The Loss of Faith
I started this blog because I wanted to get to the bottom of things. At the Niskanen Center, I’ve worked on policies to address the problems of slow growth, high inequality, and declining state capacity, and I’ve been involved in various initiatives to shore up our legal and political system in the face of Trump’s assaults. In all this work, I repeatedly got the sense that I was addressing the acute symptoms of deeper maladies and problems — and that responding effectively to our contemporary predicament would ultimately require engagement at that deeper level. So that’s why I’m here: to try to get a better handle on the underlying causes of our present-day challenges, in the hope that improved understanding will shed light on how best to move forward.
In essays thus far, I’ve drilled down to examine transformational changes in economic life, social structure, culture, and politics unleashed by the advent of material plenty, and I’ve traced their interconnections. But there is a still deeper level, the one at which human beings confront their most profound and elemental questions and challenges: the realm of religious and spiritual life. As abashed as I am about discussing topics so far from my comfort zones of history and social science, I have the inescapable sense that the permanent problem is not just an economic, social, cultural, and political crisis. It is, in the final analysis, a spiritual crisis as well.
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As for me, I’ve never subscribed to any organized religious belief system, and my faith in the supernatural ended with Santa Claus. Nevertheless, I’ve always possessed what I would call strong religious sentiments: I have a definite sense of the sacred, and I am open and deeply drawn to experiences of awe in its presence. I’ve long had the feeling that religion is a fundamental, inescapable domain of human experience: we are all worshiping some God or some idols whatever we think we’re doing, and we’re all taking positions on great theological controversies regardless of whether we can articulate them. So my lack of belief in any organized faith tradition is a matter of some personal ambivalence: sometimes it’s felt like liberation from superstition, especially during my cocksure younger days, but even back then, and much more so now, it also feels like loss. It feels like homelessness.
The Privatization of Belief
From the standpoint of Christian believers, it’s obvious enough that a spiritual crisis has occurred in the rich democracies. The decades since World War II have seen ongoing declines in church attendance throughout western Europe and a steady rise in people claiming no religious affiliation; with a lag, those same trends have hit the United States. In the late 1950s, nearly half of all Americans attended weekly church services; that’s down to less than a quarter today. As late as the early 1970s, 90 percent of Americans said they were Christian; that’s fallen to 64 percent, with nearly 30 percent of Americans now reporting no religious affiliation. In the U.S., much of this change has occurred in the 21st century.
These mass trends are the culmination of deeper intellectual and cultural developments stretching back centuries. The Reformation shattered the unity of western Christendom; the Scientific Revolution progressively substituted rational understanding for divine mystery; the Enlightenment asserted the power of reason over faith in guiding human affairs; Darwin further shrank the scope of the miraculous by explaining all of life’s teeming diversity and revealing humanity’s kinship with the rest of nature. All of this was prelude to Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead and Weber’s later, similar diagnosis of disenchantment.
Other social developments, carrying forward into and through the 20th century, further contributed to secularization. Industrial capitalism resituated human existence from proximity to nature, where the divine presence is often sensed, to a world of technological and organizational artifice where the traditional religious virtues have little relevance. Modern medicine demoted the importance of faith and prayer at life’s most critical junctures. The rise of the welfare state relieved the church of some of its key social functions in ministering to the poor and sick.
These intellectual and social developments marginalized organized religion in two respects. First, the felt presence of the divine, once ubiquitous and incessant, shrank until it was all but reduced to the inside of churches on Sunday mornings. Second, the church’s social welfare functions were progressively usurped by secular institutions; the loss of those functions weakened the bonds that hold religious communities together.
Believing Christians must see this story as a profound tragedy, evidence of a falling away from the true faith into apostasy and heresy. Ardent secularists, on the other hand, may celebrate it as a tale of progress and demystification. While I cannot subscribe to Christian believers’ interpretation of events, I do share their sense that the decline of organized religion has been a change for the worse.
Let’s be clear that the ebbing of traditional religious faith has far outpaced the advance of reason and scientific thinking. Yes, the number of people who have internalized the scientific worldview has grown steadily, especially with the surge in post-secondary education in the second half of the 20th century. And that worldview sits uneasily with a belief in the supernatural: as long ago as 1914, a survey of prominent American scientists found that 70 percent of them doubted the existence of God.
