American vs. European Christianity

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's second hypothesis - the bicameral mind, specifically the subtopics of the implications of the bicameral mind theory for religion, neurotheology, and the origin of religion.
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American vs. European Christianity

Post by minnespectrum »

One topic that I think deserves more study is how Christianity in the USA ended up looking so different from its European counterpart. At times, they almost seem like different religions.

In some ways, the degree of difference in how the faith is practiced on either sides of the Atlantic rivals the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, and is orthogonal to it. (For instance, American Catholicism has long had a more revivalist tendency, there are Catholic televangelists, and there is now a charismatic strain in Catholicism, influenced by American Protestant Pentecostalism).

Meanwhile, European Protestant services have a more liturgical and sacramental flavor, to the point that they often “seem Catholic” to American evangelicals.

The difference extends to how God is described. European Christianity historically relied heavily on catechisms and creeds, to the point that God sometimes seems more like a mathematical or logical abstraction, than someone you can get to know personally. This exemplifies the conscious (post-bicameral) mindset quite well. An extreme example is the work of Ramon Llull ( ... 80%99s_Art), for whom theology was expressed in a manner not too different from mathematics. (Some consider Llull to be a forerunner of computing theory because of how formally rigorous his system was, and because of his influence on Leibniz).

In contrast, American Christianity, across denominational and sectarian boundaries, is almost neo-bicameral in its revivalism. American Christians tend to have a very anthropomorphic view of God, expressed in hymns such as “I Believe In The Man In The Sky”.

This is made especially explicit in Pentecostalism, in which modern-day prophecy plays a key role. An early study Bible used by Pentecostals, the Dake Bible, claimed that God the Father has a body like a man (albeit made of “spirit substance”). Dake, contrary to mainstream Christianity, was a tritheist (he effectively believed in three different Gods). The “Oneness Pentecostal” movement denies the Trinity differently; they believe that there is no God but Jesus, which also results in a more anthropomorphic view of divinity.

Critics of these anthropomorphizing tendencies use the word “monopolytheism”—meaning the belief in one god, who nonetheless has more in common with pagan/polytheistic deities than with the classically monotheistic God.

Mormonism (an offshoot of American Christianity which is now usually considered a different religion) takes this even further. Mormons are henotheists; they believe there are many gods, each of whom was once mortal, although they only follow one. Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet for the modern era. Although some secular historians think he may have made his revelations up (a “pious fraud”), it’s also possible he was hallucinating them. That would explain why his writing style has so much in common with that of the King James Bible, with which he was familiar.

The Black church is another area worth studying. Harriet Tubman in particular had many visions which she ascribed to God, and which motivated her antislavery activity. (Tubman experienced epileptic seizures due to a childhood injury, which may have played a role here).

Overall, unlike European Christianity (which was often state-sponsored, and closely associated with feudalism and monarchical governments), American churches had to function independently of the state and took on a more democratized character. American Christians usually supported the founding fathers’ republican ideals, but criticized their deism and rationalism. There are some parallels with Romantic poets like William Blake, a (British) former acquaintance of Thomas Paine, who agreed with the latter’s democratic ideals but put a mystical rather than a rationalistic spin on them.

The “Bible Belt” South is a special case, though, as revivalism only caught on there after the Civil War. Prior to that point, Southern Christianity (with its close alignment with the plantation aristocracy) looked very different and was far more European in character.

Part of the reason why religious faith is now declining so rapidly in the US is, I think, the abandonment during the 20th century of the previous “bottom-up” and organic character of American Christianity. Starting in the 50s and 60s, in response to the Cold War and domestic societal changes, the “religious right” became increasingly politicized and vocal. Indeed, it began behaving in a more Constantinian and European manner.

Even (perhaps especially) Pentecostalism has become part of this trend. Many contemporary Pentecostals (such as those associated with the “Elijah Streams” and “ReAwaken America” movements) are now obsessed with politics, frequently prophesying about Donald Trump as though he were a new messiah or a king-like figure personally anointed by God, while literally equating politicians they oppose with Satan and/or demons. There is heavy cross-pollination between these circles and QAnon supporters, who themselves view “Q” as a sort of (digital) prophet.

The “prosperity gospel”, an idea that became popular among late 20th century charismatics, is also far more European (and especially Calvinist) in the way that it views material prosperity as evidence of God’s favor. It is quite far removed from the early Pentecostal movement, which originated among the poor and downtrodden. Seven Mountains Dominionism is another idea whose origins lie among European (especially Dutch) Calvinists, but which has since been “charismaticized” and appropriated in the past few decades by high-profile American Pentecostals.

