Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Diversity may not be good for you

The "religious market" has long been identified as the reason that American religion, in contrast to the European variety, thrives. It also, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, may be a reason for its becoming anemic.

American faith has morphed from a dominant Protestantism into the situation famously described by Will Herberg and more recently Diana Eck, and we're quick to pat ourselves on the back for being so diverse. But costs of inclusion such as privatization and content dilution, explains Wuthnow, may be too high a price to pay. In a remark that might make him unpopular in the faculty lounge, Wuthnow explains that
"The trouble is not, as many academics seem to believe, that many advances to religious inclusiveness has been hindered by bigots on the religious right. Of course it is easy to identify groups with whom one disagrees as the enemy. But American religion has not just been a struggle in recent years between those who wanted to reinvent it and those who wanted to keep it the way it was. The difficulty in moving toward a more inclusive society in which democracy is actually informed by competing religious principles has been deeper and harder to identify because it is ingrained in our culture..."
A culture, he concludes, which can quickly transform religion into a mere subjective personal need ornamented with arbitrary customs. What then passes for "diversity" is in fact the effort to "expand our cultural borders, while encouraging everything within them to look the same."

This danger is of course something that serious adherents of their respective religions have been alert to for some time. Isn't it nice to know that such insight now also happens to be cutting-edge sociology?

Listen to his lecture here.