But this kind of intellectual disenchantment remains a minority phenomenon. Most people who have fallen away from organized religious life remain exuberantly credulous: as G. K. Chesterton put it, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” More than four in ten Americans believe that ghosts and demons exist and that psychics are real; a third believe in reincarnation; nearly 30 percent believe in astrology. In Europe, the churches may be empty, but comfortable majorities continue to profess faith in God or some higher power.
So the sunny view of organized religion’s retreat as humanity’s intellectual advance really can’t be sustained. We are not seeing the decline of supernaturalism so much as its privatization or atomization. Belief in the fantastic has escaped from its traditional repositories, where it served to bind us into communities founded on a shared sense of the sacred, and now exists as a disconnected jumble, accessible as a purely individual consumer choice to guide one’s personal search for meaning. What the sociologist Peter Berger called the “sacred canopy” has shattered and fallen to earth; we pick up shards here or there, on our own or in small groups, and whatever we manage to build with them is necessarily more fleeting and less inclusive than what we experienced before.
It’s easy enough to construct an argument that the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” orientation constitutes some kind of progress — even if not progress toward rational truth-seeking. Organized religion, after all, has compiled an impressive record of abuses and horrors over the centuries; in our own day, the massive child abuse scandal in the Catholic church, along with regular sex and corruption scandals among evangelical religious leaders, remind us of the wide scope for abuse that deference to religious authority gives rise to. So perhaps deinstitutionalizing the search for transcendent meaning represents a positive step.
Unfortunately, the evidence says otherwise. The clear consensus of social-science researchers is that there is a strong connection between participation in religious communities and personal health and wellbeing — one not reproduced by purely personal religious belief. Especially interesting on this score is a 2010 paper in the American Sociological Review by Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and Chaeyoon Lim. First, their quantification of the effect of church attendance is striking: comparing people who attend services weekly to those who never attend, the gap in the percentage of people who rate themselves “extremely satisfied” with their lives is roughly the same as that between people with a family income of $10,000 and those with an income of $100,000. Wow!
According to Lim and Putnam’s analysis, the major driver of this effect is found in the benefits of close social ties within an active faith community. Having rich social connections in secular settings doesn’t produce the same effect; neither do strong religious beliefs or regular private religious practices (like prayer) in the absence of close friendships in the congregation. “For life satisfaction,” they conclude, “praying together seems to be better than either bowling together or praying alone.”
The breakdown of organized religiosity has left a trail of broken lives. A new NBER paper finds a link between the decline in religious participation and the rise of “deaths of despair” from suicide, alcohol, and drugs. Both trends were driven by the same group of people: middle-aged whites without a college degree. The authors use a policy-based shock to religiosity — the repeal of “blue laws” that restricted commercial activity on Sundays — to tease out causality, finding that repeal reduced church attendance and that, in turn, led to an increase in deaths of despair.
Besides the rise in white middle-aged mortality, the other urgent wellbeing crisis in America today is the spike in mental health problems among adolescents and young adults. Here, too, the effects of the disintegration of religious life can be seen, as recent studies find that religious participation reduces the risk of depression in young people.
The story I’ve told so far sounds a theme already familiar on this blog — namely, that good things can have bad consequences. Here it’s the combination of science, capitalism, and the welfare state, which, despite all they have done to uplift lives and expand possibilities, have also had a dispiriting side effect. By reducing the salience of the sacred in a world of artifice and rational explanation, and by relieving organized religion of many of its practical, worldly functions, they have led us away from that regular, shared experience of the sacred upon which flourishing communities and flourishing individual lives depend.
In a similar vein, I’ve already argued that technological progress, which has given us so much, has also taken away — reducing the leverage and lowering the status of ordinary people by downgrading the importance of the contributions they can make to the great social enterprise. And just as I contended that, while we should not mourn the passing of the old industrial working class, we should acknowledge the troubling vacuum created by its absence, I could say something similar here: as a nonbeliever, I cannot mourn the decline of forms of religiosity that I believe rely on outmoded ways of thinking, yet I cannot help but grieve that nothing better — and indeed, something considerably worse — has replaced them.
