By Cole DeSantis
We recently finished the summer. In American society, the summer, particularly the month of July, is the time in which Americans celebrate the birth of their nation. It is during this time that inhabitants of the United States contemplate, with particular intensity, the values that their nation, society and culture stand for. In our time in particular, this is an important endeavor. The past few centuries, and the past few decades in specific, have seen more paradigm shifts within Western civilization than in the past 1,000 years prior. Why do we, as a nation, still cling to the values we do? Should we continue to cling to these values? What is the best way to interpret and implement these values given the constantly changing nature of modern society on both a practical and an intellectual level?
This is something that religious people must contemplate even more so. Religious people have always had to ask the question: “How do my religious values relate to the values of my nation, culture or society?” And, in pluralistic societies like our own, religious people must ask questions such as, “How do my religious values relate to those of others?” “How do we get people with competing religious and moral values to live peacefully together?” “How do we balance our promotion of pluralism with the social necessity of all people living in accordance with a common set of values?”
One of the effects of the rapid social changes of the past few decades is the fact that religious devotion has fallen. Thus, added to many of the above questions is another, “What role, if any, does religion still play in society?” There are many who fall within the more conservative or right-wing side of the culture war – whether their thought is systematically rooted in conservative thought, or they simply occasionally have opinions that fall in that direction – who tend to affirm the positive social influence of religion. A decline in religious devotion is one of the things that has caused, they argue, the decline in Western values and mores. Religion laid the foundation for many of the values that people lived by; it was the source of inspiration for great pieces of art and literature; it was, in a word, a major element both in societal cohesion and cultural progress. The failure on the part of Western society to find something with the same moral, psychological, emotional, social, and even spiritual impact as traditional religion has created a black hole that no one has since been able to fill, thereby causing many of the moral and cultural issues we see in modern society.
Now, the implications of these questions are universal in scope. Unless one wants to live a monastic life, most religious people are forced to live in a society. So, religious people in all social settings have to ask the question, “How does my religion interact with my social activity?” Further, very few societies are so ideologically homogenous that only one religion is present. Every religious movement, whether they be the majority, the minority, or somewhere in between, has to further ask the question, “How is my religion to interact with members of other religions in a manner that can maintain social cohesion, without undermining my belief in my religion as being true in a unique manner?” Yet, I will specifically address this question within the context of American society, and Western society more generally, since, well, being an American, this is the cultural and religious context I am most familiar with; further, such things as secularism and pluralism have provided challenges to the West – or rather, has caused a common set of problems to be taken to an extent – beyond what other nations have had to deal with.
The English writer and social critic Douglas Murray presented the issue in the following manner: “I think it was the German jurist Böckenförde who put the dilemma out – I first came across this in the writings of Ratzinger, Pope Benedict – Böckenförde’s dilemma is, ‘Can we maintain an ethical – and more – structure without the roots that gave it birth?’ And many people believe that the conclusion is already in on that, that the answer is no. I don’t know because I think that we’re currently living through an attempt at that experiment.”
Murray is more hesitant to come to a definitive conclusion concerning whether or not Western society – which is indebted, on a fundamental level, to Christianity – can survive the collapse of religious devotion, since we are in the midst of major social changes which may lead in any number of directions; nonetheless, considering how much of Western cultural values are derived from Christianity, and religion in general, collapse in religious devotion forces the average Westerner to think deeply about where they should go next to draw their collective values, if not from religion or the Church.
Nonetheless, Murray does go on to say (paraphrasing a quote from the philosopher Allan Bloom): “If you’re not gonna have the Bible, you would need to have a book of equivalent seriousness to base it all on. And I always thought this as a very important challenge, because there are books that people might put forward and try to base it on, but they are never of equivalent seriousness. And it’s quite hard to think of a book of equivalent seriousness as the Bible.”
Other commentators have said similar things. The YouTuber Black Pigeon Speaks published a video in late 2016 in which he said that religion “produced the modern world around us. It fosters charity, community, education, collectivism, and, most importantly, family. … Where is the logic behind alienating, demonizing, and ultimately removing an essential moral and social foundation (that humans in one way or another embraced since prehistory) from Western society?”
Even some people on the far-right – who many even right-wing culture warriors prefer to disown or pretend do not exist – have come to similar conclusions. In 2017, Graeme Wood wrote a profile of the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer for The Atlantic. The article began with some background on his personal relationship with Spencer. Wood and Spencer had attended the same high school, but what small amount of contact they had fizzled out after graduation. About ten years later, they crossed paths again at a Christmas party hosted by Reason magazine. At the party, Christopher Hitchens delivered a speech in which he, like usual, was highly critical of organized religion. Over the course of their discussion, Spencer critiqued Hitchens’s view. Wood summarized Spencer’s view in the following manner:
Was Hitchens’s critique of Christianity, he said, not as wan and naive as Christianity itself? Christianity had bound together the civilizations of Europe, and now Hitchens wanted to replace it with—well, what exactly? American neoliberal internationalism? Why should anyone care if Christianity was irrational and illiberal, when rationality and liberalism had never been its purpose? Hitchens had missed the point.
