Shopping in the Walmart of Belief

I recently did a class here at ACU with my friend and colleague David McAnulty about the challenges of religious belief today. 

In telling my part of the story (some of which I've discussed before on this blog) I began with the analysis of Peter Berger and Anton Zinderveld in their book In Praise of Doubt. In the book Berger and Zinderveld evaluate "secularization theory," the notion that as modernity advances people will give up religious belief and become "secular." According to Berger and Zinderveld if we look at the evidence secularization theory has been falsified. Belief continues to flourish in modernity. 

What has happened in modernity, argue Berger and Zinderveld, is not secularization but plurality. What we see around us isn't a binary choice between faith and unfaith. Rather, we face choices amongst faiths, unbelief being one choice amongst these. What characterizes modernity is the radical range of choices now in front of us, a marketplace of beliefs and ideologies. Modernity creates a Walmart of Belief where I can choose to be a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, or an atheist. And I can change my mind. Faith hasn't been eliminated. Rather, faith has become radically open. The options available to us are dizzying. We live in the wake of what Charles Taylor calls "the Nova Effect," this explosive expansion of choices, worldviews and lifestyles.

Berger and Zinderveld explain how this happened in the following way. According to secularization theory the shift that was predicted to occur was this:

faith to unfaith

But what really has happened in modernity was this:

the-world-taken-for-granted to choice

To understand this shift we need to grasp some sociological terminology. Sociologists distinguish between the background and the foreground of human culture and cognition. The aspects of life that are assumed, instinctive, unconscious and taken for granted function in the background of life. Rarely do I reflect upon or evaluate the background structures of my life. In contrast to the background, the foreground of life is the location of choice, reflection, and decision making.

Consider the following example given by Berger and Zinderveld to illustrate the point. When I wake up in the morning I have to decide what I want to wear. These considerations are in the foreground of my life. I reflect and make choices about what clothes to put on. However, I never really question the assumption that I will be wearing something. That is assumed. It functions in the background.

The point is, a great deal of life is regulated to the background. There my worldview hums away, largely unnoticed. And this makes good adaptive sense. As Berger and Zinderveld note, if 100% of life was up for grabs, in the foreground, we would be cognitively and socially crippled. Everything would be a matter of conscious reflection and deliberate choice. I'd have to wake up and devote time to the question, "Should I put on clothes today? Or go to work naked?" Some things just have to be assumed.

With these understandings in place we can now see how modernity has affected us. Modernity has increased the foreground relative to the background. That is, things that used to be assumed and taken for granted have now moved into the foreground and have become objects of choice and reflection. Think about the choices you face that your forebears a 1,000 years ago didn't even consider:
What should my career be?
Should I change the job I'm in?
Should I get married? When? Should I get divorced?
Where should I live?
How many kids do I want to have?
What church should I go to?
Should I be Protestant or Catholic?
In the not so distant past all these things were taken for granted, they were in the background. People a 1,000 years ago didn't worry about what their college major should be or if they should change careers. Their "life work" was largely determined by circumstance. And importantly for our purposes, people 1,000 years ago didn't think about what religion they would adopt. This was taken for granted.

In short, modernity didn't undermine the contents of religious belief. What modernity did was change the location of belief in the mind. Specifically, faith moved from the background to the foreground. From taken-for-granted to an object of choice.

And what this means is not that modernity has made faith unreasonable. But it does mean that faith is more fragile and unstable. As are all things in the foreground. The fact that faith is a choice means that faith can be revisited and the reasons behind that choice opened up to scrutiny. Further, we are constantly in contact with people making their own shopping choices in the Walmart of Belief and can't help but be affected by the reasons behind their selections. No longer taken for granted, faith is always exposed to reflection and revisitation. When faith is a choice it needs to be daily reasserted, like all our other choices. It's like waking up every morning and deciding what to wear. The choice is an everyday object in the mind. Thus, we need to keep choosing faith, over and over. And, like all things in the foreground, this take a lot of time and effort. Faith is now hard work. And some people, not surprisingly, just get tired.

