The Theodicy that No One Takes Seriously Today: Is it Because it Works?
Like a Bad Accident: You Know You Shouldn’t Watch, but You Can’t Look Away.

Sociologists Recognize the Practice of Religion is Rational--it Only Took Till 1987 (Stark and Baimbridge)

When an LDC couple moves into town, or any person of the full-time-servant variety, there is some flexibility as to which congregation they will attend. I try to woo them into mine. ‘Frankly, in some of those other congregations,’ I tell them, ‘I’m not sure they even believe in God.’ It’s a joke. Everyone knows it’s a joke. They laugh.

But in the world of theologians, it’s no joke. Theologians may not. And if they do not, their credentials as theologian are not diminished. Rank-and-file religious believers may assume a theologian believes in God as much as they, the only distinction being that they know more, having made the divine a special topic of study. They are wrong. Theology is a study of humans, specifically, of their interaction with what they regard as the divine. As such, it does not even assume that there is a divine. It is a study of humans interacting with the concept of one, whether that concept be real or not.

Theologians occupy themselves with arguments as to God’s existence, arguments categorized as ontological, cosmological, and teleological—usually finding flaws with each one. James Hall considers numerous examples of each argument and in every case arrives at what he calls a ‘Scottish verdict’—undecided.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the believers who don’t fret about such things. Few of them even know the terms. Instead, they present God according to his attributes and personality revealed in Scripture. If people like those attributes and personality, they take care of the theology all on their own. If they don’t, all the theology in the world will not sway them.

In short, the worship of God is not an academic discipline. It need not hold to the latest standards of intellectual rigor, standards which change over time. It is enough for the believer to be ‘reasonable’ and ‘sound in mind.’ Accordingly, while a few bones are thrown to those who insist on evidence, such as how the Bible conveys knowledge far ahead of its time—the shape and position of the earth in space, an understanding of the water cycle, the value of sanitation and quarantine—the primary draw will ever be on God’s attributes and personality. When God passed by Moses’s face, it was not to explain that the earth is round and hangs upon nothing. It was to declare, “Jehovah, Jehovah, a God merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abundant in loyal love and truth, showing loyal love to thousands, pardoning error and transgression and sin, but he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, bringing punishment for the error of fathers upon sons and upon grandsons, upon the third generation and upon the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

That last phrase, which sounds ominous, is best explained in terms of people inheriting the consequences of their progenitor’s prior actions. Since concepts of normalcy originate from observing our parents, a parent decidedly abnormal sabotages his children for generations to come. Many people know the determination to do things ‘not like my old man did,’ succeeding to a point, and then one day realizing to their dismay that beneath the veneer, they are just like the old man.

There is also the unsettling findings of epigenetics, which upends the universal understanding of my youth that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited. Ruin your health—say, through alcohol or tobacco, and it was once thought the damage stops with you—your children would not inherit the defect. In fact, they can. The epigenome may not change the genome—the genome is inherited intact, except for evolution’s deft touch—but it does change whether various genes will be expressed or not. Again, the Exodus 34:7 passage is validated.

It is the attributes and personality that draws one close to God, including the attribute implied by that final passage—that God would have requirements for us. For the longest time, Jehovah’s Witnesses used in their ministry the brochure What Does God Require of Us? That God should have that attribute immediately resonates with some and immediately repels others. It either ‘tastes’ good or it doesn’t. “Taste and see that Jehovah is good,” says the psalm. Taste is not a provable topic. Some people think he tastes bad. The head has little to do with it. Yet, today’s philosophical theologians focus almost exclusively on the head. One might imagine a mechanic approaching auto repair with its least applicable tool.

Up till now, I have been sloppy with terms such as theologians, philosophers, and sociologists. If I rectify this only to a degree here, it is due to a conviction that they are mostly like that ill-equipped mechanic. Little useful about God is derived from them; humanity is their specialty, not God. The terms are important only for the sake of speaking about them and distinguishing among them. Their fields bear relationship to each other. At times, as with P.D.Q Bach, the name of that relationship is identity, but at other times, they are quite diverse. Think of a Venn diagram, with disciplines sometimes overlapping and sometimes not. Thus, theologians can approach their topic from a philosophical, sociological, or psychological orientation.

It took until the 1980s for sociologists studying religion to admit that religious believers were even engaged in a rational activity. Since the time of the Enlightenment, the prevailing assumption had been that religion was ‘irrational’ and, as such, it would eventually be crowded out by scientific advance. But in time, that premise came to be viewed as a recipe for failure. What if one approached economics, for example, with the assumption that the use of money was irrational? The feeling grew that prior ‘theories’ were really just metaphors—that the worship of God was a neurosis (Freud) or the opium of the people (Marx). Begin by insulting those you wish to study; just how much might you expect to learn with that approach? A Theory of Religion, by Stark and Baimbridge (1987) posited for first time among sociologists that religion was a rational endeavor.

Well, it’s a nice concession. Believers will appreciate knowing they are no longer presumed nuts. But don’t think the concession extends too far. The academics are simply willing to dignify their objects of study as not the irrational loons their colleagues made them out to be. Any recognition that God exists remain well beyond these fellows; no one has broken ranks to that degree. Some have only opined that, given certain assumptions, the very practice of religion is not hogwash.

