ere in the United States we are just past Christmas. In my suburban Washington neighborhood of Wheaton, most houses are still decorated with colored lights and other symbols of the season. Before the 25th, if you ventured into any commercial establishment—a department store, a coffee shop, even a car wash—you’d hear Xmas muzak whether you liked it or not. Nate King Cole was going to be roasting chestnuts over an open fire for the ten millionth time whether you liked it or not. Even the elevators are wired with brain cell destroying sounds posing as music around this time of the year; you can’t escape it save by locking yourself in your home bathroom.
It’s hard for me to say what professing Christians in America think of all this, or what the growing cadres of deracinated “secular” post-Christians from originally believing Christian families think of it. No doubt the range of attitudes is very wide, from embracing the kitsch either as a gag or a cozy taken-for-granted tradition, to despising it for its crassness and association with the over-the-top commercial orgy that the season has become. Most people seem to want to celebrate something, anything, even if it has become distant in their souls from any religious meaning, and even if they’re not exactly sure what it is they’re celebrating. As far as I know, no serious polling has even been done on the matter. How could it be, after all, given these very squishy possibiities?
The whole business—word carefully chosen—must appeal to many, however, because the Christmas cultural model has spread. In my lifetime I have seen the decorations go up earlier and earlier, and come down later and later. It used to be that the lights would show up maybe ten days before the holiday; now they go up right after Thanksgiving, or even before.
Not only that, but Halloween used to be a fairly demur event, mainly for Trick-or-Treating kids. Now there are massive Halloween yard-and-home lights and “stuff” displays, and all the associated kitsch to buy in endless abundance. Even Valentine’s Day is showing signs of emulating the Christmas season model. Most of this stuff is plastic and imported from Asia. Trust me: It is not pretty, and, frankly, some of the Halloween stuff scares the poop out of younger children much of the time. (What are these parents thinking?)
I suppose the Halloween imitation of the Christmas routine appeals to some people because they’re not Christians and don’t want to be left out of all the autumnal season “fun.” Yes, of course, both of these now-long-since secular days have origins in the Christian calendar, but not that many Americans realize it, or care. Cynics refer to such calendar blobs as “Hallmark Holidays” after the company that makes cheesy cards festooned with terrible soppy poetry—and of course we have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and now Grandparents Day to stuff that particular for-profit business model stocking. As my friend David Brooks wrote back in 2002, “It is an essential element of the American creed that anything worth doing stupidly is worth doing at great expense.” But, of course, what is an expense to some is profit for others, and that’s how the money goes ‘round.
For Muslims and Jews (and Buddhists, Hindus, and others) in America, the seasonal displays touch other nerves. Americans are as a rule a very informal and friendly—if not to say credulous—people, and over the two centuries or so during which the American civil religion has overlaid itself on the original serious Protestant version it has become fashionable to find or invent inclusive ecumenical pabulum to make everyone feel part of the celebration. Most American Christians have solved the challenge of pluralization by pretending that there is no conflict between the universal and the particular, and by pretending hard enough for long enough they have come very close to actually bringing it about. “Social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we have of it”, wrote Erving Goffman; it’s hard to come up with a better example.
It helps a whole lot that Anglo-American Protestantism is by historical origin more tolerant, humbler, internally diverse, “low church” anti-hierarchically minded, and less doctrinaire than most other religious worldviews. These traits, which grew out of a unique British experience that mingled Enlightenment and early Protestant themes, have everything to do with the fundamental elements of both American society and American political culture as they developed. That is true even if radical secularists (in Britain and Europe, too) deny any necessary connection.
For Jews in America, the mainstream urge to stress universalist tropes has turned Hanukah, a minor post-biblical holiday, into a very big deal just because it comes near in the calendar to Christmas. Secular Jews and intermarried couples do not think twice about letting their kids sit on Santa Clause’s lap in department store toy sections, and some imitate the mainstream by putting decorated trees in their homes—often called “Hanukah bushes” instead of Christmas trees.