The additional point I went on to make in my class is that because faith, being a choice, feels fragile and vulnerable (e.g., I can opt out at any moment) we now carry a heavier existential burden. A taken for granted faith settles and puts to rest a host of existential anxieties about the meaning, significance and purpose of life. But when faith is a choice all those existential questions get pushed out into the foreground where we can worry and obsess about the significance and meaningfulness of life and our life choices.

In a simplifying move, I argued that Christian people to tend to face this existential challenge in one of four ways:
1. Unfaith
Some people do follow the predicted path of secularization theory and opt out of faith.

2. Spiritual But Not Religious
In the marketplace of faith many people buy a lot of different products and cobble them together into a personal bricolage of spirituality.

3. Winter Christianity
Some Christians learn to life with doubt, reconciling themselves to the fact that faith is always going to be tentative and fragile.

4. Dogmatism
Some Christians, unable to live with the anxieties produced by modernity, will seek existential solace, comfort and consolation in dogmatic certainty.
I compare and contrast these last two in my most recent book The Authenticity of Faith.

Happy shopping! BTW, Buddhism has got a great sale going on in Aisle 5. And Evangelical Christianity has a great two-for-one coupon: You get to go to heaven while getting to damn a person of your choice to hell. Most are going for a gay person or Obama these days...

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

24 thoughts on “Shopping in the Walmart of Belief”

  1. I see an exciting potential here for the democratisation of theology.  In past centuries, elite educated groups have questioned the assumptions that theology necessarily makes and refashioned these to fit the group's own values.  I think the distinctive thing about modernity is not the bringing of faith into the foreground, so much as the availability of this option to so many.  However, in my experience, there is still a lot of psychological resistance to this process.  Many people who are capable of reflecting on their assumptions just don't want to - it's too scary; it touches too many other (usually still unconscious) existential terrors, as you point out.  As I have shared here before, one of my core beliefs is that the truth can stand up for itself.  It doesn't need me to defend or establish it.  The question of the moment for me then is how we can create environments (or communities) in which people feel safe enough to become reflective about their spiritual assumptions?  Perhaps - for some - this blog is one potential answer to that question.

  2. When reading this I was definitely reminded about all the existential anxiety that is attached to this larger focal point in our lives. It takes a lot of work to iron out all of our beliefs, philosophy, and subsequent decisions based on those beliefs and principles. The issue of congruence comes up a lot more often I think now too - we have this greater need and desire to live in such a way that is reflective of our beliefs and principles. I love Andrew's point about the "democratisation of theology" as well; I think it is spot on. It used to be only philosophers, or monks or people of that sort really took the time, or perhaps more correctly, had the free time, to think on these things. Now we all tend to think on these things, perhaps as a by product of the proliferation of education in our society. Also, I have a hunch that there is a decent correlation between "free time" in a society and the amount of its "foreground" or area of choice. The more we have time to think on life, the more it plagues are minds and the more opportunity for existential anxiety, and perhaps generalized anxiety as well. Not to mention this anxiety as a result of this "Walmart of Belief" seems coupled with a society hellbent on productivity and efficiency - just what we need to calm our souls and bring peace and rest into our lives!

    Great thoughts and post!

  3. It might be worth adding:

    5. The check out.

    It's often ignored these days, but It seems to me that in the end, each of these options comes at a different price.

  4. I really like what you said: "truth can stand up for itself". I have a friend that I try out all my unorthodox and experimental thoughts on regarding matters of philosophy and faith. He is much more conservative then I am, much more willing to let his faith live in the background. But he said how much he liked the fact that we could talk so freely and openly about things that would cause most people (in our respective families and churches) to be really uncomfortable. I'm not sure what I would do without a safe person to work things through with. Online communities are certainly good, but there is no substitute for face to face.
    Thankfully I also have a wife who will listen to all my crazy ideas. Funny thing is that whenever I do land on a truly life changing gem, I usually discover that she had intuitively been in that place all along.
    Jars of Clay has a song titled "Safe to Land". That's a great phrase regarding these types of relationships. It's nice to know that you're truly "Safe to Land" in the welcome of another.