The Stark-Baimbridge team framed religious belief as though it were goods rationally bought and rationally paid for. Suppose you want to live forever but you are discouraged by the fact that it’s not possible. In that case, the team posited, as a thoroughly rational decision you might accept an IOU from a religious figure who promises that in an afterlife. Suppose you want to up the ante and not only live forever in an afterlife, but also enjoy good health, community support, and family support in the present life. Well, then you might join the Mormons and pay a rather high cost in terms of tithing, time, and ridicule incurred from defending the ‘third testament’ called for by that religion. (Stark uses the Mormons a lot in his research, they being especially numerous in his neck of the woods)

They even think their theory explains why Christianity spread in early times whereas Roman and Greek religions died out. Christians accepted the IOUs of everlasting life. The Roman and Greek gods had nothing to compare with these IOUs—their Hades, the abode of both the meritorious and villainous deceased, was a miserable existence. The Christian community cared for and supported one another through good times and bad; their God encouraged that. The Greek and Roman gods didn’t give a hoot about people, and thus their worshippers tended not to either. Self-reliance is a useful thing, but it may not get you through hard times as much as neighbor helping neighbor.

Okay, okay—so Stark and Baimbridge have jumped light-years ahead of their contemporaries, who will still be muttering as they are lowered in their graves, ‘Faith is irrational’—but it is still all wrong to look at faith as though it were a series of economic exchanges. No true believer would ever look at it that way. To explain religious faith in terms no person of religion would ever employ—isn’t that more than a little contemptuous? It is all wrong to focus on the benefits of faith while ignoring the source of it. It smacks of savoring the peel of a banana while ignoring the interior. It also smacks of committing the grand faux pas of equating correlation to causation, something we are told one never must do, though the ones who tell us that do it all the time. The question as to whether God exists is not irrelevant but forms the very core of belief.

This ass-backwards approach correlates with why you don’t get all excited when you hear Hollywood is making a movie about the Bible. You know they won’t do it right. You know they will turn out some product in which Moses pops Pharaoh in the nose and gets the girl; that approach is just so much sexier and in accord with popular values. So is the product of the sociologists, examining religion from the premise that humans created god rather than the reverse.

I would have liked it had Stark chosen Jehovah’s Witnesses as his ‘hard-core’ religious example, but he didn’t. He chose the Mormons. The Witnesses, too, are a high-cost, high-commitment, high-benefit faith and occasionally the two faiths are mistaken for one another. But, he may have chosen the Mormons because the bar of credulity is higher with them, thus putting his theory to greater test. With the Mormons, you must explain the Book of Mormon. He also likes it that they have solved what he calls the free-rider problem (the name speaks for itself) with their insistence on tithing. Solving the free-rider problem is another key element in his theory of economic comparisons, a problem which must be solved for the religion to survive. But, the Witnesses have not worked to solve such a problem. If someone wishes to ride free, so be it. They are convinced that not enough people will choose to do that so as to sink the entire enterprise. ‘Let the giver give freely,’ says the scripture. (2 Corinthians 9:7)

In recent years, Mormons have rebranded themselves as Latter Day Saints. I don’t wish them ill on this, but I think it will not take. Jehovah’s Witnesses changed their name, too, in 1931, from that of the International Bible Students. That name change did take. No one calls them International Bible Students anymore. But the Mormon name change is heading from specific (Mormon) to general (Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ), whereas the Witnesses went from general (International Bible students) to specific (Jehovah’s Witnesses). You can go in one direction but not the other. People don’t trade the specific for the general, particularly if they want to deride you as a cult.

Are either religions ‘cults?’ The criteria for cult classification used to be: If you fell under the spell of a charismatic leader, withdrew from society, and began doing strange things, you just might be a member of a cult. By this definition, neither faiths are cults. Their leaders are anything but charismatic—some are an acquired taste to listen to. They don’t withdraw from life, but continue in work and school in the greater community. Do they do ‘strange things?’ It’s in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but there was a time when speaking about one’s faith was not considered overly strange. They are not cults by the old standard. Scholars of religion call them ‘new religions’ so as to avoid the incendiary connotations of ‘cult.’

The definition of cult has changed dramatically over the years, expanded to include unpopular, out-of-the-mainstream, groups, attributing that out-of-the-mainstream aspect to ‘undue psychological influence.’ Accordingly, some faiths that were once on one side of the C-word are now on the other. Mormons must speak for themselves, but Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t really care which side of the word they are on so long as the Bible is on the same side. And they believe that it is. If they are a cult, it is because the Bible is a cult manual. If it is, they are. if it is not, they aren’t. When Demas abandoned Paul because “he loved the present system of things” (2 Timothy 4:10), would Demas himself have chosen those personally unflattering words? ‘These guys are a cult,’ is what he probably said—if not immediately, then with the passage of time.

The latest manifestation of a ‘freedom of mind’ obsession that derides religion, and particularly organized minority religion, is found in a recent commentary on the young, which summarizes it thus: “They. Really. Don’t. Like. Organized. Religion.” That sentence (if it is one) says it all. I know the following is symbolic, but as symbolism goes, it doesn’t get any better. Today’s ‘freedom of mind’ people are so fiercely independent they can’t even stand for words to be organized properly, lest one unduly influence another.

You organize to get things done. If you don’t care about getting things done, you don’t organize. To spread the news of God’s kingdom worldwide in a way that does not quickly devolve into a theologian’s quagmire of individual opinion seems to Jehovah’s Witnesses a project worth organizing for. So they do it. And they put up with how in any organization, there will be flaws, since everything humans touch is flawed. “We have this treasure [of the ministry] in earthen vessels” [us—with all our imperfections] the NT writer advises. (2 Corinthians 4:7) But cast aside such organization and one presently becomes indistinguishable from the evolving and declining standards of the greater world. So Witnesses hang in there, repeating if need be the Rolling Stones lyric, “You can’t always get what you want.” It works so much better than the Stone’s other mantra: “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

(See: Introduction to the Study of Religion--Charles B Jones, Great Courses, Lecture 9)

******  The bookstore

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'


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