very illuminating. One of the articles was entitled Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism is Unpopular.
Samuel writes about researchers who are using artificial intelligence and computational modeling to try to understand and to predict religious beliefs and religious behaviors. One of these projects is known as the Modeling Religion Project. They're using different kinds of computer models in order to indicate what people believe, and how they will act on those beliefs, and what will trigger certain actions based upon religious beliefs.
Samuel says that the researchers are trying to ask questions, such as what would happen if 50,000 immigrants, and it's implied here, Islamic immigrants, were to appear in a European country? How would they behave? How would their beliefs influence their behavior in the larger culture? As Samuel points out, you can't actually experiment with real live human beings in running different scenarios, but you can in artificial intelligence. That's why he wrote the article.
But what's really interesting about the article is the fact that those who are behind this application of artificial intelligence, well, they think they really do now have the ability to predict religious beliefs and religious behavior. But remember that the title of the article is Artificial Intelligence Shows Why Atheism is Unpopular.
Now, that's not the best headline, as it turns out, for the article, but it's not all that bad either. Rather than the word atheism, the article really addresses secularism with these very secular researchers, at least in the worldview demonstrated in the article. We don't know so much about their private lives. What we do know is that the article treats religion as anthropology. It's just a human experience. Furthermore, it's an experience that is quite ominous to a secular age.
The headline might be Artificial Intelligence Models Demonstrate Why Secularism Is Not Advancing As The Secularists Had Hoped, at least especially in the United States, where the secular pace is somewhat slower than what we see in Europe. One of the artificial intelligence projects documented in the article is entitled Forecasting Religious and Existential Security With An Agent Based Model. No kidding, that's what they actually call it.
The team of researchers behind this project are trying to explain, and then to go further, even to predict the pace and pattern of secularization, but they're frustrated by the fact that for instance, America is quote, "Secularizing at a slower rate than Western Europe." They then want to ask the question, which conditions would speed up the process of secularization, or on the other hand, slow it down?
Another of the projects is entitled Future of Religion in Secular Transitions. We are told that the acronym is supposed to be understood as FORIST, and as Samuel explains, quote, "The team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security, you have enough money and food, personal freedom, you're free to choose whether to believe or not, pluralism, you have a welcoming attitude to diversity, and education, you've got some training in the sciences and humanities."
The article continues, and I quote, "If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down." Now, what's most important for us to recognize is that the researchers are giving these four conditions for secularization. The first was existential security, enough money and food. Well, let's just think about that for a moment. This tells us, "On the other hand, that rising levels of personal affluence and security may reduce a sense of dependence, and thus we can understand why this might fuel secularization."
To put it another way, people who think they have taken care of their own needs might have what they then perceive to be the luxury to secularize. The second of the conditions is personal freedom, you're free to choose whether to believe or not. The third was pluralism, but again, that was defined as having a welcoming attitude to diversity.
Well, what's not noted in this article is that that requires a worldview commitment, a worldview commitment to pluralism, the idea that there are plural truths. There is no objective truth. This would rule out from the very beginning something like biblical Christianity, and understanding of the exclusivity of the gospel, that there is salvation in the name of Christ alone.
So whether they recognize it or not, these researchers have loaded secularism within their understanding of secularization. It's right there. It's as if you're saying that in order for secularization to happen, you've got to be secularizing. That's a circular argument.
There's also a slam at the United States local control of schools and the possibility of private schools. One of the collaborators on the project said quote, "The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen." End quote.
Well, whether it was intended or not, I think it's safe to say it wasn't intended, there is one of the most powerful arguments for the local control of schools and for private education, specifically Christian education, you're likely to see. This is a tacit affirmation of the fact that if you don't control education, you can't control minds, which being reversed means that if you do have control of education, you've got a pretty good idea that you'll be able to direct the mind of the culture in the future.
The frustration of many in the United States that the elites have been unable to do that universally is reflected in this article. The article also indicates that these researchers are very convinced of the power of their arguments and they're frustrated that policy makers internationally aren't giving them much attention.
At least one explanation for that lack of attention is the lack of profundity in the findings, for example, these researchers used artificial intelligence in order to try to predict what would make an extremist group survive and thrive, whereas others disintegrate. Quote, "It turned out one of the most important factors is a highly charismatic leader who personally practices what he preaches." End quote.
Really? They needed artificial intelligence for that? How about just the name Osama bin Laden? The first article I mentioned from The Atlantic by Sigal Samuel was telling us that teams of researchers are using artificial intelligence to try to understand and predict religious belief and religious behavior, but their real stumbling block is the fact that secularization isn't happening as fast as they want, and they want to understand why in order to turn the process around and accelerate secularization.
How satisfying can individually-designed secular rituals actually be?
The second article, however, by the same reporter, is entitled A Design Lab Is Making Rituals For Secular People. The subtitle: Will It Work? Samuel reports, "Religions have long been the dominant suppliers of rituals, gamely stepping in with an answer to every question," but he goes on to define a ritual as quote, "typically a deliberate action performed in a set sequence that improves our emotional state by reframing an experience in a way that feels meaningful." End quote.
