Great essay. I feel the central conflict that is driving our "loss of faith"(and trust) is the acceleration of change driven by the early days of the digital age. For example, it took 70 years years from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to women finally getting the right to vote, but a mere 11 years from when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage to when all 50 states legalized it. In terms of "women's liberation" it was all talk and every little progress from Seneca Falls until the Pill was introduced in 1958 and in 10 years the sexual revolution was in full gear. So that general concept of accelerated change as a social disrupter is central to my thinking. (I read Future Shock when I was a kid, loved it but forgot about it...until about 7 years ago and BOOM, it made perfect sense.)

I agree with the need for a strong secular moral compass that can match the spiritual fullness of traditional religion, without its superstitious, authoritarian and abusive tendencies. Many secular efforts that provide "the secret of life" turn into abusive cults themselves. Although I'm aware of "Secular Saturday's" in which spiritual secularists have readings and lectures that are often organized by former pastors, I've never attended one. But I have watched online to "Civic Saturdays" by Eric Liu's https://citizenuniversity.us and this seems like an interesting model to build community and social bonding, without the religious baggage.

But I fear we can not handle the accelerated pace of change and old norms and institutions will fall before we have built (or even conceived of) new norms and institutions. I think the classic notions of what it means to be conservative--embracing order and traditions--or to be a progressive--embracing change that will improve society--are obsolete. Conservatives embracing 17th thought to govern 21st century realities or progressives spouting utopian notions about the internet in the 1990s are two short-sighted examples in which "both sides" have failed us.

So as technology accelerates, we lose faith and trust in EVERYTHING, we are left exposed until we build new institutions and norms for a new age. It is this period, which in my amateurish way I've dubbed "the soft shell period" of history in which we as a society are at our weakest point (like a crab or lobster that molts it's shell and is vulnerable to predators until it grows a new shell).

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Feb 22Liked by Brink Lindsey

One thing I struggle with this kind of analysis is that it lacks, for want of a better phrase, any attempt to include "The Chinese Experience". You mention how the Reformation shattered the unity of Western Christendom: but China has never had anything like a unified religion. You talk about Americans going to church every week: but China has never had anything like weekly church/temple attendance. You talk about the Scientific Revolution killing off the divine mystery: but Confucianism never had anything like a divine mystery to kill in the first place. Darwin showed kinship with the rest of nature: but China had Taoism 2,000 years before Darwin. Nietzche may have killed god: but there never WAS a god in China.

Of course, China is not the only example, just an extremely prominent one in world history. I live in Vietnam which, according to Wikipedia is 74% irreligion/folk belief, which also lacks the hallmarks of Western belief.

And yet....the Western world doesn't have a monopoly on the malaise you talk about.

So while I actually mostly agree with what you've written, there's also part of me that feels the explanation somehow isn't quite right, can't be quite right, until the Western lens is dropped and a more global catalogue of human experience is incorporated into the explanation.

And, for that matter, are today's actual religious societies -- Israel, Turkey, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia -- actually less immune to the Permanent Problem? I only know as much about those places as the average internet reader but my impression is they are suffering from the same issues despite their much greater levels of faith. And places with even more atheism, like Sweden and Japan, aren't noticeably worse.

All of which makes me worried that "modern capitalism", or whatever you want to call the fundamental system causing the Permanent Problem, is so overwhelmingly strong that even entrenched faith is relatively powerless in its face.

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Fabulous piece! You captured many angles very well and respectfully. I say that as a former hedge-fund manager (capitalist) but also a devout church-goer for more than 40 years (every week). For six years recently, I was a volunteer minister and served about 100 teenagers as a religious leader. I spent about half my time sharing scripture and the other half teaching life skills around technology and other key life habits. The digital tech age has been very impactful on the rising generation - lots of challenges.

Your topic this time has touched on several books on my bookshelf - two that I am reading right now, side-by-side, and one that is waiting in the queue. My two current reads are The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. The challenge of philosophy to arrive at a rational case for virtue was an Enlightenment failure. We certainly got autonomy. Haidt broadens the Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies into focusing exclusively on the ethics of autonomy (harm and fairness). His research helped him to validate the other widespread moral ethics of community and divinity. The ethics of community and divinity almost always go hand-in-hand. A broad moral compass usually includes some respect and appreciation for all three ethics. A loss of the sacred and a loss of loyalty to something bigger than oneself are clearly part of the disillusionment of our modern times. Much of teaching religion to young people today is about teaching service to one's neighbor - the why and the how of being in service.

The book waiting on my shelf is Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. It came from NYT podcast recommendation onto my radar screen. Alas, I leave my appreciation for your comprehensive writings about The Permanent Problem. You have ventured into important grounds with great depth of perspective. I've come to see in Jesus, in religion, in humanity the great reality that life is paradox, metaphor, irony, and a contradictory mix of dualities (like light and dark, joy and sadness, etc.). Forming, keeping, and protecting societies through the stages of societal progress doesn't change that great reality. After virtue, you come back to virtue as the necessary glue for healthy society, but individual virtues don't come with automatic hierarchies of importance, so political battles will always trudge on claiming preference for some virtues, but not others.

I close with a favorite Viktor Frankl quote that he taught in his Yes to Life lectures: "Now we also understand how, in the final analysis, the question of the meaning of life is not asked in the right way, if asked in the way it is generally asked: it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life — it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us… We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. With this mental standpoint nothing can scare us anymore, no future, no apparent lack of a future. Because now the present is everything as it holds the eternally new question of life for us." Thanks, Brink!

