Practicing Christians, Practical Atheists: How Cultural Liturgies and Everyday Social Practices Shape the Christian Life
By Phil Davignon.
Cascade Books, 2023.
Paperback, 158 pages, $22.

Reviewed by David G. Bonagura, Jr. 

What are the biggest factors driving America’s secular slide? Are they the messages we receive from Hollywood, the media, and progressive universities? The triumph of the Sexual Revolution and undermining of the family? The seductive power of technology and smartphones? The triumph of science over naïve belief?

Against the typical narrative that blames these various forms of external messaging for “causing” secularization in America steps sociologist Phil Davignon with an alternative thesis: “a deeper cultural dysfunction,” almost imperceptible, has implanted itself within “various social institutions, cultural liturgies, and everyday social practices” and it has undermined the practice of religion by making God so remote from daily life that even practicing Christians become “practical atheists,” that is, they live as if God does not exist.

Davignon qualifies that his focus is not on religion as a set of beliefs or practices, where most sociologists and philosophers wander when studying secularization. Rather, he pursues the secondary understanding of religion as a virtue, “a set of dispositions that enable people to achieve some good end, which for Christians is conforming their lives to God’s will and sanctification.” With God eclipsed from Christians’ daily purview, the goal of every church—to convert the hearts of its parishioners—grows increasingly remote. This fact stems from Davignon’s other thesis: “Culture is not just a set of ideas that determines what people believe, but rather it is embedded within the routines of daily life, and therefore shapes people’s hearts in ways they may fail to realize.” For Davignon desires and ingrained practices “are arguably more influential” in determining human action than beliefs. 

These practices and the institutions through which they are exercised present “the most serious threat to Christianity in the modern age” because “they effectively den[y] the truth that Christ’s love is the basis of reality” by “endowing Christians with habits, dispositions, and a vision of reality that is incompatible with embodying the Christian faith.” Davignon identifies the four most influential social practices driving these trends as education, work, consumption, and leisure. Curiously, the first half of the subtitle, “cultural liturgies” such as sporting events and trips to the mall, receives almost no attention in the book.

Modern education has reduced knowledge to what is quantifiable and reduced learning to career preparation; in doing so it has reclassified “success” as achieving something tangible in the workaday world. As such it makes the Christian goals of education—the pursuit of truth and the acquisition of virtue—seem as if they “have no real connection to the ‘real world’ of business, politics, and other aspects of public life.” Modern work is not neutral in its outlook: in prizing efficiency and profit above all else, it commodifies people and nature “while loudly proclaiming its own false theology—a reality where commodification is the sacrament that makes present the god of wealth.” Workers, unwittingly absorbed into this “dehumanizing” milieu, are led away, not toward God. Consumer society falsely promises, through a non stop barrage of advertising, satisfaction from indulging our unlimited wants. It “secularizes people by initiating them into enduring dispositions of heart and mind that are thoroughly worldly.” Leisure, in the classic sense of re-creation, has morphed into diversions and novelty seeking that are as draining as work. In place of religious faith, a therapeutic culture has risen where “[c]elebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres act as the high priests” for a new religion that “promises salvation from meaninglessness and boredom, but renders people less able to experience the reality of God’s goodness and creation.”

Davignon’s persuasive analysis makes a valuable contribution to the study of secularization and religion by moving the conversation away from ethereal ideas and into the daily reality of people’s lives. Secularity is not the musings of professors in an ivory tower; still less is it the product of Enlightenment philosophes. It is more like the water in a fishbowl—the only known reality and only source of life of the fish swimming inside it. God is as alien to people living in modern secular culture as a human being is to fish in the bowl. The problem for believers is that this culture “hinders [people] from cultivating the necessary virtues and dispositions for living Christian life. The risk is that even practicing Christians will become practical atheists: unable to live in a way that truly reflects God’s goodness and presence.”

What, then, can Christians do to combat such a dire situation? Davignon is critical of the typical advice that believers should be “in but not of the world,” which, effectively, means that the world keeps churning in its secular way, forcing believers into a corner “that compartmentalizes the Christian faith to Sunday mornings, lunchtime Bible studies, or wishing people a blessed day.” The church must respond, Davignon urges, but not with the typical tactics that are not sufficient to change the secular water in the fishbowl nor adequately feed the fish inside: recruiting new church members according to a secular business model, online evangelization efforts, the ministry-industrial complex, sermons, and classes. He asks with painful honesty: “[C]an any weekly ministry or meeting provide the kind of deep formation that could offset the deep secularizing influence of social practices and institutions that govern everyday life?”

The answer, Davignon opines, is that the Christian church must provide its members better formation, which it can only do by recovering “its proper political nature—understood as a body that shapes its members’ lives in all areas, extending beyond Sunday morning.” The church’s “politics” turn on its self-organization and how it intends to relate to the lives of its members. The church must ask how it should “organize itself so that the self-giving love of the gospel is embedded and embodied within the everyday life of its members, who then bring it into the world.” Such organization, Davignon notes, depends on how the church understands its mission in the world, one that includes sacrifice as the necessary companion of self-giving love. Individual witness is not enough: Christians must act as a unified body to make an impact on the world. Davignon states plainly that he is not calling for a “Benedict Option” of Christian withdrawal from society. But he does call for corporations and schools to be “founded on a different set of assumptions and values than those that govern most work and educational institutions.” To make this happen, daily formation in prayer and virtue must begin at home.

By providing an evidence-based case that secularity is not messaging from afar but the very waters in which we are swimming, Davignon has refocused believers so they can effectively aim at the proper target. Over the last few decades, a scattering of schools and corporations have been founded on Christian values: classical schools, Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A, the Classic Learning Test. They may be drastically outnumbered, but they are significant: they provide an alternative culture—a different fishbowl, so to speak—in which believers can choose to swim so they can actively live as if God exists. Likewise, there are Protestant and Catholic churches, also few in number, that realize they must teach their parishioners how to live differently from the secular culture and how they can raise their children accordingly. So long as believers can create alternative daily practices that foster living faithfully, they can play David to secularity’s Goliath. Over time, a few well launched stones may change the course of history. 

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is religion editor of The University Bookman. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning. 

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