Now, that's just a few sentences in, but what Samuel is trying to argue here is that religion has traditionally provided ritual, and human beings need ritual in order to lead meaningful lives. They need rituals of their own, but secular rituals, if you will. And as Samuel reports, "There are those who are now trying to provide secular people with secular rituals." But this takes us back to Sheilaism, this intense privatization, because it turns out that in a secular age, which is also highly individualistic, individual secular people are going to need their individual secular rituals. Go figure.
Samuel tells us about the Ritual Design Lab. It's located by the way in Silicon Valley, if you hadn't figured that out already, where we're told that a team of interaction designers is working to generate new rituals for modern life with an eye to user experience. The creators are Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan, and we're told that their lab is crafting rituals for both individuals and organizations, including big organizations like Microsoft.
The team is even offering what's now called a ritual design hotline, which offers the promise, quote, "You tell us your problem, we'll make you a ritual." It also has a ritual inventory that invites you to add any interesting ritual you may have come up with, and it allows others to brainstorm with you, and to create their own rituals.
We're also told that the lab has its roots in Stanford University's Institute of Design, where the two creators both teach. We're also told that in 2015, they proposed a new course on ritual design. More than 100 students at Stanford, we are told, signed up. Quote, "Most were secular." End quote.
Ozenc, one of the co-creators, explained, quote, "The new generation, they want bite-sized spirituality instead of a whole menu of courses. Design thinking can offer this because the whole premise of design is human centeredness. It can help people shape their spirituality based on their needs. Institutionalized religions," he said, "somehow forget this, that at the center of any religion should be the person." End quote.
Well at this point we simply have to interject. The center of biblical Christianity is not the individual person, the believer, but rather God, the triune God of scripture. At one point, it's almost as if this article is written as a parody, because this team of researchers suggests that rituals should now be lightweight and even a bit humorous. Ozenc said, quote, "We're not interested in heavy top bottom religious or government rituals." End quote.
So what kind of rituals are here to be designed for secular people in a secular age? Well, these secular rituals turn out to be not very ritualistic at all. The article also cites a rather liberal rabbi working with the team, and the rabbi's at least intuitive enough and honest enough to ask the question as to just how satisfying individually designed secular rituals can be when the individual for whom the ritual has been designed knows there's nothing behind the ritual but himself or herself.
Samuel seems to recognize this when he writes, quote, "Turning to new rituals as stand-ins for ancient ones raises the tricky issue of legitimacy." End quote. Well at this point, again, Christians will insert that the issue raises the even trickier question of truth. Is it true? Is there any truth claim even behind the ritual?
It becomes clear in the article that those behind this project, again, understand religion just as an evolutionary phenomenon. It's just a human experience. They define religion as what humans developed in order to give meaning to their lives. There's no possibility even reflected in the article or in the project that there might actually be a God, and that he is the source of truth. That's completely missing altogether.
Instead, we are told that in this individualistic age, it is wrong to try to objectify, even to try to argue that there's an external authority. That raises the question that Samuel recognizes, if it's even appropriate in a highly individualistic age to need people to define rituals for you. Even a service like this, which is the very purpose of the article, appears to be just a reinforcement of the fact that the individual is actually not sufficient as a unit of meaning.
Going back and final thoughts on these articles, go back to Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart. Go back to Sheila and Sheilaism. Go back to Robert Bellah's recognition a generation ago that this is not just an individual problem found amongst people who know themselves to be secular. Sheilaism is a phenomenon that Bellah and his team recognize actually infects many of the people who sit in pews and think themselves to be believers.
But without God at the center of the worldview and truth affirmed as something external to us, when it comes to those believers, their beliefs come down to Sheilaism. As these articles point out, even Sheila may think she needs a ritual, but in the end, it's all about Sheila.
When you change the language about God, you are redefining God and worshipping a different deity
Next we turn to news out of the Convention of the summer of the Episcopal Church in the United States, two big headlines. The first was that the Convention approved what was defined as a pastoral solution on same-sex marriage, and the second was the announcement that ECUSA, as it's known, the Episcopal Church in U.S.A., will revise the Book of Common Prayer, but it doesn't know when. It does basically know how, and that's the big story.
The first issue has to do with the fact that even though the Episcopal Church has been marching left for so long, and even though it has approved same-sex marriage, it hasn't put same-sex marriage rituals within the Book of Common Prayer. That's at least part of the effort behind the revision, but the bigger issue is that there are bishops of the Episcopal Church who have not allowed priests within their diocese to conduct same-sex blessing ceremonies and marriages. The Pastoral Solution, as it was billed here, was a solution to allow all priests in the Episcopal Church to use these blessing ceremonies that aren't yet in the Book of Common Prayer, regardless of whether or not their bishop would allow.
The bishop behind this, Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island, New York said that the arrangement provides greater inclusion for LGBT couples without alienated traditionalists. But it doesn't alienate traditionalists, only if the traditionalists are already alienated. This is just another leftward lurch by the Episcopal Church, and it's billed as a compromise, but it's really not a compromise at all.