The Romantic Heresy
I think this is all correct, but it’s not the whole story. While there are clear causal connections between modernity’s greatest triumphs and the ebbing of organized religion, I believe that ebbing also reflects the spread of a pernicious intellectual error – one that has shadowed modernity since its dawn, but which in recent decades has won mass cultural acceptance. I’m talking about what I’ll call the romantic heresy: the idea that human beings are naturally good and that all constraints imposed by society are oppressive and stultifying.
We can see the influence of this error, not only in the decline of organized religion, but also in the decline of what has been called America’s civil religion: the quasi-religious faith in American promise, rooted in an understanding of America’s founding as a sacred covenant to live according to the high ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. This faith has also been shaken, and increasingly abandoned, on basically the same timeline as that for falling church attendance. Yet I don’t see any way to blame this on scientific demystification, or displacement by a secularized lifestyle, or on the loss of sustaining social functions. Here I see a simple loss of faith, born of disillusionment and deep-seated confusion.
Romanticism arose as a counterpoint to Enlightenment rationalism — siding with imagination against calculation, poetry against science, will against reason, spontaneity against organization, and the unique individual against the universal. Together, rationalism and romanticism make up the yin and yang of Western modernity; when counterpoised in productive tension they balance and complete each other.
As one perspective in a larger picture, the romantic vision of the conflict between individual authenticity and societal constraints is foundational to Western individualism. That conflict is a central preoccupation of the novel, the art form that did so much to create and express the starring role of the individual in Western society and culture. It is also central, in all of our lives, to the experience of adolescence, as we break from unthinking deference to our parents — and through them all of society — and struggle to discover and construct our own individual identities.
We can put down novels, though, and we outgrow adolescence. Which is a very good thing, because the romantic conception of the sovereign, autonomous individual is radically incomplete. What romantic individualism misses is that society precedes the individual and constitutes the individual: we are all born into a pre-existing world we did not make and come bearing a whole array of unchosen connections and obligations; and we become distinctive individuals, not by diving inwards in search of a nonexistent pure and authentic self, but rather by extending ourselves outwards and making connections with others and the larger world. As a dissenting principle, the romantic impulse can be liberating and invigorating; but as a governing principle, it becomes a ruinous heresy.
From the dawn of the Romantic movement in the late 18th century until the 1960s, the romantic impulse remained a dissenting principle within Western society at large; as a governing principle, a full-blown ethos, it was confined to the small subculture of artists, intellectuals, and free-spirited hangers-on that came to be known as “bohemia.” That subculture saw its share of chaotic and broken lives: the bohemian set had adopted the code of “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” long before that slogan was coined. But to the solidly and stolidly bourgeois society around them, these dissidents bequeathed an immense treasure of art and literature — and enlivened the world dominated by getting and spending with color and vivacity and a dose of subversive thrills.
But as society grew richer and better educated, the subversion spread. And the mechanisms of propagation were not confined to art, literature, and philosophy; perhaps the most potent force for inculcating romantic individualism came from a most unexpected source — capitalism. Specifically, the rise of mass consumerism injected a romantic sensibility into what had once been purely prosaic and utilitarian purchasing decisions. Here let me recommend a brilliant but criminally obscure book: Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. The title of the book, a clever take on Weber’s classic, hints at the thesis: while much of the supply side of capitalism may depend upon a kind of cold “Protestant ethic” of calculation and investment and deferred gratification, the demand side of capitalism is now powered by mass romanticism. Consumerism, after all, combines an anxious quest for a distinctive individual identity, an incessant longing for novelty, and the free play of imagination. As to that last point, how else could we have been able to transform a pair of interlocking G’s into a coveted status symbol? Or convince ourselves that we’re just a little bit more ruggedly manly every time we light up a Marlboro Red?
And so, as America achieved mass affluence in the middle of the 20th century, the romantic individualism of consumerism had become pervasive, and the percentage of people exposed to “highbrow” culture rose with the boom in college education. Conditions were ripe for bohemia to become a mass phenomenon. Enter the 60s, and the eruption of a youth rebellion — a “counterculture” that envisioned the coming of a bohemian millennium.
