Robert Wuthnow is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and the author of numerous articles and books about American culture. His particular expertise has been in showing how America’s religious faith intersects with life in our culture. His writing is sometimes dense but always useful. One of his more recent titles summarizes a great deal of Wuthnow’s insight: American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short (Princeton University Press, 2008). The guy is prolific if he is nothing else. I cannot keep up with him but I try to “breeze” by his new material now and then to glean what I can from this highly respected social thinker.
Wuthnow’s newest book is Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats (Oxford University Press, 2010). This book is not rooted in religion, as such, but it touches on what is a deeply religious question: the end of the world. For as long as man has lived, or at least since the fall in the beginning, mankind has universally worried about how history would end. This fear is real and it will not go away through modern psychotherapy. The modern world only has a whole new set of things to worry about and worry it does.
Wuthnow examines the human response to existential threats to us and to our world. This concern, always an appropriate matter for theologians to address, is now talked about by non-theologians on a regular basis. I grew up in the Cold War era and can still recall the fear that struck our fourth grade class when we sat under our desks in the hope that we would be prepared for a nuclear bomb. I also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and going to bed at night quite worried about the future of America and the safety of my family and home. Today the global terror threat has come home to us as Americans. In addition, we regularly hear about pandemics, global warming and other threats to our human future.
Freud taught that the standard psychological response to overwhelming danger is denial. I find most people actually do exactly as Freud believed. There is a very real sense in which we could survive, at least in a basic sense of day-to-day living, in no other way. Wuthnow argues that our responses to such global threats are often pointless and ineffective. But much worse than this, he believe that they are often quite harmful. He shows that both the public and our policymakers tend to model reactions to threats on how we dealt with previous ones. An example of this is how we responded to 9/11. In effect, we reverted to a Cold War strategy that then led us into two wars that seem to have not made us particularly safer in the world, all politics aside. Who can forget citizens buying duct tape, much like we responded in the 1950s, to seal our doors and windows for a possible bio-attack? And who can forget the rampant nationalism that surfaced and then led us to embrace two wars that now go very badly?
Wuthnow tackles global warming in ways that will not make people on either side entirely comfortable, which likely means he has something important to say. He also interacts with our recent fears of the bird and swine flu epidemics. But in the end what he really gives us is a new understanding of the basic human reaction to existential vulnerability. He offers a calm and very insightful response to our present cultural moment, something Wuthnow is known for and thus the very thing that makes his work so impressive.
What Wuthnow writes could be called sociological history. He shows how fear about great social dangers has now become central to modern American life. We respond in one of two ways: denial or panic. What Wuthnow accomplishes is to make a certain sense out of our response and then to suggest a better, calmer reaction. The wisdom of his approach is needed, especially among Christians who fall out on the two ends of the spectrum about as evenly as everyone else, if not more than some.
For those who want a reasoned, interesting and deeply social analysis, with a sensitive eye on the role that religion plays in our cultural fear, Wuthnow is a marvelous guide in his new book Be Very Afraid.