Furthermore, this demonstrates that in a denomination like this that has been committed to theological liberalism for so long, when the denomination's principles and polity meet the sexual revolution, the sexual revolution wins. Remember that the name, the Episcopal Church, refers to the office of bishop, but this policy compromise relativizes the authority of bishops, and if anything, it just tells us that the sexual revolutionaries will never be satisfied without total victory, and without the demand of the other side, the traditionalists, to surrender unconditionally.
The bigger story of theological importance is the second one. They plan to revise the Book of Common Prayer at some point. The current version goes back to 1979, it's liberal enough. The Book of Common Prayer, the most venerable book of worship within Protestantism goes back to 1549. It's one of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation, but a move to revise the Book of Common Prayer by 2030. Recognize that's 12 years in the future. It failed, because of the risk of alienating traditionalists, but that's not really the issue. This is a church that has been mowing over traditionalists or Orthodox believers for some time.
The real fear is alienating the people, even in dwindling numbers, who are still in the pews. Changing the Book of Common Prayer might lead to an even greater hemorrhaging of church members. That appears to be the real fear. The real agenda is also very clear. The agenda is to change God language, references to God, and to eliminate, or at least relativize, any masculine references to God.
Julie Zauzmer of the Washington Post cites the Reverend Wil Gafney, a woman who teaches Hebrew bible at the Brite Divinity School in Texas, she said the problem is this, quote, "As long as 'men' and 'God,'" both words are put in quotation marks, "are in the same category, our work towards equity will not just be incomplete, I honestly think it won't matter in some ways." End quote.
That's absolutely astounding. Here you have a church going as fast as it can, as far as it can to the left, and celebrating every form of equity, and diversity, and pluralism you can imagine. Here you have an academic saying that unless references to God, names and pronouns for God, are changed to include both female and male, then all that work towards equity will be for nothing. It just won't even matter.
Zauzmer then reports, quote, "Gafney says that when she preaches, she sometimes changes the words of the Book of Common Prayer, even though Episcopal priests aren't formally allowed to do so. Sometimes she switches a word like, 'king,' to a gender neutral term like, 'ruler,' or, 'creator.' Sometimes she uses, 'she,' instead of, 'he.' Sometimes she sticks with the masculine tradition." Quote, "Our father. I wouldn't fiddle with that," she says, as she speaks of the Lord's Prayer that Jesus taught his own disciples to pray.
Notice that it's all about the judgment of this individual preacher professor. She says she sometimes substitutes, "she," for, "he." She sometimes fiddles with the language, even though that's not permitted to priests in the Episcopal Church. But then she says she stops at Our Father, as in Our Father who art in heaven, but that's simply an act of her will, her own taste or discrimination. There is no binding authority, and there is no binding tradition. There is no binding biblical doctrine here whatsoever.
She went on to argue that the issue is that the language for God must be changed or women are going to be excluded and will never be equal. Professor Gafney is cited as saying, quote, "As long as a masculine God remains at the top of the pyramid, nothing else we do matters. We construct a theological framework in which we talk about gender equality, then we say that which is most holy in the universe is only and exclusively male. That just undoes some of the key theology that says we are equal in God's sight. We are fully created in God's image." End quote.
Here we see the influence of feminist theology. Feminist theology simply becomes another stream in the great river of liberal theology. The entire project is to create theology which eventuates in a God of our own making, a God made in our own image. The feminists, the liberationists, and others have argued that theology simply has to come to terms with the human understanding of equality, and so the language of Scripture, not just the Book of Common Prayer, the language of Scripture must be revised.
So feminists have been working at this, feminist theologians, for the last several decades. What's really interesting in this case is not that the Episcopal Church is in this debate, the really interesting thing is that in 2018, this is still an issue. We have to ask the question, why?
Here I believe there is a strange but very powerful testimony to the power of the words of Scripture. The words of Scripture. The words of Scripture that continue to haunt the world, the secular world, the words of Scripture still exert a remarkable authority even in a secular age, even in a church, or denomination in this case, the Episcopal Church, that's doing it's very best to be as liberal as it can possibly be.
That's because the God inspired language of Scripture, the divinely inspired language and vocabulary of Scripture, continues in our minds, and it continues in our hearts, and it continues as divine revelation with an authority even the revisionists find themselves unable to check.
Not too long ago, Ross Douthat of the New York Times defined the Episcopal Church as quote, "Flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes." End quote.
Douthat's absolutely right, and now the Episcopal Church is announcing that at some point, it's going to revise the Book of Common Prayer and we can fully expect now that feminist God language will be included. But this is where Christians must understand that when you change the language about God from the language of Scripture, you are redefining God, and you are worshiping a different deity.
The one true and living God has revealed himself in Scripture, and he in Scripture has named himself. Moses asked God for his name, and not only from the bush that burned but was not consumed, but in every portion of Scripture, God has the absolute right to name himself, and we dare not change his name. As always, it comes down to the reality of God, and to the authority of Scripture. It always does, it always has, it always will.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albermohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go the sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.