The romantic rebels of the 60s looked for a utopia that would bring the total liberation of the individual from constraints of every kind. Yippie leader Jerry Rubin concluded his 1970 manifesto DO IT! with an especially rollicking version of the beatific vision:
There will be no more jails, courts or police. The White House will become a crash pad for anybody without a place to stay in Washington. The world will become one big commune with free food and housing, everything shared. All watches and clocks will be destroyed. Barbers will go to reeducation camps where they will grow their hair long. There will be no such crime as “stealing” because everything will be free. The Pentagon will be replaced by an LSD experimental farm. There will be no more schools or churches because the entire world will become one church and one school. People will farm in the morning, make music in the afternoon, and fuck wherever and whenever they want to.
Anarcho-paradise never arrived, of course, and the extravagance of the antinomianism subsided. But the deep-seated hostility to authority and hierarchy of any kind, the tendency to regard established institutions as oppressive and illegitimate — that never went away.
The Acid Bath
The literary critic Lionel Trilling referred to this oppositional mindset as the “adversary culture,” a term that featured prominently in the neoconservative critique of the left that emerged in the 60s and 70s. Here’s Irving Kristol, in a 1979 Encounter piece titled “The Adversary Culture of the Intellectuals”:
Has there ever been, in all of recorded history, a civilization whose culture was at odds with the values and ideals of that civilization itself? It is not uncommon that a culture will be critical of the civilization that sustains it — and always critical of the failure of this civilization to realize perfectly the ideals that it claims as inspiration…. But to take an adversary posture toward the ideals themselves? That is unprecedented. A few writers and thinkers of a heretical bent, dispersed at the margins of the culture, might do so. But culture as a whole has always been assigned the task of, and invariably accepted responsibility for, sustaining and celebrating those values. Indeed, it is a premise of modern sociological and anthropological theory that it is the essence of culture to be "functional" in this way.
Yet ours is not. The more "cultivated" a person is in our society, the more disaffected and malcontent he is likely to be — a disaffection, moreover, directed not only at the actuality of our society but at the ideality as well.
With the election of Reagan and the huge cultural swing from the 70s to the 80s, talk about the adversary culture faded from the discourse — but the thing itself persisted. It continued on in academia, as students from the 60s grew up and got tenure; it burbled up now and again in anti-apartheid protests, enthusiasm for communist Nicaragua as the final destination for Cold War “political pilgrims,” and flaps over “political correctness.” It continued on, in nonideological fashion, in post-“conquest of cool” consumerism (break the rules! don’t follow the crowd! have it your way!) and the new Silicon Valley entrepreneurial ethos of rebellious “disruption.” And it continued on, in socially conservative fashion, with the rise of institutionally unmoored evangelical churches, heavy on pop psychology and the prosperity gospel, even as traditional denominations imploded.
Over the past decade, the ideological version of the adversary culture has broken free of academia and permeated the professions and even corporate America: the 1619 project, DEI trainings, and fads like land acknowledgments are signs of its far-flung influence. In the farther reaches of contemporary trans activism, the hostility to any constraint on individual autonomy has moved past human institutions to target biological reality. And though the romantic heresy began as a phenomenon of the left, it has now caught hold on the right with the rise of authoritarian populism: seeing the world in terms of oppression and victimization is now firmly entrenched on both ends of the horseshoe.
In this environment, adherence to the American civil religion that previously had transcended region and party is in headlong retreat. The backpedaling began on the left, and is farther along there. The most flamboyantly anti-American rhetoric of 60s radicals is now more or less conventional wisdom among many progressives: America, the land of white supremacy and structural racism and patriarchy, the perpetrator of indigenous displacement and genocide, the world’s biggest polluter, and so on. There are patriotic counter-currents on the center-left — think of Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, or Hamilton — but these days both feel awfully dated.
With now both cultural and economic power concentrated on the coasts in the same socially liberal professional and managerial elites, conservatives — who have come to see their cultural struggle as existential — are feeling increasingly alienated from the country they profess to love. I mean, it’s hard to love your country when you think most of the people who live there are your enemy. Conservatives have long felt at odds with Hollywood and the news media, but now the list of suspect institutions has metastasized to include the NFL, NBA, the military, “the deep state,” universities, and even Disney. It’s a long way down from the shining city on a hill to American carnage.
