Malcolm Gladwell on the Future of Religion

October 17, 2005 | 20 comments
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In its latest issue, Time magazine “assembled some of the smartest people we know to identify the trends that are most likely to affect our future.” Among those selected was Malcolm Gladwell, who had this to say about religion:

One of the big trends in American society is the transformation of the evangelical movement and the rise of a more mature, sophisticated, culturally open evangelical church. Ten years from now, I don’t think we’re going to have the kinds of arguments about religion that we have today. Even the fight over intelligent design, to me, is a harbinger of a trend, which is that the religious world is increasingly willing to put its issues on the table and discuss them in the context of the secular world. Let’s argue about evolution vs. creation, using the framework that secular science has given us.

This is part of an ongoing transformation. We will not continue to have this kind of divide between Evangelicals and the rest of society. I just went to an interesting evangelical conference, and throughout, rock bands were playing. The rock-’n’-roll culture within the evangelical world is indistinguishable in terms of the sound of the music from the rock culture that came out of a very different, irreligious secular tradition, except that the words are about Jesus–love and all that. They’re not resisting outside culture, they’re embracing it and kind of making it their own. I think intelligent design and Christian rock are similar. It’s about taking up form from the outside and trying to Christianize it. Does the debate over evolution matter? Isn’t it really a nondebate?

Gladwell seems intent on making a big point about the transformation of the evangelical movement, but the other panelists could not get beyond their disdain for intelligent design. I am interested in understanding Gladwell’s larger point, for which he uses intelligent design as a (counterintuitive) example. Rock music is his other example of “embracing” outside culture and “making it their own.”

But what is the point, exactly? Why are we not “going to have the kinds of arguments about religion that we have today”? Because evangelical Christians will become more secular or because the dominant culture will become more Christianized? Or something else?

20 Responses to Malcolm Gladwell on the Future of Religion

  1. Seth Rogers on October 17, 2005 at 11:51 pm

    Just sounds like a bunch of snooty intellectuals imperiously assuming that the natives will ultimately have no choice but to see the “reasonableness” of their own viewpoint.

  2. Clark on October 17, 2005 at 11:59 pm

    Well in some cases (science) that does happen. In other cases what the intellectuals take as settled is really just social consensus.

    But I’m not at all convinced that those with beliefs at odds with science will somehow be convinced. The ability of the human mind to compartmentalize is often amazing. And religious fundamentalists have shown an amazing ability to make use of technology based upon science they reject. Look at Al Queda.

  3. Seth Rogers on October 18, 2005 at 12:17 am

    I don’t consider Al Queda to be a religious group (at least, not the core leadership). They are political opportunists, nothing more.

    The main weakness of science’s ongoing quest to discredit religion is probably summed up in a quote I heard somewhere:

    “Beware those of you who seek first and final principles! For you are treading in the garden of an angry God, and he is waiting for you just beyond the last theorem.”

    I’ve always felt that “angry” quotes sound cooler. =)

  4. Clark on October 18, 2005 at 12:27 am

    1. I don’t think science has an “ongoing quest to discredit religion.” At worse it thinks when something is demonstrably true it ought be accepted. Don’t confuse popular writers such as Dawkins with science.

    2. I certainly agree with those who are skeptical of final theories. But that’s contrary to the spirit of science. But I’d note that those who say this “saves” many “religious beliefs” are in error. I put that in scare quotes because typically what we have is a particular way of interpreting things and a general lack of attempt to honestly interpret the texts God gave us in the world around us.

  5. Jeremiah J. on October 18, 2005 at 1:07 am

    Alas, Seth, if only they really were “snooty intellectuals”. Apparently the smartest people Time knows aren’t so much. I can’t imagine the Economist or Prospect asking Moby about anything important (as so many people do, when Moby things of change in human life over time, all he can think about is cool gadgets that we have now but didn’t previously). Brooks and Gladwell are the only ones even remotely equipped to have this kind of conversation, and even there we’re not talking about giants. Call that snobbishness if you want, but there simply are some people who have the talent and skills and have spent years thinking about social life in ways that others haven’t.

    About the Gladwell, comment, though: I confess I don’t know what to make of it. First of all, many if not most of Gladwell’s listeners (including Dyson) don’t have a good grasp of of what Evangelical Christianity is. Dyson probably equates it with politically right-wing (and ‘close-minded’) Christianity. This clouds the question from the beginning.