  5. Nothing can substitute for face to face, amen! 

    And "Safe to Land" is a great song!

  6. Hi, Winter Christian here. I think also that doubt is treated like a weakness, like something that a person would feel persecuted and ostracized for expressing in the evangelical circles. I am at a Baptist church that is supposed to be loving and tolerant but I feel like if I try to bring up a conversation about universal reconciliation a-la Rob Bell and George MacDonald, I could be asked to leave or be "un-membered." I am not doubting Jesus or the resurrection; on the contrary I celebrate and rejoice it it. I just doubt our conventional notion of an eternal Hell. Why must evangelicals cling so tightly to that horrible notion? I'm just not getting it...

  7. Ha, Ha, Ha! That last little paragraph made me laugh. =)  It was fun to see two distinct elements of your personality in play in this one post. At first scholarly, serious, kind, open-minded, understanding, prophetic and then sarcastic, snarky, silly, a little irritated and so funny. =)  I like you.  On a more serious note, Thank you for not bashing the consumer model of faith.  Every sermon I have heard like this paints this idea of shopping for faith as a very bad thing.  But bringing faith to the foreground was just something that happened and I cannot turn my heart and mind to the dogmatic because there are dogmas that are not consistent with reality and ones that do not love.  I cannot embrace either, even though this way of faith is much more difficult and as much as I long for a place to belong.  Thank you for this clarity. 

  8. Thanks, much of this seems an accurate and insightful description, at least for most.  As I’v said, I was raised in the background of a particularly superstitious and credulous form of Sicilian Catholicism.  Our religious life was the liturgy of life and very much like ‘ultra-Orthodox Jews‘ most aspects of our thoughts and actions were ‘backgrounded’ as one was, in the Lacanian sense, inducted into a total symbolic order.  There wasn’t a lot of religious or political foregrounded choices that broke through the horizon of our cultural parameters.  That is, until modernity/post-modernity showed up together not only in the form of ‘Big Box Religions‘ but as “late-modern, commodity-capitalism,” (should some sense of Marx/Engels ‘false consciousness’ find it’s way into your schema?) and us youngsters were dazzled and seduced by the spectacle and erogenousation of being in and with rather than *Being.*  

    Perhaps in thinking that faith is a choice is where we veer and began to take faith too seriously; as if faith is something indispensable to religion rather than often as not a hinderance.  I’v often argued that you don’t need faith to life out a Christian life.  And that perhaps the ‘parable of the mustard seed‘ teaches us that our faith is so infinitesimal as to be useless, even meanigless.  So I still pray to saints like Mother Teresa, Simone Weil, and Maria Skobtsova but not because they teach me how to live a great life of faith, but because they show me how to live a Christ-like life without faith.  People with faith don’t need God!  Mother Teresa would go for years on end without ‘believing in God,’ and often suffered from great despair and depression, but that didn’t keep her from the work of God in the world and loving those who needed someone to be God for them.  Mother Skobtsova made a choice to die in place of a Jewish women in Auschwitz.  And I am not sure that these kind of decisions (can we even call them choices?) easily fit into your schema. 

    I find that I am a bit of all 4 types in your chart, and more.  Maybe because I sometimes ‘opt out’ of a faith I never really ‘opted’ into.  I’m religious but not spiritual, mostly.  I winter not in the fragile sun of faith but in the cold reality of sun-less god-forsakeness, and I am dogmatic in my defense of the deconstructability of not only what passes for my faith, but what passes for my doubt.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Obliged. 