As it happens, this wildly distorts what Hanukah is actually about, at least as the rabbis have shaped it (which is itself a designed distortion of the actual historical events the holiday is based upon….but never mind) into its opposite! Hanukah fashioned as a religious holiday is about proud particularism; it’s about not assimilating into the larger ambient culture; it’s not about some vague feel-good but mostly vacuous universalism. So go figure.
Muslims have a slightly different situation to deal with. Unless the Eid happens to coincide with Christmas on the secular Gregorian calendar, which it does about once every 19 years as Ramadan and the associated closing feast day circle around the lunar calendar, Muslims in America have no obvious religious holiday to mangle and distort in order to help them “fit in” as real Americans. Jews are known, as a gag that imitates a scintilla of actual reality, at least in the New York City area, to mark Christmas by going out to eat at a Chinese restaurant. I have yet to discover a comparable seasonal gag for Muslims to use—go out to eat at an Indian restaurant, maybe?
The wafer thin American ecumenical broth, designed at the least to cajole a palliative “I’m OK, You’re OK” throwaway attitude into the public domain, has produced some curious behaviors. I don’t find it the slightest bit odd anymore, as a Jew, to receive Christmas cards from Christian friends and associates. The more sensitive send “Season’s Greetings” cards rather than cards with explicit religious themes and imagery, and these cards typically conflate New Years as part of the “season.” (And of course, everyone knows that New Years is entirely secular…..except for the fact that in its origins it is no such thing.) But many send standard religious-themed cards and never wonder whether a Jewish or a Muslim recipient might be made uncomfortable, or even be insulted, by the gesture.
All that is curious enough, but on a few occasions I have received Christmas or Season’s Greetings cards from Muslims! And from Muslims who knew I was Jewish. This really spun my head around. “What was he thinking?” I was forced to ask myself. I came to the following conclusion, using the benefit of the doubt as my guide: “He wants me to pretend to be part of the great American Enlightenment-universalist pantomime that enables such a diverse society to live together in harmony in order that he can pretend to do the same.”
Well, why not? It works pretty well most of the time, at least for some purposes. Are there costs to the pantomime? Yes; the tendency to reduce religious faith to mere ceremony as opposed to genuine ritual, to go through performative motions without considering deeper spiritual messages honed over millennia, has a marked tendency to dumb down faith as an element of both the human personality and the collective culture.
Luckily, this only matters to people who understand the role of religion and religious institutions in their own lives and more broadly in human culture generally. The latter includes social scientists as well as believers. “[S]ome evolutionary psychologists have argued,” writes Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order (2011, p. 38), “that the survival benefits conferred by enhanced social cohesion is the reason that a propensity for religious belief seems to be hardwired into the human brain. Religion is not the only way that ideas can reinforce group solidarity . . . But in early societies it played a critical role in making possible more complex forms of social organization. It is hard to see how human beings could have evolved beyond small band-level societies without it.” Exactly right: All civilizations need mythic structures of some kind to sustain them.
All stable societies also need common narratives derived from core mythic structures to reinforce those structures generation to generation; when elites fail at myth maintenance, all hell is liable to break loose. So there are costs to the American form of myth—the downsides of the pervasive universalist civil religion approach noted just above. But the rewards have not been trivial. Despite obvious problems and imperfections, is there a multicultural, multiracial, multisectarian mass society on this planet that works any better than the American one? If you find one, let me know please.
So Jews distort what Hanukah is about in order to fit in to and be part of the American mainstream. Muslims past the immigrant experience a generation or two are likely tempted to do something similar. But the costs are managed thanks to the religion-as-a-private-matter-of-conscience way that Anglo-American Protestantism affirms. So Jews and Muslims in America can be universalists in the public domain and still remain particularists in the private domain, and no one has a basis to object because pretty much everyone does it. As long as most people tacitly know the boundaries between public and private, the arrangement works out mostly fine.
