I’m one of those people that went to get a PhD in religion just to make sense of my religious upbringing. Well, it was more, and I learned so much, while also hoping to get a job in academia, or counseling, or both. That plan didn’t work out.
Instead, I wound up in publishing, and interestingly, this career move was a good turn of events, as I’ve had the chance to apply what I learned on the ground level intersection of culture and commerce. Along the way, I discovered that it’s really true that education is never wasted.
One of the most striking insights I retained from my doctoral work, specifically in psychology and religion, was the idea that the disciplines of social science displaced the authority of religion in different areas of life.
You heard that right.
Let me offer a nugget of theory. One cultural critic, Peter Homans at the University of Chicago, argued that Sigmund Freud’s work in the early twentieth century was such a breakthrough because it created a language to describe internal life. From observing stages of psychological development and motivation to understanding how past experiences shape us and that growth means bringing these experiences to our everyday awareness, Freud created a system by which we could study, understand, and help people. That is, we could help people in a way that religion said it would but could not, at least not as much as it sometimes promises. Homans, by the way, also talked about how Max Weber was doing something similar “displacing religion” in sociology, as was Emile Durkheim in anthropology.
In my day job in religion book publishing, I’ve seen the overreach of authors who implicitly or explicitly work to help you heal and grow, simply with not much more than recapitulating scripture and evangelical axioms so much so that you forget there are other forms of knowledge and help readily available. Maybe because I’ve seen so much of it, so much repetition from pastors and religious guides and now spiritual social media influencers of the Christian industrial complex that I’m biased. Or maybe not. Perhaps there really is an overreach.
Instead of social scientific theorizing, let’s take for example some better-known theological thinking. More specifically, recall how at one time there were respected clergy who argued that the Bible justified slavery (they even felt justified to redact liberation narratives in the Bibles given to slaves). Yet over time and through much struggle and a Civil War, but also through a fair-minded contextual reading of the Bible, that explicit biblical justification is no longer in use. The justice and knowledge work displaced the religious overreach. Today’s debates about LGBTQ individuals are strikingly similar, in case you haven’t noticed, and no doubt one day this issue will be in the past as well-though hopefully without violent conflict.
Books can play a part in helping us understand and learn, and increase and improve our knowledge rather than regurgitate it.
In a time when so many people are leaving church or attending less frequently-it really is a groundswell at this point (search religious â€œnonesâ€ or “faith deconstruction”)- we now have an opportunity to displace the overreach of religion that happens in some key contexts.
We can displace, even in churches, preponderant Bible teaching with sound psychological insights and therapies, for one. But in general, I’d love to discover and read more authors and their books who help us see our religious heritage for what it does and doesn’t do, while also taking us into new worlds of understanding and insight. Long-form written artifact ”books” can bring about change, and specifically, they can offer ideas so robust they help us envision anew ourselves and our world around us. That in itself is spiritual reading.