  9. What if it is not about picking and choosing a religion or specific set of beliefs other than finding the commonalities among all major ancient religions/set of beliefs that in the past were all determined by location/ethnicity and are now because of modernity available to almost all? What if the point is to ultimately simplify beliefs into common themes found, faith in higher power, love, compassion, humility, forgiveness etc that we may begin to focus on these things instead of the cultural and dividing factors, my god, your god, my belief your belief etc. What if the ultimate goal is unity instead of division?  That humanity ultimately should unify themselves based on these simple principles alongside a simple faith. Who really can claim factual answers to the mysteries of the cosmos? Assuming their is a God, who can really if he/she is to be honest speak for God(s) and tell humanity my "beliefs" are without any doubt... fact? Is this not all based on belief? What is wrong with putting in the foreground the common principles found helpful or true throughout humanity and history, to love and forgive, to be kind to one another, to help those in need etc and put our imaginations or beliefs in the background? Or would these principles not appeal to anyone apart from the religion they are found within? I guess a religion with just a few simplistic principles, love, be compassionate to all, forgive etc etc would be boring huh? I wonder if anyone would take that off the shelf and up to the counter? My guess is most people wouldn't, they want something with exciting stories and myths filled with supernatural events and capabilities, very specific concrete beliefs that they can take control of and use to separate themselves from everyone else and this world... I am special, you all need what I have etc. I am getting to the Great God, I am going to be better in my afterlife, life will be heavenly, or I can come back reincarnated etc All this is very interesting and can be very powerful to the mind if believed, but how can anyone know what they believe is fact?  

  10. Going out on a limb here - does anyone here that is of the same mind and faith as Dr. Beck have the heart to advise someone? Even maybe.....Dr. Beck? I am in a place that is becoming quite stressful on my spirit, as a "leader" in my Sunday School class and integral part of a large mega Southern Baptist Chuch in Texas (I am also a former Baptist Seminarian and prospective missionary). My wife works there and we are failry entrenched but there is one problem....their preaching of Hell, materialism, vanity and ardent focus on "witnessing" and "missions" through the normal "If you were to die would you go to Heaven today" tradition. I am becoming more in love with a "new" God as I discover him through people like Dr. Beck, Rob Bell, George MacDonald, and of course Jesus as I am re-learning him, and more upset with the aforementioned teachings of Hell and aggressive verbal evangelism to try to save people from a certain eternity in "Hell." If anyone can email me @ I would be greatly appreciative as I know of nobody except those on this blog who can sympathize.

  11. You mentioned putting on your clothes in the morning. Well, half a century ago, that too was much more set-in-stone. Men in the West wore suits to work, and almost always woollen trousers (except for cotton or linen ones in the summer). There was no concept of jeans as acceptable street-wear ... they were work-wear only. Wearing a jacket sans tie would have been a very intentional break from conformity. Rewind even further, and a brimmed hat was par for the course. And that was that.

    Today, the range of acceptable dress is staggering. On the streets, a man can wear anything short of the most obvious gender-bending attire (and women have even more freedom). What you choose to wear mostly has to do with what social "tribe" you identify with, from preppy to punk to gamer/geek to middle-class vanilla Protestant. You dress like your friends.

    Plurality is the mark of the 21st century.

  12. Don't fit any of your categories.  I have a passionate love relationship with God.  "it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,  and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" to go back to the desolation and loneliness of life apart from Him.

  13.  Just yesterday I found an evangelical "checkbook" at my workplace that reduced the "believe today, and be saved and go to Heaven" formula to its most nauseating form. It promptly went into the trash ... not because I am anti-Christ or even anti-Christian, but because that is where that brand of selfish, unmindful religion needs to go. America's tradition of religious freedom is great, but I await the end of all this awful "redneck theology," which utterly fails to make the world more holy, and forever turns cerebral people away from Christ.

    These days, I can most comfortably identify as a Gnostic ( That is, beliefs and even actions are not the main thing, but rather numinous experience of the divine. Protestantism, with its aversion to archetypal beauty (which it mistakes with idolatry), is impoverished.

