Keeping the Faith
Unsecular Man The Persistence of Religion By Andrew M. Greeley Schocken. 280 pp., $7.95
URBAN WHITE ETHNICS, or at least their advocates, are having a field day. Ever since the 1969 New York City Mayoral election, when John Lindsay traipsed out into Queens to explain why those snow plows couldn't come right away, left-liberals have been under attack for having forgotten the "peripheral urban ethnics." Liberals (so the criticism goes) were so wrapped up in furthering the causes of blacks and the young that they forgot about the people who had given them so much support over the years. Radical chic has become distinctly un-chic. Last fall, Nixon and Agnew did everything short of eating pizza and kielbasa in their effort to corner the ethnic market, and George McGovern became the first Democrat in years to lose the Catholic vote. The ethnic intellectuals felt justified in their attack-now more than ever.
For the most part, these intellectuals have confined their criticism of liberals to the secular area. Andrew Greeley, the Chicago priest-sociologist who is proud to be an Irishman and a friend of Mayor Daley's, has broadened the attack to the religious front. "Let us be clear at the beginning: this is a volume of dissent," he says in Unsecular Man. "It rejects most of the conventional wisdom about the contemporary religious situation." The conventional wisdom he rejects is the "pop-sociological-religious analysis which has become part of the American intellectual preconscious."
Greeley believes that "the basic religious needs and the basic religious functions have not changed very notably since the late Ice Age." He argues that the technopolitan secular man, the hero of religious liberals of the early sixties, the man who had "come of age" and was too tough and self-sufficient to feel a need for religion, exists only on certain Ivy League university campuses. You won't find him in Kensington or South Boston or Queens.
GREENLEY'S ARGUMENT takes two forms. On the empirical front, he gathers statistical evidence to show that a majority of the population, both young and old, believes in God, looks upon the Bible as an inspired book, believes in Heaven and Hell and doesn't like mixed marriages. On the theoretical front, he invokes the theories of sociologist Robert Nisbet to show that at the root of the liberal sociologists view of religion lies the assumption of organic revolution. The prophets at the "great secular universities" believed that history was clearly heading in one direction, that the human race was becoming more and more enlightened through the centuries, and that with this enlightenment would come a new maturity which in turn would make religious myths unnecessary. Hogwash, Greeley argues from Nisbet History shows change to be discontinuous, discreet and non-directional. Neither gradual "enlightenment" nor the loss of the need for myth is inevitable, Greeley says.
Even more compelling is Greeley's argument against the "literary myth" which holds that a society can be accurately described by what its intellectuals think. Intellectuals ignore survey data on religion and even the strange new cults popping up on campus and thus conclude, after consultation with each other, that the religious impulse is dead.
The basic flaw in Greeley's arguments lies in his definition of religion as "an explanation of what the world is all about." This notion takes in ideology as well, so that under Greeley's definition. Marxism would be called a religion even though it disavows the notion of God. Yet Greeley explicitly rejects the arguments of liberals for a "God-less Christianity" a la Dietrich Bonhoffer. In the end, one has absorbed empirical data and a considerable body of theory all pointing to the persistence of theistic religion, only to discover that God is not really the focal point of religion at all.
In later chapters, Greeley discusses the continuing importance of the sacred, of ritual, of myth. He notes in a chapter on religion and sex, that "sexuality is by its very nature sacred and by its very nature religious." He concludes by calling upon the Church neither to dabble in "social relevance" nor to keep out of earthly affairs entirely. He would have her reinterpret her myths in order to reassert the importance of the transcendent. The Church, he says, is the only institution in a position to alleviate the despair which he sees all around us, since only religious myths can heal the rift between technology and nature.
UNFORTUNATELY, the book begins better than it ends. Greeley is best when he's dissecting the flaws of anti-ideological, anti-religious ideologues. He is also very much to the point in insisting that beneath atomized mass society exists a layer of Gemeinschafl communities which en-compass the whole human being and not just this or that functional part. And he insists that such communities, far from being the reactionary enclaves which some liberals say they are, could become forces for social change.
Greeley's case is not without its problems, but it is certainly a useful antidote to the popular wisdom he disdains. Moreover, despite Greeley's propensity to make (usually funny) jokes at the expense of the Left, he is willing to acknowledge the accuracy of radical criticism of the corporate ideal, which ideal encouraged the anti-religious spirit. In so doing, he eases communication between the Left and the advocates of Catholic ethnics. Given the unusually bitter feelings which characterize relations between the two groups, this in itself is an admirable contribution.