    Gladwell may be making a similar though more sophisticated error. He’s referring to the issue of intellgent design as if it’s merely an result of a the theological maturation of a particular religious movement. In the absence of hard data which he may have in mind, I am concluding that he’s missing a few things:

    1) The debate about intelligent design is not fueled only by a militantly Christian segment of the population. It’s a live debate because there are Christians who don’t believe in evolution at all, combined with many many others who believe in evolutionary processes but also in God as the ultimate cause of life and things. A majority of this majority coalition are worried that evolution is also an anti-theistic ideology that is interwoven with science, or that an unreflective secularism in academia is marginalizing legitimate science that is more friendly to religion.. In short: intelligent design is a political issue; there is mor than one group involved along with an explicitly political aspect to evolution for these groups. The theological and cultural character of the evangelical movement is and will continue to be only one element with the dynamic of conservative American politics.

    2) The easy confidence that evangelical Christianity is maturing to the point where it will successfully ‘assimilate’ science seems to ignore what kind of assimilation is going on. Mainline Protestantism found much about the heart and soul of modernity that could be endorsed. Evangelicals found much in modern marketing schemes, technoloical advancements, and cultural forms that it could endorse. Here I guess I’m seconding what Clark has to say (though I don’t agree with the equation of fundamentalism and evangelicalism). The joke about Christian rock is: “it takes two good things and make both of them obnoxious”. But unlike rock, science (to be distinguished also from just getting credentuialed as a scientist) isn’t just a style which can be so easily aped–a fortiori won’t it be the case that evangelical evolutionary biology will have just as many enemies in the scientific community as intelligent design does now? Or even more–back when the main argument of evangelicals was “How could you believe that we decended from monkeys?”, scientists generally offered a few dismissive rebuttals and the two went their separate ways. Today the evangelical perspective is viewed as a threat to the integrity of science itself.

    3) The fundamental problem isn’t anywhere near close to being solved. Is modern biology (along with most other kinds of natural science) an enemy of religion? Is evangelical Christianity (along with most other kinds of theism) an enemy of science? The answer to both questions is at least in some sense yes, and the perspective through which the two might be also viewed as in some sense friends seems to be one which stands above both. If such a position is possible is it not yet forthcoming, at least not in our public sphere. No amount of ‘maturation’ of evangelical Christianty or assimilation of science will make this fundamental tension go away.

  6. Clark on October 18, 2005 at 1:28 am

    Jeremiah, I don’t think ID is really just a political issue. I think there are some very sincere philosophical issues at play. I think that were the movement to remain just a philosophical critique it would be fine. The attempt to make it more scientific is what is more problematic. But I do agree that most of the debate has arisen when primarily Evangelicals politicized ID. Of course many of those politicizing ID don’t understand it and don’t realize that it largely embraces most evolutionary theory. I’ve heard many conflating ID with young earth creationism of all things. But that ignorance, even among ID’s defenders, is definitely evidence for the politicization.

    But let’s not confuse ID proper with the political tempest that has swirled around it. While I disagree strongly with ID. I respect the philosophical thinking behind the basic ideas. I think it unfortunate that it has become so demonized. Although given the political issues, I certainly understand (and largely agree) with scientists getting involved in the anti-ID political debate.

    I agree with you that Evangelicalism is primarily a movement against the assimilation found in most American protestantism. I also think that the fact most protestant membership is dwindling while the vague Evangelical movement (crossing Protestant sects) is growing tremendously. But the assimilation seems to be the opposite way – trying to get organizations and institutions to assimilate to the Evangelical world view rather than vice versa. What is somewhat scary is how successful they really have been.

    Were science pushed more in college I think we’d have a fair change of defeating this movement. But realistically most people can get through college with very little understanding of science. So I don’t think it is Evangelicalism that will have to assimilate science. In a sense (and this is why scientists are so worried) there is a real debate about the role of science and facts in society.

  7. Jeremiah J. on October 18, 2005 at 3:08 am

    Clark: I appreciate your comments.

    Actually I didn’t mean to suggest that ID is just a political issue. Rather I was responding to Gladwell’s point–he moves directly from a prediction about the “transformation” of Evangelicalism to “in the future we’re not going to be having the debates we’re having today”. He’s making a direct link between theological and cultural development of a particular religion to the kind of cultural-political debates “we” are going to be having. He flat-out ignores the fact that the debates we are having and will have are a function not only of theological beliefs, religious cultures, and certainly not only of what a few ID academics are doing. It also has an enormous amount to do with how different religions and intellectual movements fit in the structure of political identities, electoral coalitions, party strategies, etc. In the 19th century there was a theological debate between Mormons and outsiders about polygamy. But this didn’t have to become an explicitly political debate, at least not in the way that it did. You certainly cannot understand the phrase “Twin Relics of Barbarism” with reference only to theological debates.