  14. I'd like to suggest a fifth category. Some of us (at least one) think that faith answers to one or more aspects of a common human predicament. Not death anxiety, primarily, but Tilllich's version of existential estrangement for one, and a desire to reconcile favored points of view (exclusive positions) with a commitment to fairness and "objectivity" (inclusive positions) for another. Faith in these latter senses is a way of making peaces with oneself, or one's human nature. I won't make a case for it, but for me, faith is a commitment to my better nature, which I understand and feel is best addressed (for me) through a christian paradigm.   

  15. I wonder some of these things, too, even though it frightens me to admit it, having spent all of my life on solid evangelical ground where we never, ever wondered these things. Or did so privately. Brian McLaren's newest book, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? is an interesting read along these lines.

  16. Thank you for putting into such clear words the shift my life has taken in the last couple of years! Seeing my increased existential burden described and put in chart form is strangely comforting :-)

    My husband and I saw Kevin Miller's movie, Hellbound, last night. I came away reflecting on why any of us believe as as we do - and why we change our minds. So few in our evangelical circles are even interested to see this film while others take a defensive posture against it from the get-go. Ahhhh, if only I'd gone into the theater with an awareness of this foreground/background idea and  "The-world-taken-for-granted" VS choice! That concept does come out in the movie, but it is easier to recognize when someone else has already done the hard work of defining it.

    Thank you for such an accessible blog. Sometimes I'm nudged in new directions. Sometimes your words help clarify the thoughts I've already got going on. In this case you've given me new ways to approach those uncomfortable faith VS no-faith conversations even as I continue browsing Walmart and bumping into more people and products than my former shopping habits even allowed me to really encounter.

  17. I don't think this is anything "new". I think all these categories have been around forever. My mind floats to the tower of Babel and wonders what that society was like, problems in the early church, the first commandment, etc. While we could pigeon whole ourselves into one of these categories while facing an existential question, I don't think it's good practice to end there. That these categories are the end all. Eventually, there should be a move to christian maturity. 

  18. I have to take issue with a relatively minor point, or not even a point really - more of the way you present the choices. You write:

    "Rather, we face choices amongst faiths, unbelief being one choice amongst these."


    "...a Walmart of Belief where I can choose to be a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, or an atheist."

    The first statement indicates that unbelief (atheism?) is a faith. The second seems to indicate that atheism is a belief on par with, or at least in the same category as, Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.

    This may seem like a trivial point, but I think it betrays a default position that many take towards unbelief in religion and to atheism, that it is fundamentally the same as faith or belief in a religion. It is not. It is in fact pretty much the opposite. Atheism should no more be lumped in with "other" faiths than a person who has never written anything could have their literary style compared to other authors.

  19. Thank you for this very interesting post, Richard. I think there is a link between the topic you discussed and the feeling of “victimization” among (mostly conservative) Christians in the USA these days. What many Christians describe as an “attack” on Christianity seems to me really more of a “dethronement” of Christianity, a demotion from a position of overwhelming privilege to a position of, well, less privilege. I started to say “parity,” but I don’t really think we’re there yet.

  20. Before I start, I do like your blog and read it fair frequently, even though I am not a Christian and have no interest in going back to that faith.

    As someone who left the Christian faith, after being a very strict fundie Christian up until I graduated from College; I think you need to add a number 5, Switch religions.  You hint at this option many times, even in your last paragraph.  Many of us in the Pagan religions (Wicca, Druid, Asatru, Hellimos, Ect.) started out as a different faith tradition (the most common being Christian).  Many of us were very devoted to our Christian faith until it stopped working.  We were given options and landed on the choice of something else.  I would also argue that some of those spiritual but not religious folk are in fact Pagans afraid to define themselves as such.  There are still some real world consequences to coming out of the broom closet for a lot of us. 

Leave a Reply