Slate Star Codex is one of my favorite blogs, even if I find myself disagreeing with the (somewhat) liberal atheist proprietor a good deal. Scott Alexander is extremely perceptive and interesting to read. I’ve learned a lot.
One concept he talks about a lot is signalling. Signalling is the idea that people do a lot of what they do just to signal to others that they are a particular kind of person, especially that they are virtuous, intelligent, wealthy, or members of a particular in-group. That last may be the most important of all- tribal loyalty. Another word that’s long been used for this is the shibboleth, coming from Judges 12, when the Ephraimites were at war with Gilead. When the Gileadites got the upper hand, in order to identify who were from Ephraim they made them say the word “shibboleth”, which in the Ephraimite dialect sounds like “sibboleth”. So the way they said the word signaled what group they were part of. Similarly if you hear someone say they were “blessed” by some good thing, that’s a pretty good signal that they’re Christians since that’s language Christians often use.
The more difficult something is, the better a signal it is. As Scott Alexander quotes from another source, if someone wears eyeglasses, that’s not a very good signal for wealth because eyeglasses are useful. But if they wear a diamond ring, that’s a much better signal since diamond rings have no use. He uses this concept to explain why big stories (like Ferguson or the UVA rape case) that go viral are so often proved false or are otherwise very controversial. If activists promote obvious cases of rape that everybody agrees are horrible, then that generates very little controversy and very little signalling. If you think that ISIS is horrible, then you’re just like every other sane person. But if you think college fraternities are all hotbeds of rape or that every police department is racist, then you’re sending a much stronger signal about your tribal identity and your commitment to certain kinds of politics.
That got me thinking about us Christians, and how much time we spend arguing about the relatively minor points of disagreement. I also think about how often it’s precisely those areas of doctrine about which there is the most doubt or argument which people will hold to and champion the most. Sabbath, six-day creation, different views of worship, predestination, different views of baptism or eschatology. The “distinctives”, in other words. Now I think there are good and valid arguments in a lot of those cases. I am a six-day creationist, for example, and I think it’s an important discussion. But I have to ask myself, do I hold to six-day creation out of conviction, or because it signals to everyone just what a serious and committed Christian I am? Six-day creation is especially useful as a signal, since it’s so countercultural right now. Being against slavery is not counter-cultural, so there’s no signaling involved. Nobody will know what a serious and committed Christian I am by being against slavery, because everyone’s against slavery. That commitment is pretty much zero-cost. Being a six-day creationist on the other hand is high cost in our present culture, in terms of the way it’s perceived.
Of course the Bible talked about all of this a long time ago. This is what Jesus calls “hypocrisy”- stage-acting, a religion which is intended for public consumption. It was precisely those things which signaled what passionate, devoted Jews they were, those things which cost them the most, which the Pharisees spent all their time talking about.
5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. (Mat 6:5 NKJ)
If the goal of our religion is societal, the way we are perceived by others, family, community, etc- then we will invariably fall into signaling, posturing and the like. Or, to use the Biblical word, hypocrisy. Our faith needs to be God-directed, not man-directed. Then we’ll strive for a genuine religion, not just one for show.