Of course, many garden-variety standard American Christians get confused when Jews and Muslims do this. The confusion is natural: If you act like me in public, then I can assume that you are like me in private, too—right? Many, especially those who don’t know any or many Jews, think that Hanukah is just the “Jewish Christmas.” It somehow doesn’t occur to them that celebrating the birth of Jesus as Christ doesn’t exactly fit the Jewish script. (Muslims catch a break here because the Jesus stuff, having come before the birth of Islam, has been selectively integrated into the Muslim narrative; Judaism, coming before Christianity, can’t readily avail itself of the same tactic.) Of course, such people have to possess a very thin understanding of the history of Christianity to suppose any such thing, but you’d be surprised how many of them manage that without even breaking a sweat.
peaking of the improbable, it is hard to exaggerate what a history-confounding achievement American “melting pot” ecumenicism really is. As Fukuyama suggests, one of the several reasons that every civilization has something like a religion is that it defines the boundaries between who is in the group and who is outside of it. It is in this light that we can see how America has managed something really quite amazing: From the basis of a deeply held religious faith, in both its original Anglican/Episcopal and Calvinist varieties, Americans who were united on the centrality of conscience in faith but pluralized denominationally created a hybrid form of what we today call secularism that finesses the dangerous but inevitable dance between universalism and particularism. At first applicable only to the many Protestant denominations in North America, it gradually came to include Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and pretty much everyone else.
The best way, perhaps, to appreciate how revolutionary this development really was, and remains, is to recall what things look like in its absence.
One somewhat glib way to define a religious believer is to say that he (or she) is a person who counts every religion’s narrative as impossibly far-fetched……except his own. So it’s the Christmas season, and presumably believing Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God who was born of a virgin, and who was resurrected from the dead not in heaven or in some other afterlife zone, but right here on earth. Let’s be frank: Sentient Jews and Muslims think this is crazy, and that only strange or crazy people could really believe such a thing.
But then Jews and Christians think the same about Mohammed’s supposed night ride into heaven. It’s harder for Muslims and Christians to dismiss the miracles described in the Hebrew bible for the simple reason that, in different ways, that scripture is to one extent or another integrated into their own subsequent narratives. Still, when Muslims and Christians hear the “chosen people” passages in the Hebrew bible they think that the Jews are full of something—themselves mostly.
If one puts aside Unitarianism, Humanism, and a few other rather bland, intellectualized modern products, the centrality of an improbable belief in defining group cohesion is universal. It is not limited to the three Abrahamic faiths, but applies to all actual religions. Once we know this, it helps us give everyone else a break, because, at least in the American context, they’re giving us a break, too.
Most people think that these far-fetched narratives are either coincidental or are just atavisms from a pre-scientific, magical-efficacy age in human development. Not so; something else deeper and more important is going on here: A belief in the very improbable may function as a kind of loyalty test to the group, and there is nothing outdated or primitive about the phenomenon. It remains very much with us today.
It’s not that people do not really believe outlandish origins stories; they obviously do believe them much, if not most, of the time. That is because the coherence of the group and its capacity as a group to defend its interests trumps, in social-evolutionary terms, the truth-value of what is believed. People will conform even to outlandish beliefs, as Solomon Asch proved in his justly famous experiments back in the 1950s, if the social dynamics are right.
And part of the social dynamic involved in transmitting religious cosmologies concerns the authority of the elders who are handing the beliefs down to younger generations. If the younger generation wants the authority and status of leadership, the context is such that they need not only to believe privately, but be willing to preach publicly, a firm belief in the very improbable. The function of leadership, which acquires its power on the basis of inherited authority first before being ratified by effective performance in office, is in part to articulate the improbable which serves as the basis for group cohesion and high morale.