These new trends are a stark contrast with earlier generations of both fundamentalists (who usually shunned politics altogether, viewing it as hopelessly sinful) and mainline Protestants (who were and still are more theologically/socially liberal) in the US.

It’s no wonder that the New Atheism has found so much of an audience in America nowadays, given that those who purport to represent American Christianity don’t seem particularly American anymore. (Nor do they resemble Jesus much; as Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians; they are so unlike your Christ”). It seems they either don’t realize this, or perhaps they don’t care.
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Re: American vs. European Christianity

Post by benjamindavidsteele »

This is an immense topic. And I wish modern religion and it's developed was brought up more often in Jaynesian scholarship and Jaynesian discussions. There are some obvious examples of Jaynesian study of monotheism, such as Rabbi James Cohn's The Minds of the Bible and Brian J. McVeigh's The Psychology of the Bible, though neither of those is concerned with modern American Christianity. I'm sure many other Jaynesian scholars cover modern religious material, specifically that of American Christianity, but offhand I can't think of anyone.

More relevant, one of the scholars that comes directly to mind in specifically studying American Christianity is Tanya Luhrman. Having been inspired by Jaynes, she is an anthropologist who researches and writes on voice-hearing. I'm not sure she has ever referenced Jaynes in any of her academic work, but it's obviously related. Her not referencing Jaynes, though, means her scholarship is not explicitly Jaynesian. She did one study where she joined a church that taught how to hear the voice of God, and she wrote about it in the book When God Talks Back.

Other than writing a piece about Harriet Tubman, I'm not sure I've ever looked at American Christianity through a Jaynesian lens. I have done Jaynesian interpretations of Christianity more broadly, particular its beginnings and sometimes about the Middle Ages. And I've looked at American Christianity from a non-Jaynesian perspective. But for whatever reason, the only modern expression of organized religion I've analyzed according to Jaynes' work is Islam because I have an Islamic friend and Islam seems like an interesting case, in feeling closer to a modern mindset in a certain way.

About what makes American Christianity different, I'm not sure I could exactly tie that into a Jaynesian understanding, if ultimately religion in general is always going to hook back into our sense of divine loss and hence divine longing. I just don't know how or why this aspect would necessarily offer explanatory power in distinguishing American from non-American Christianity. That said, there is something about American Christianity that often emphasizes a direct experience or relationship to God, which indeed has Jaynesian implications. We Americans are maybe less accepting of God's silence.

You are correct that there is something that makes it stand out from it's European counterpart. What you must understand is the Anglo-American tradition. England missed out on the Protestant Reformation because the Church of England was simply a splinter sect of the Catholic Church, only later on accreting Protestant elements. What defined the Christianity in England and what were its American colonies was the English Civil War, with its echoes from the English Peasants Revolt. Religious adherents from both sides of the English Civil War ended up in the American colonies, interestingly forming into the divide that would erupt again in the American Civil War.

One side of that conflict, though, ended up being most influential to American Christianity. It was the religious dissenters who aligned with the Roundheads who opposed the monarchy and ended up beheading the king. Many of these religious dissenters had proto-leftist ideas and some consider it to be the first modern revolution as it involved overt class consciousness and class war. It was basically the precursor to the American Revolution and, indeed, the old revolutionary veteran Levi Preston said that working class blokes like him were mostly inspired by Isaac Watt's hymns, which expressed the radical religious rhetoric that came out of the English Civil War.

Along with those fleeing England, there were also religious dissenters that came to the American colonies from mainland Europe. There were Anabaptists, Pietists, Hutterites, Huguenots, etc. Some of these of these religious adherents were also radical in their idealism and, though often small in number, some ended up being highly influential. German Pietists, for example, were the first to advocate slave abolition; and so they often joined with Quakers. Also, keep in mind that a religious dissenter like the colonial founder Roger Williams was a Puritan who became a free Baptist in eschewing all organized religion.

The early evangelicals, by the way, were radical in their semi-leftism or proto-leftism -- besides also being abolitionists, they were among the strongest early defenders of secularism in terms of separation of church and state. The Southern evangelical tradition, by the way, actually originated from New England itinerant preachers who went down to convert the heathens, as the South was highly unchurched in early America. So, Southern evangelicalism has some of it's roots in Puritanism. For context, Puritans and Quakers were the two leading religious sects among the Roundheads in the English Civil War.
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