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Wow! Very insightful piece. I think you have your fingers on the pulse of our society today. To be able to access our culture from a non-partisan perspective is novel today. I'm going to wait a week or two and read it again. Thanks

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I strongly recommend philosopher Charles Taylor's A SECULAR AGE, where he explores, as he puts it, "why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?" He tells a very long, very complex story (with a big role for Romanticism). Not an easy book, but one well worth the time.

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Feb 21Liked by Brink Lindsey

Hey Brother. Mark suggests you read, if you have not already, The Stages of Faith, by James Fowler in the late 70s. Looked faith development in the light of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson did cognition, moral sense, and personality respectively. Started a discipline in itself. Quite interesting.

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As with many things there's a huge disconnect between the conclusions you derive from US evidence, and what happens when you compare the US to the rest of the world.

Australia is very like the US in lots of ways, but almost entirely irreligious in its public life. Although around half of the population states a religious affiliation, hardly anyone thinks we would be better off with more religion, let alone more Christianity, and nearly everyone thinks people should keep their religious beliefs to themselves. We have a whole vocabulary of derision "God-botherers", "wowsers", "happy clappers" and so on to describe those who violate these social norms

Some data here https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-07/religion-in-australia-is-unlike-anywhere-else-in-the-world/11652442

And none of this is perceived as a crisis of either faith or confidence. Unsurprisingly, people aren't happy about the neoliberal market economy and climate change, but these are perceived problems imposed on us from outside, not a reflection of our own failings

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Feb 22Liked by Brink Lindsey

I enjoy your writing. The comments as well. It is a good thing we have choices. So many choices.

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Feb 22Liked by Brink Lindsey

"And just as I contended that, while we should mourn the passing of the old industrial working class, we should acknowledge the troubling vacuum created by its absence..." Missing "not" before "mourn", correct?

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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.” ---- That's because they were raised religious with FAITH and BELIEF and FEELINGS as their Epistemology. So when, they give up one of the 4,200 Religions, they still have faith and belief and their feelings to apply to anything. I was raised religious. https://raisedreligious.com

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> At the Niskanen Center, I’ve worked on policies to address the problems of slow growth, high inequality, and declining state capacity

I thought that was the goal of the Niskanen Center, but then I heard they were suing over the government approving a building project and it seemed like the opposite of that intended purpose, becoming part of the very problem they complain about.

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The thing is, there is a functional bourgeois liberal value system that works very well for those who are acculturated into it. Charles Murray called us "Belmont" and urged us to "preach what we practice," and though he might rue having wished for that if we really fully articulated it, he's got a point. The coastal cities may be bohemian places with lots of unhappiness, but the happy few who can afford the artificially-restricted housing have a way of life worth defending and extending-- a way of life we learn almost entirely by example, not by preaching.

This is partly because it's not so easy to articulate. Deirdre McCloskey's bourgeois virtues are a piece of it, but only one piece. Consent culture is a piece too. There are other bits that I'd need more time and thought to even start writing about, but I do like your hat tip to the bohemians of the 19th and 20th centuries, because both the positive and negative lessons learned from them are pretty important.

I think in particular of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a bohemian if there ever was one. She was surely a terribly unhappy person, and unhappy in ways that would resonate with many "spiritually adrift" people today. You can tell that from her poetry; the most relevant example for me is the exquisite, shattering sonnet "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why." But it's really good for human culture that she existed and wrote what she wrote. The affluent coastal liberal culture I grew up in reveres her poetry; admires her daring, courage, and forthrightness; and steers its children hard away from her way of life.

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"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."

I have come to believe that our "confrontation with reality's flaws" which has been made acute by social media - these flaws cannot withstand scrutiny, and social media provides the opportunity for constant, supercharged scrutiny - is an extremely important element in the trends you describe.

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Fine essay, and important. Because, after normal survival is nearly guaranteed for the vast majority of normal folk, the "meaning of life" becomes a key issue in most folks' lives. An empty life, without meaning, is quite different from homelessness, tho I offer no better metaphor.

The loss of confidence in faith is related to the atheist conclusion, either express or implied, that because Evil exists, either God does not, or is not Good.

If the Truth is not Good - which is better?

Which is more important, more worthy of belief - faith - adoration?

My grandfather's grace at meals: God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food.

Non-believers include little thankfulness to God for all that is good, but lots of blame for all that is not perfect. Even an incoherent anger and rejection of God because reality includes imperfections, and suffering.

I believe in a God that is Good. The hyper-individualists (good phrase!) believe in Good, and Evil, without God - despite Evil being anti-God. Rationalists are great at rationalization. The Woke religion, like PC before it, believes that acting as if something desirable is true will make that something true. Like good women being as good at computer programming as good males, or physics.

This is combined with magic thinking of ideals and improvements without trade-offs. Inspiring yet unrealistic.

Thanks for these two Best Quotes: "As a dissenting principle, the romantic impulse can be liberating and invigorating; but as a governing principle, it becomes a ruinous heresy."

"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."

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A couple of things:

"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."

Yes! The loss of self esteem of those whose skill sets are deemed "useless" is an ongoing wound to the average soul.

The tyranny of the self...God, the damage I see among young people who believe it is their fate to attempt the hero's journey all on their lonesome. It was never part of that compact to go out into the world alone and remain alone....The return was just as important as the journey out.

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Such a silly argument for religion: granted religion makes no sense and well-educated people abandon it but we have to keep it around to keep 40% from believing instead in ghosts or psychics or reincarnation. Hogwash. First off, the 70% or whatever number it is who still believe in gods and saints and angels are just as deluded as the ghost and psychic believers. It’s all just Santa Claus, in one form or another. Secondly, religion holds us humans back. It makes us tribal and intellectually fragile. There’s no god. No angels. No spirits. It’s just us. And it’s far past time we took responsibility for all that happens and deal with it, instead of praying and hoping for divine intervention.

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