Friday, 19 July 2013

Part XLVIII - The End of Religion

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Twelve is titled Devout Observances.

Veblen makes some more sweeping statements about what parts of society are more or less religious.  He says this is another trait that the upper and lower classes share, just as they are both conservative.  He views devoutness as definitely old-fashioned and notes that
“In the older communities of the European culture, the hereditary leisure class, together with the mass of the indigent population, are given to devout observances in an appreciably higher degree than the average of the industrious middle class, wherever a considerable class of the latter character exists.” 

He says there are some places where there is no discernable middle class and pretty much everyone is religious.  Italy was the first place that came to my mind, but I wonder if much of southern Europe wouldn’t have fit this bill in 1899.

He also says that 
“…it is becoming somewhat of a commonplace with observers of criminal life in European communities that the criminal and dissolute classes are, if anything, rather more devout, and more naively so, than the average of the population. It is among those who constitute the pecuniary middle class and the body of law-abiding citizens that a relative exemption from the devotional attitude is to be looked for.”

Does this fit the stereotype of old-time mafia?

Veblen is convinced that religion is on its way out of modern society.  In looking for economic reasons for this, he uses America as an example and he makes a statement that made my mouth fall open.  Rather than try to paraphrase this ugly thought, I’ll let you read his words:
“As a general rule the classes that are low in economic efficiency, or in intelligence, or both, are peculiarly devout — as, for instance, the Negro population of the South, much of the lower-class foreign population, much of the rural population, especially in those sections which are backward in education, in the stage of development of their industry, or in respect of their industrial contact with the rest of the community. So also such fragments as we possess of a specialized or hereditary indigent class, or of a segregated criminal or dissolute class; although among these latter the devout habit of mind is apt to take the form of a naive animistic belief in luck and in the efficacy of shamanistic practices perhaps more frequently than it takes the form of a formal adherence to any accredited creed.”

He then observes that the ‘artisan class’ is falling away from religion because of their exposure to the ‘modern organised industry’ which requires matter-of-fact, cause-and-effect thinking.  This class is also sufficiently wealthy that they are not too over-worked or under-fed to manage ‘the work of adaptation’. 

The lower middle classes, he says, are still attending church, but mainly the women and children.  The men still give ‘reputable assent to the outlines of the accredited creed under which they were born’ but they are also more in contact with the industrial way of common sense thinking.  Letting the women attend church is a form of vicarious leisure, as though she can attend to this duty on his behalf.  Women, according to Veblen, are more religious than men because their absence from the industrial life, as stay-at-home wives, shields them from having to move away from archaic ways of thinking.
“…the woman finds herself at home and content in a range of ideas which to the man are in great measure alien and imbecile. Still the men of this class are also not devoid of piety, although it is commonly not piety of an aggressive or exuberant kind.”
Oh, did you ever observe men talking down to women when you were growing up, as though they were 'alien and imbecile'?

Men in the upper middle class are more likely to attend church than men of the artisan class.   They are also to a large extent a sheltered class, according to Veblen, enjoying the ‘patriarchal relation of status’ in the their home life; the presence of servants may also help conserve the ‘archaic habit of mind’.  Veblen also says that the middle class American man with a status occupation similar to the ideas of status of the upper class will have predatory economic habits, be accustomed to ‘arbitrary command and submission’ and engage in ‘shrewd practice, remotely akin to predatory fraud.  This outlook is ‘on the plane of life of the predatory barbarian, to whom a devotional attitude is habitual.’

Finally, I was interested in reading Veblen’s observation of America's southern culture at the turn of the last century, just thirty odd years after the Civil War: 
“There is no hereditary leisure class of any consequence in the American community, except in the South. This Southern leisure class is somewhat given to devout observances; more so than any class of corresponding pecuniary standing in other parts of the country. It is also well known that the creeds of the South are of a more old-fashioned cast than their counterparts in the North. Corresponding to this more archaic devotional life of the South is the lower industrial development of that section. The industrial organization of the South is at present, and especially it has been until quite recently, of a more primitive character than that of the American community taken as a whole. It approaches nearer to handicraft, in the paucity and rudeness of its mechanical appliances, and there is more of the element of mastery and subservience. It may also be noted that, owing to the peculiar economic circumstances of this section, the greater devoutness of the Southern population, both white and black, is correlated with a scheme of life which in many ways recalls the barbarian stages of industrial development. Among this population offenses of an archaic character also are and have been relatively more prevalent and are less deprecated than they are elsewhere; as, for example, duels, brawls, feuds, drunkenness, horse-racing, cock-fighting, gambling, male sexual incontinence (evidenced by the considerable number of mulattoes). There is also a livelier sense of  — an expression of sportsmanship and a derivative of predatory life.

There is much that Veblen writes that would be unacceptable in this present day, but I do find that he accounts for some things I’ve observed in my life time, which is why I found his book so fascinating.  With the post we are – finally – finished with Chapter Twelve.

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