Saturday, February 04, 2006


Have you ever had an idea that you thought was completely original? Perhaps an insight that no one else had gained? You feel pretty good about it - you're so clever! Maybe you want to test your idea, read up on the subject to flesh out some details. And in the course of your research, you find that your unique idea has already been thought. Does it make 'your' idea any less original, if someone else thought of it before you came up with it on your own?

Clearly, this is not entirely hypothetical. I was reading the State of the Union (I felt I should back up my claims that it sucked by checking for myself. Confirmed!). In the course of it, I was reflecting on the commoness of religious references in public speech in recent years. Usually not references in the Lincolnian sense of language and imagery, but direct invokation of God and His will. This put me to wondering at the historical context and precedence for this kind of language in American public life.

Most high school history students are briefly introduced to the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, though there was also a 3rd. These were religious revivals in the 1740's, 1820's, and 1880's (approximately). They were all characterized by changes in religious thought, but also a rise to prominence of piety and religiosity in public life. Many scholars posit a cycle of awakenings, tracing their ancestry back to the Reformation, and claiming that another Great Awakening took place in the 1960's-1970's with the rise of Pentecostal churches. Others claim the cycle expressed itself in spiritual and revolutionary movements fo the same era.

My thought was that the present is the actual time of a Great Awakening. I equate the rise of "megachurches" with the great camp meetings of the 2nd Awakening. The splintering of many churches over issues such as female or gay clergy, or positions on abortion, reminds me of the rise of new faiths such as Mormonism that started in the same era. I don't have useful statistics to back up this theory, such as an increase in church membership or numbers of registered sects. I'm basing this on the shakey foundation of common wisdom.

However, I found that at least one person has already had this thought. Robert William Fogel has written a book that appears to theorize that a 4th Great Awakening began in the 1950's and is still going. I'd have to read the book, but it looks like I was on the same track he already rode ahead on. It is still an interesting topic, though. And it begs the question, what happens next? If we are indeed in a Great Awakening, what can the first three tell us to expect next? The others have cycled out as new, radical religious ideas have been incorporated into mainstream religion, and as it stabilizes the prominence of religion in public discourse declines.

I would add that it is entirely possible that this is not what will come to pass. It has become cliche to say that modern communication technology has "shrunk the planet" and helped public opinion and thought move faster (the Feiler Faster Thesis). But doesn't greater connectivity between like-minded people encourage radicalization? It is generally accepted that humans are social animals, and want to belong to groups. Hence fads and trends. But what if there is less of an impetus to modify your beliefs to belong to the mainstream, since technology allows you to belong to virtual groupings of people who already agree with you? There is less pressure to moderate, so radical views (and the fundamentalist revivals that oppose them) can persist. So how does a 4th Awakening end if there's no pressure to return to the norm? Will decreased social pressure to return to the mainstream eventually hollow out the mainstream, not only in religion but any regime of opinion? Is this why there are fewer and fewer moderates in government?

At any rate, it's not a well formed idea. But I was thinking about it, and welcome anyone's thoughts.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

A 4th Awakening? Yikes. And if it has been going on as long as you theorize, double yikes.

At the same time, it seems to me that each generation does a slightly less thorough job of passing on to its youngsters the local/family belief system (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever) than the generation before it.

I feel that this helps explain why (from what I've read) church attendance is on the wane. Give us another 150 years, and we may actually be able to keep the Lord's name out of the mouths of our elected politicians.