May 7, 2012
— Martin E. Marty
The class will please come to order. Our text today is "The Law of Cultural Dominance," formulated by David Kaplan in Cultural Evolution, published fifty-two years ago, and noticed too little since. I find online that I quoted it in a scholarly article in 1977 and noted a couple of other citations through the decades. We happy few who profited from it have an insight which helps explain much in religious change. Here it is: "That cultural system which more effectively exploits the energy resources of a given environment will tend to spread in that environment at the expense of less effective systems."
In the United States, Pentecostals, conservative evangelicals, African American, Latino/Latina Americans, Latter-Day Saints, Korean Protestants, and other prospering religious groups know this Law without having read Kaplan. For one illustration: the energy resources associated with mass media—radio, TV, movies, and now the internet are available to all, but mainly the kind of groups I mentioned have "exploited" them efficiently. Politically, devotion to the theology of Ayn Rand or the icons of a version of the "free market" pays off more than social-gospel oriented outlooks. Worship services have to have what sociologist Rodney Stark calls the "wow factor," which they can market aggressively. In the Wall Street Journal, Naomi Schaefer Riley discusses the upside and down sides of such wowing and marketing in a column about the absence of young people at most non-wow kinds of celebrations. (There are down sides, to be sure, but they are not our topic today.)
Kaplan reached back to illustrate his point: when Christian frontier newcomers in America came along, they acquired cultural dominance efficiently by using Bibles and bullets, over against Native Americans who were less efficient in using their cultural environment at the time. Ross Douthat's much noticed Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics mourns the move to wow-factor exploitations across the board in American religion. Mark Oppenheimer in his review in the New York Times wrote of the less efficient exploiters, in overstated but not all wrong terms: "On the left . . . American Christianity is beholden to a self-centered, Oprah-fed spirituality, and, on the right, Christianity is too often represented by a jingoistic, wealth-obsessed evangelism. Mainline Protestantism is disappearing, and a beleaguered Catholicism is running out of priests." One could find analogies in Judaism, which he overlooks.
He does indeed overstate. There are tens of thousands of lively Mainline and Catholic parishes, but Kaplan notes that no cultural system that is "well-adapted to its environmental setting, will abandon its way of life.. . . " unless it is pressured to do so. Douthat's is a "decline and fall book." Kaplan muses: "Perhaps we might comport ourselves like the Greeks after Rome became dominant, to become an aristocratic people, austere and unimpressed by the mere wealth of the nouveaux riches, full of wisdom, the teachers and models of ethics, scientific reasoning, and dignified manners."
There are alternatives this side of Oprah or Joel Osteen on one hand and comatose forms of inherited religious life on the other. Thoughtful people are seeking to develop them, and are free to do that without much notice. But they and kindred spirits cannot stay adapted to mid-twentieth century modes and prosper. Kaplan's perception is basic to any efforts at recovery and change.
Kaplan's chapter is in Evolution and Culture, edited by Marshall G. Sahlins & Elman R. Service (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960).
Naomi Schaefer Riley, "Pastors Call a Truce on 'Sheep-Stealing,'" Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2012. She quotes Rodney Stark and supplies her term, "the wow factor."
Mark Oppenheimer, "When American Faith Transcended Differences: In 'Bad Religion,' Ross Douthat Criticizes U.S. Christianity," New York Times, April 18, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.