    You yourself note how much of a paradox it is that ID people seem to be allied with young-Earth people and science-ignoramuses. Intellectually it’s baffling, but politically it’s quite simple. On issue after issue we can see coalitions formed out of a combination of true believers on the one hand and moderates convinced of a narrative of extremism on the other. The former are anti-evolution warriors. The latter are convinced only of the fact that Darwinism has “gone too far” culturally and politically.

    I am familiar a bit with ID and with the political context in which it fits, I’ve heard Behe and Dembski speak at what can only be termed a political rally on Capitol Hill against Darwinism in the schools. Indeed the fact that those two could seamlessly take part with young-Earth types in such a gathering is best explained in political, not academic terms. I admit you have to distinguish the academic arguments from the political fight. I also share your respect for the intelligence and the competence of some of the ID academics. But ID is not a part of the culture wars just because an academic debate exists. And Gladwell isn’t talking about the trajectory of evolutionary biology, but of our culture. My point is that the culture wars are not (contra Gladwell) merely a function of religious development, but even more of political development. By making this point I’m not equating the intellectual substance and merit of ID with the political place ID has within culture wars. I’m merely pointing out that the former, by itself, has little to do with our political and cultural future as Americans.

  8. mrs on October 18, 2005 at 10:14 am

    See, it seems that the evangelical movement is in a certain position of rejection of certain standards of society. Although the -current- evangelical churches may in fact be moving to a more conciliatory, mainstream position, I would expect that other churches will end up taking their place in cultural space. Weren’t most religions historically somewhat marginalized, and then moved into a position of cultural accomodation? Isn’t that the most likely thing?

    Corollary: Is our church moving into a position of cultural accomodation? What does that imply? (My quick response; good for some things, bad for others things)

  9. Jim F on October 18, 2005 at 10:42 am

    For a relevant discussion of related issues ( though not creationism or ID) from a believer, see Robert Jenson’s “Joining the Eternal Conversation”: http://www.touchstonemag.com/docs/issues/14.9docs/14-9pg32.html

  10. Seth Rogers on October 18, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Clark, you’re probably right that science and religion per se don’t necessarily have any real vendetta against each other. In fact, my own personal world view holds the two as ultimately reconcilable.

    However, you can’t deny that the two worlds have had a history of almost constant antagonism towards each other ever since astronomers started suggesting the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. This is mostly due to the implementation of both science and religion at the hands of flawed humans.

    However, the two belief systems have premises that make them bound to conflict with each other.

    Science is premised on the idea that ultimately, everything in existence is discoverable, knowable, and pliable to human endeavor. Now, I know that most scientists would point out that they personally do not expect to know everything in their own lifetimes and that the universe will not likely be understood for many, many more lifetimes.

    However, the premise remains that science seeks to eventually provide all the answers … and perhaps even the ultimate answer.

    Religion on the other hand, preaches the unknowable mystery of God. Religion is premised on the idea that man will NEVER know it all, no matter how many millenia humanity continues. As I said before … God will always be waiting beyond the last theorem.

    While religion can reconcile itself to many of science’s immediate endeavors, the alliance will always be uneasy. For science seeks ultimately to uncloak God and religion requires that He remain, at least to some extent, untouchable by human endeavor.

    These two thought patterns are bound to conflict and will continue to do so. The extreme positions are well-entrenched. Religion sees science as a modern Tower of Babel. Science sees religion as the enemy of all human progress. They have torn at each other for centuries and I see little reason that they will not continue to do so for centuries more … unless the “millenium” arrives and makes it all a moot point, of course. =)

  11. greenfrog on October 18, 2005 at 11:12 am

    It seems to me that Gladwell’s point is not that there are not on-going debates among serious-minded persons about the respective positions of evolution by natural selection and intelligent design, nor about the respective positions of reverence and rock and roll.

    He is observing the way the river’s course shifts and how the river flows.

    Thirty years ago, rock and roll were reviled countercultural threats to the stability of society and family. Today it’s become so assimilated that it’s part of the worship service itself.

    Twenty years ago, evolution was a vile assault on all things good. From the pulpit of a classroom where I sat at BYU, it was decried as Satan’s key deception, leading us, via our egotistic intellects, straight down to hell. Today, there is nary a suggestion of a 6000 year old earth at BYU.

    Sure, when we look at the point where the river runs against a rock, there is lots of real turbulence.

    But move the perspective up a bit higher, and the eventual course of the river isn’t hard to discern.

  12. Charles on October 18, 2005 at 11:37 am

    I’ll have to disagree with Gladwell. I believe we will see more polarization between the secular world and the religious. Evangelicals that are in the business of church will embrace the secular models of the world as more people become a-religious, otherwise they will fail to maintain their numbers.

