Part of being a student of David Sloan Wilson means meeting some very interesting characters. Among some of the more interesting I've come across are Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Connie is a science writer and an atheist who has been heavily involved with the Unitarian Universalist movement over the years. Michael is a former Evangelical minister and author of Thank God for Evolution. Together they serve as modern day itinerant preachers for an evolutionary, yet nevertheless highly spiritual, world view. Or perhaps to put it in George Levine's terms, they advocate for a strongly enchanted evolutionary world view. I met them once a few years ago when they gave a presentation at a local church, but didn't get the chance to talk with them in any depth. Luckily, I had the opportunity yesterday when Connie and Michael stopped by the office for a visit to remedy that missed opportunity.
As part of the conversation yesterday, David and I explained our working conception of tight vs. loose groups and how these categories related to tolerance for within group variation. This came on the heels of a discussion about David's desire to create an historical database of Binghamton area churches. Connie put these two streams of conversation together to make a very interesting observation. Namely, she said that congregations associated with old, beautiful church buildings tend to have members running the gamut from religious conservatives to agnostics. As such, we might be inclined to think of them as generally "loose" congregations. However, it is often the case that this variation remains largely buried beneath the surface, protected by a series of often unspoken taboos surrounding subjects that members tend to avoid talking about.
I find this observation fascinating on a number of different levels. At the most basic, it represents a looseness in beliefs accompanied by a tightness in behaviors that we haven't accounted for or even thought about in any of our models. More importantly, though, it brings together many different strands of my recent thinking that I feared were in danger of unraveling. I have been so caught up in recent months with practical issues surrounding empirical work that I have had a growing anxiety that I have been losing sight of my broader theoretical questions about cultural robustness and evolvability. It is important to have moments where you can step back, if even for a moment of clarity, to see how those endeavors are supporting one another.
I'm still mulling all of this over, but a starting point for synthesis comes from Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity:
The simple fact of the continued existence of the 1,000-year-old cathedral, for instance, does more than speak of the endurance of a liturgical order and its relationship to a place and a group. It demonstrates it. Even a new cathedral build to a traditional plan demonstrates the endurance of the plan, and thus the order specifying it, and so does the manipulation of sacra which are either themselves ancient or which conform to ancient patterns. (location 2251)
Rappaport here is not discussing cultural robustness directly. Rather, he is discussing the roles of material objects in ritual. Nevertheless, I think he is hitting on something important to my own interests, something that accounts in part for Connie's observation.
Traditionally, churches have been built along certain plans that evoke the sense of endurance and timelessness that Rappaport illuminates here. This becomes an important part of the church liturgy, a concrete (and very expensive) statement that the social order represented by the church is unchanging, that its correctness and morality are something outside of time. This is fine as far as it goes. However, the fact is that society does change over time and the "facts" deeply embedded within the architectural bones of the church at some point begin to become counterfactuals in the minds of those who have attached themselves in one form or another to that structure.
Yet, as Rappaport so convincingly argues, rituals, and the physical structures that support them, are so powerful in part because they remove ambiguity. Either someone participates in a ritual or does not. Either they become a man or woman by virtue of completing a rite of passage or they do not. Either they have agreed to support a family in their war efforts through dancing around the fire or they have not. But Connie's observation points to a flaw in Rappaport's argument. Yes, an ostentatious cathedral enforces the idea that a church's rituals and, hence, ideals are eternal. However, it does not necessarily communicate exactly what those ideals are. If these are not made explicit in other ways then individuals are likely to define these idiosyncratically and a high degree of variation in beliefs is likely to accumulate. That these differences in belief do not necessarily lead to changes in liturgical practices suggests that beautiful, old churches can act as components of cultural canalization. They become physical means by which underlying variation is, if not suppressed, then at least subsumed in a way that allows the outward appearance of the church, its phenotype if you will, to remain unchanged.