Book Review: Christian Smith's Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture

Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame.  He is the author of numerous books including Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want, Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving and very recently, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up which shares and develops themes from Moral, Believing Animals which was released in 2003.

The seven chapters of Moral, Believing Animals begin by identifying Smith’s agenda as resolving the age-old question of how to describe what it means to be a human.  Smith’s thesis is that
humans are, at a most basic level, moral, believing animals and that this fundamental assumption illuminates human social behavior.

In chapter two Smith calls for, and proposes, a theory of culture that addresses the elusive question of human motivation as well as the influence of culture on human action.   Smith suggests that culture be understood primarily as a moral order.  His claim here is that one of the central motivations of human action is the desire to “enact and sustain moral order” (11).  Culture, then is a “liturgy” of this moral order.  Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology experiences, in which he and students intentionally violated social norms, provide a ready example of the “sacred” and inviolable texture of this cultural liturgy.

Having established the moral nature of humans and culture, Smith proceeds in chapter three to argue that with the death of “strong foundationalism” we now must admit that “we are all really believers” because “our elemental assumptions and beliefs themselves cannot be empirically verified or established with certainty” (46).  This, Smith points out, is no less true of moderns who have faith in causation, natural regularity and “the temporal continuity of experience” (47) than it is of those who have faith in a Divine.  This faith, grounded in a community that shares fundamental assumptions is the necessary platform that makes functioning human life possible.  One of the reoccurring critiques Smith offers is of what he calls “liberal democratic capitalism” which he identifies as the dominant set of fundamental assumptions in the social sciences today.  Human life is built on grounding assumptions and it is these “believings” that shape our perceptions, identity, agency, orientation and purpose.  Thus, humans are moral animals, in part, because they are believing animals.  With St. Anselm, believers and nonbelievers alike must say, “I believe that I may understand.”

In chapter four, Smith explores the implications of human “believings” on culture and the way these are embedded within that narratives underlie and bolster these shared sets of assumptions.  By offering sample metanarratives for the American Experiement, Militant Islam, Christianity and several others familiar to Western culture, Smith exposes moderns and postmoderns as no less storied than all worldviews throughout history.  Storytelling by its very nature, Smith asserts, involves selecting some facts and omitting others and thus proscribing meaning.  Rather than following Edward Taylor in calling culture “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” Smith asserts that it is narrative which draws all of the above into a coherent relationship.

While some narratives are generally compatible with others, often their interpretations are so different that conflict arises.  Smith appeals to Dante via Alister McGrath for wisdom on how to assess the relative plausibility of rival narratives: “that narrative prevails over its rivals which is able to includes its rivals within it, not only to retell their stories as episodes within its story, but to tell they story of the telling of their stories as such episodes” (90).   

In chapter five, Smith tackles the question of religion, which he defines as “sets of beliefs, symbols, and practices about the reality of superempirical orders that make claims to organize and guide human life” (98).  Thus, religious people are different from secular ones only by the type of reality (superempirical vs. empirical) that provides them with moral order.  Religion is just a special type of moral order—one grounded in a belief in a reality beyond the empirical.  Regarding religious origins, Smith rejects reworked versions of neo-Darwinian evolutionism and rational choice theory.  After whimsically offering the theistic theory, he proposes with Reinhold Neibuhr that self-transcendent and evaluative animals would naturally “search for a God who transcends the world” (122).

Smith devotes chapter six to assessing the contributions of several writers participating in the recent surge of interest in culture.  Even before exploring the theories of Bourdieu, Swidler, Shudson, Wuthnow, and Durne he alerts us to the fact that what he finds lacking in all of them is “a convincing account of human motivation” (128).  Instead, he finds their theories to be either grounded on rational choice assumptions or to offer no account of human motivations fitting to their theoretical arguments (143).  This is unacceptable to Smith, who states that any worthwhile cultural sociology must engage in questions of human personhood, motivation and action in cultural terms (145). 

In the final chapter, Smith reviews his argument, moving from the nature of humans as moral and believing to culture as a moral order rooted in narratives that support fundamental beliefs.  These social orders have a sacred quality because they arise from moral, believing animals who, because they can self-reflect, presume the existence of a superempirical reality which can view the whole cosmos from outside of it. 

This theory, Smith asserts, is more convincing than rational choice theory not only because of its coherence but because, ala McGrath, it is able to make sense of the origins of rational choice theory, which he describes as “not so much a scientific modeling of human behavior delivering quantitative precision and predictability but instead the abstract academic expression and promotion of the pervasive moral order animating market capitalism and political liberalism” (158). 

Mark Daims comments that book's approach to the reader reflects its very premise.  “Smith addresses our moral sense with less science and more humanity just as a moral being would address other moral, believing animals especially on the subject of humanity."   Smith’s style is, thus, readable even for the non-academic and is, at points, playfully provocative—sprinkling quips that reveal his religious commitments among his rigorous philosophical maneuverings.  Nowhere is this book more delightful than in the beginning of chapter four where, without forewarning, he narrates our modern mythology about how our ignorant ancestors huddled around campfires to tell imaginative stories in order to make sense of the world and how now we are enlightened, rational and educated.  “Such is the story we moderns—huddled around our televisions and computer work stations—like to tell each other” (64).

The contributions of Smith’s work are threefold.  First, he offers a compelling critique of rational choice theory.  While he is certainly not the first to do so, his critique is unique in that it is grounded in the portrayal of an alternative view which can explain the emergence and prominence of rational choice theory itself as an outpouring of the prevailing social order.  

Second, he offers a comprehensive theory of human social action.  Smith’s assertion that humans are moral, believing animals is not primarily offered as a theological anthropology but as a theory explaining their motivations, the nature of society and culture and the origins of religion.  Thus, in a rather short book he has proposed a theory that cogently provides answers to several major areas of inquiry.

Third, Smith develops his theory from neutral resources though one gets the feeling he is motivated by confessional commitments.  No doubt theologians celebrate Smith’s achievement, but Smith has gone to lengths to make his a contribution to the field of sociology rather than to serve as a theologian undercover.  Smith is throughout self-awarely espousing a viewpoint that has been regarded by many as outdated and ignorant but he does so with such intelligence and scholarly engagement as to make the reader feel that, in fact, Smith really has stumbled onto something new, something worth considering.     

Smith’s book is something of a minority report among sociologists of religion, which is precisely what makes it a true contribution to the field and earns it the right to be read widely.  Smith calls the reader to turn the tools of sociology back on the contemporary expressions of the discipline itself and to examine the set of cultural assumptions that gave birth to sociology.  In so doing, he forces moderns to question their own assumptions and narratives, while offering a coherent portrayal of humans as “moral, believing, narrating animals--as opposed to rational, acquisitive, exchanging animals and genetically adaptive and governed animals” (118).

Summary/Reviews of Christian Smith's Books:
Christian America: What Evangelicals Really Want 
Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving

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