Indeed, if we take the insights of cognitive dissonance theory seriously, it may well be that the more outlandish the thing that people must believe to be part of the group, the more loyal to the group they are liable to be once they manage to internalize those beliefs. We see this phenomenon illustrated in the famous 1956 book by Leon Festinger and his colleagues, When Prophecy Fails, about the 19th-century Millerites in the Ohio valley—the present-day Seventh Day Adventists. If this is the case, then the improbability of religious narratives is not at all coincidental, but is instead essential to their social function.
This, of course, says nothing about the truth-value of the beliefs. Someone can believe at the same time that a Cecil B. DeMille-type grand version of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea embodies a tale both necessary for the coherence of the Israelite tribes of old, and that it happens also to have been true. Or one can believe the former but not the latter. Or one can innocently believe the latter and never even think about the former. What anyone thinks, however, has no social relevance unless he says it out loud in a crowd. Christians can “believe” in the immaculate conception, the resurrection, and transubstantiation as means to create social coherence across ethnic lines, especially at times of intense social flux and stress, and still believe that these things are true—or not. Logically, if not sociologically, the two need have nothing to do with one another.
once asked the late Peter Berger, a preeminent sociologist of religion, about my hypothesis. Peter credited me with an original sociological point even as he demonstrated that the core idea was not new. He did that by directing me to the succinct remark of the early Latin church father Tertullian (c.160-c. 220): “Credo quia absurdum”, or, in English, “I believe because it is absurd.”
There are several ways to parse what Tertullian meant. He might have meant that one has to “believe” such a thing—by which he meant “take on faith”—because no other way to come to surety about it exists. He might also have been implying that the status of cosmic, or mystical, truth overrides than of empirical truth. This latter notion is of course compatible with the former parsing and need not be seen as an alternative to it. Or he might have meant that since, absent a Creator with a purpose, there is no obvious explanation for why anything exists, only a massive, absurd flight of fancy can even begin to explain observed reality.
Emile Durkheim implied a thesis similar to mine in his classical 1912 work The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. There is a passage where he explains the (from his viewpoint “absurd”) beliefs and rituals of Australian aborigines as “having the sole empirical function of supporting collective solidarity.” But Durkheim did not elevate the observation into a general point or make it a part of his main theoretical apparatus.
Finally, there is Berger’s own coinage of the phrase “plausibility structure”, which, in harmony with Asch and Festinger, suggests that given the right social context, a person will believe just about anything (and do just about anything as a consequence) that a given mythic structure has to offer. And here we may recall the estimable William James: “We believe all that we can and would believe everything if we only could.” Translation into our purpose: The more absurd the better for group boundary maintenance, and as social animals people crave belonging to groups.
Original thought or not, this observation about the power and purpose of improbably beliefs is at once dramatically underappreciated and useful as a means for interpreting social reality around us. It certainly applies to the volcanic sectarianized soil of the Middle East, but also to America itself at a time of serial moral panics, fake news epidemics, and the proliferating mainstreaming of conspiracy theory “thinking.” Our deeply rooted ecumenical civil religion protects America from explicit religious warfare. It even protects me personally from unnecessary umbrage when I get a Christmas card in the mail from some oblivious acquaintance. But, alas, its benign reach is limited as political disagreement takes on the categorical syntax of uncompromisable religious disputes. In other words, the protection it affords may be weakening as culture warfare spreads, community erodes, and social trust hemorrhages.
It is undeniably true, as Max Frankel once wrote, that, “in the competition of social ideas, simplemindedness is not a handicap.” He might have added that outlandishness is no handicap either, depending on context and circumstance. And so to my Christian readers let me wish you a relaxed, very merry Christmas season. To my Muslim readers especially abroad, and particularly in Arab lands, let me wish you an improved understanding of America from your patient reading of this essay. And to my Jewish readers, let me ask: So, this year, Moo Shu Eggplant or Vegetable Lo Mein, what did you order?
Adam Garfinkle is Founding Editor of The American Interest and a regular contributor to Al-Mesbar.
 Brooks, “Inspired Immaturity,” The Atlantic, March 2002, p. 22.