    The real problem is that of organizations like the ACLU that champion non religious minorities and chase religion from public discourse. This will continue as long as the public discourse (via the media) marginalizes the religious conservatives and bolsters support for organizations like the ACLU.

    The Media is increasingly secular. A recent study mentioned on O’Reilly shows the US population at about 10 % non relitious but the media is disproportionatly 30% non religious. If this trend continues the media (being the only voice Americans have) will be anti religious which will marginalize the vast majority of the population.

    The sudden surge in religious interest can be seen in having a president who is wears his faith outwardly. Leaders that support faith will encourage cultures to have more faith. Events like 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq also raise religious awareness among the public and create a greater need for religious discourse.

    But we should not confuse the feeding of this public need by the secular media as a trend where the media supports religious positions, it is primarily an opportunity to make money by supplying the public demand. It has nothing to do with where their support lies.

  13. Chris Grant on October 18, 2005 at 11:40 am

    Clark writes: “I don’t think science has an ‘ongoing quest to discredit religion.’ At worse it thinks when something is demonstrably true it ought be accepted.

    No, at worst it thinks that things that are false are demonstrably true.

    Don’t confuse popular writers such as Dawkins with science.

    The “popular writer” Dawkins is an Oxford-trained zoologist who has held faculty positions at Berkeley and Oxford and is currently a Fellow of the Royal Society and is Oxford’s Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.

  14. Chris Grant on October 18, 2005 at 11:56 am

    greenfrog writes: “Thirty years ago, rock and roll were reviled countercultural threats to the stability of society and family. Today it’s become so assimilated that it’s part of the worship service itself.

    Christian rock is over thirty years old. (Petra, for example, released its first album in 1974.) The use of electric guitars and drumsets in Christian worship services is also nothing new.

  15. Clark on October 18, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    Seth: However, you can’t deny that the two worlds have had a history of almost constant antagonism towards each other ever since astronomers started suggesting the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. This is mostly due to the implementation of both science and religion at the hands of flawed humans.

    Yeah, I probably would dispute that. Until this century, I think it undeniable that most scientists were deeply religious and often their science was guided by their religion. Probably one of the best historians and philosophers of science to read on this is John Hedley Brooke. I wouldn’t deny in the least that there have been conflicts. But the relationship between science and religion is much more complex than I think most people realize. (And certainly far more complex than what most people get taught in school) A good one to start out with and well worth buying is Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. It’s a collection of papers but really is very interesting at perhaps clearing away some of the FUD that both sides in the current debate have placed on the issue.

    Seth: Science is premised on the idea that ultimately, everything in existence is discoverable, knowable, and pliable to human endeavor

    I don’t think that accurate. Science has no claims on whether everything is knowable or not. That’s the domain of philosophy and many philosophers of science (as well as scientists) would deny that claim. Indeed some of the most dominant strains of thinking about science would be quite antagonistic to such a view.

    Chris, I don’t deny Dawkins has a background in science. That doesn’t entail that he represents science.

  16. aaron on October 18, 2005 at 9:57 pm

    I think gladwell’s argument centers on the framing of debate. ID is an example of some religionists making an old idea (creationism) new in the language in which its approached and defended (ID). This seems supportable, but really ID is too new to expect it to be a major turning point in the way evangelicals, or the religious, frame their debates. If ID fails, one could expect a different approach on other issues. If it works, who knows but we’ll see a completely medicalized language for pro-life groups.
    The christian rock ‘n’ roll, on the other hand, doesn’t relate to debate in society as much as it seems a reflection for the way that all the commodities of global neo-liberalism are not uniform but altered to serve localized processes of self-expression.

  17. queuno on October 19, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Me, I’m just waiting for Malcolm Gladwell’s 15 minutes to end.

    As for ID, I think that Matt Santos’ speech on Sunday night was probably the most lucid discussion of ID I’ve heard in weeks…

  18. Mark B. on October 19, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    I’m impressed by the consistency that leads Greenfrog to make “rock and roll” plural, but I’m puzzled about his statement that rock and roll has become part of the worship service himself. Not in the LDS church.

    Re: Charles’s reference to a study cited by O’Reilly. I’m not sure that being cited by O’Reilly proves that something is untrue, but it certainly increases the odds.

  19. greenfrog on October 19, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    True — musically, our worship services seem stuck in the mid-1800s concepts.

    It would be interesting to imagine what sorts of hymns might be gathered if D&C 25 were issued today to a thirty-something woman, rather than in 1830.

  20. greenfrog on October 19, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    Correction — twenty-something, not thirty-something.