With each side having its own reasons, the percentage of both Republicans and Democrats who say they’re extremely proud to be an American has been drifting downward over the past couple of decades. Only 26 percent of Democrats now are extremely proud. In a poll last year after Russia invaded Ukraine, people were asked whether they’d stay and fight to defend America or leave the country. Democrats preferred leaving by a margin of 52 to 40 percent. This is the party whose members dominate the cultural centers of the country and the staffing of public institutions. While Republican nihilism is currently inflamed and dangerous, the chronic downward trajectory of patriotism among such influential constituencies on the left is genuinely distressing and portends nothing good for the longer term.
At this point, Americans retain their confidence in the military, the police, and small business – and that’s about it. I urge you to take the time to look through these Gallup poll time series I’ve just linked to. You can practically hear the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” as you see trust in one institution after another tumble downwards. And indeed, in the long list of institutions whose trust levels over the years are reported, at the top of that list is organized religion. The percentage of people expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in organized religion has fallen relentlessly over the past half-century — from 65 percent in 1973 to 31 percent in 2022.
Here then is the rest of the story behind organized religion’s decline. Here is the loss of faith, not as weakening belief in the supernatural, not as diminished salience of the transcendent in a secularized world, not as the loss of the church’s social welfare functions, but rather as loss of trust — of confidence, of attachment, of belonging. The acid bath of romantic hyper-individualism has degraded all the connections of contemporary society — connections to one’s family, to all the major secular institutions, to the land of one’s birth, all the way to the shared sense of the sacred.
This kind of loss of faith — this sense of alienation, or homelessness, born of confrontation with reality’s flaws and disappointments — is, in my view, the great spiritual crisis of our time. In an essay from a couple of years ago about loss of faith in our country, I described the challenge as follows:
The world is always in the process of both dying and being born; we are always caught between Faulkner’s “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” and Gibson’s “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Living in this historical flux brings with it a pair of perennial truths. The world is always a mix of light and dark. Life is full of beauty, wonder, and joy if you know where to look; it is likewise full of cruelty, injustice, and suffering that sooner or later will know where to look for you. And the world is always changing. The good of today is fragile and can be lost; the evil of today is passing and can be defeated or outlasted. There are no final victories, no final defeats.
The spirit in which we choose to confront and endure and find our place in history’s kaleidoscope is perhaps the most elemental choice we face. The stunning contradictions and incessant churn of life are not easy to assimilate and make sense of, and failure to come to grips with them comes in two different forms: denial and despair. As to the former, we can maintain a false optimism and complacency by averting our gaze from the world’s dark side, cocooning in relative comforts and shallow chauvinism for as long as we are able. As to the latter, we can stare too long into the abyss and lose heart. We can lose it all at once, and seethe in anger and resentment over a broken, unfair world. Or we can lose it bit by bit, imagining again and again that “I will be happy if” or “things will be better if” one particular obstacle is overcome, only to be continually frustrated as the next obstacle presents itself. To make peace with the world is to avoid these false paths: to face and accept life’s anguish and turbulence while remaining open to and grateful for its blessings and joys.
In the 60s, the critical spirit of the adversary culture had developed to the point that it was able to break through previously impregnable denial and self-deception about serious shortcomings in American society. Breaking through this wall exposed to wide public view the awful oppression of black people, profound inequities between the sexes, the immense harm being inflicted on the natural world, an unjust and brutal war in southeast Asia, and more.
Unlike social conservatives, I do not record this disillusionment as the tragedy. On the contrary, I see the critical breakthroughs of the 60s as a major and necessary step forward. The tragedy occurred in the despairing reaction to disillusionment: a despair that now mixed with white-hot rage among those under ideological spells, but which in most of us has manifested itself in a quiet unplugging from attachments we have forgotten how to value.
A couple years ago, I went back and rewatched the old BBC documentary “Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark.” It’s magnificent, not only for its visuals and Clark’s wonderful style, but also for how he models love for and pride in a civilization whose flaws he sees only too well. In the first episode, discussing the collapse of the ancient world, he reflects on civilization, what it is, and how it can be lost. “Of course, civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity — enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence — confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.”
Our contemporary crisis of faith is a crisis of confidence. And I believe its effects can be felt in all the major difficulties that I have characterized as the permanent problem.
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