Again, similar opinions are repeated by diverse and sometimes unrelated commentators. And I’m in no way trying to connect Murray, Black Pigeon Speaks, or Spencer, either with one another or with other thinkers of a similar persuasion. But, note something interesting. In the paragraph immediately after the one quoted above, Wood writes, “Spencer wasn’t exactly defending Christianity; he said that he, like Hitchens, was an atheist.” Douglas Murray, too, is an atheist, and Black Pigeon Speaks identified himself as an agnostic theist. Why would people who don’t believe in God, or at least organized religion, and who readily admit, as Spencer does, that religion is irrational, or, as Black Pigeon Speaks does, that science invalidates certain claims of Scripture, have a strong interest in defending religion?
The answer quickly becomes evident. Wood writes that Spencer “longed for something as robust and binding as Christianity had once been in the West.” Murray said that while he is willing to admit that it “matters a huge amount” whether or not Christianity is true, he also stated that another important question is whether, in his words, “it is possible to keep what you need without holding on to the idea of it being true.” In his video, Black Pigeon Speaks shows a video of a family taking a hike in the woods, which he shows while saying, “THIS is what you are fighting when you fight Christianity, and this is what Christians are defending.” Religion is seen primarily as a mechanism of social cohesion. Fearing the effects of the decline in religious devotion is not a fear of people abandoning the truth, but rather is a fear of the practical effects of getting rid of something that, for so long, was the source of cultural and ideological unity within society.
Not that one should disregard this as a valid concern. Spirituality is not limited merely to the realm of mystical experiences, but has concrete effects on how we live our life, if only for the reason that our values determine our behavior and decisions. But it is important to recognize that, from the perspective of religious people, the culture war is not just a division between the more traditional and more progressive proponents of society, but that there is a similar ideological battle raging even within the barracks of the more conservative or traditional elements of the culture war. Insofar as religion is a part of the tapestry of values and practices that define “tradition”, this leads to a question on the role of religion. But these in-house debates among the more conservative or traditional culture warriors touches not only on the role of religion in society, but also its nature. Is religion an institution wherein it is possible to separate its values – even when interpreted in the broadest, vaguest, most secularized sense – from its larger metaphysical, metaethical, and spiritual context? Should we do that?
There is thus an entire segment of the right end of the ideological spectrum that can be called “post-Christian evangelists”: those who see the truth of Christianity as secondary to its social utility. Such individuals are, in some sense, the children of modernity (or even post-modernity) just as much as their leftist counterparts: they have internalized the spirit of the age, at least intellectually, and therefore cannot believe. They cannot see, or are not convinced of, any intellectually solid reason to believe. Yet, they are, like everyone else, swayed by concepts such as the common good, social cohesion, and ethics. The main thing that separates one like Murray or Spencer from their liberal or progressive counterparts – though this is not insignificant – is their understanding of these concepts. Their understanding of these concepts may be influenced by the Christian tradition, it may even require some grand narrative rooted in the concept of the Divine or the transcendent to intellectually justify itself, but it is not a worldview that ultimately requires belief in Christianity. It is a worldview that requires one to defend, or at least tolerate, Christianity insofar as the alternative, in their view, is what you see in SJW cringe videos on the internet. But it is also a worldview that will reject Christianity the minute one can intellectually justify traditional values without the metaphysics or grand narratives proposed by the Bible.
Conservatives in general, and Christians in specific, see themselves as quickly losing ground in the culture wars. Many are thus glad to get what they can in terms of allies, believing that an enemy of an enemy is a friend. Yet, religious people, if they take their religion seriously, need to think deeply not only about the role of religion in a broad social sense, but also its nature and ultimate purpose. Is religion simply about teaching a moral lesson? Or, is the larger spiritual and metaphysical worldview within which your ethics is couched something to take seriously, something that touches on fundamental elements of the way reality is? Many have argued that a decline in religious devotion leads to a decrease in social cohesion because we have failed to find something with the same moral, psychological and sociological force as religion. Is this something born out of the force of habit – we Westerners are so acclimated to thinking in Christian terms that it is going to take some time to find different ways of justifying our traditional beliefs – or is it because nothing else, by definition, can do what traditional religion, or Christianity in specific, can do? I would thus suggest, to my religious confreres, that they begin to take their faith seriously; that they recognize that Christianity is either true or false, and that if it is true, then it is something that requires the full ascent of our mind and a change in how we live our life, as it makes certain claims on the basic nature of our existence. Ultimately, wherever one is on their spiritual journey, whatever one thinks of the truth or falsity of Christianity, it seems that it should be clear that social utility should not be placed above the pursuit of truth; that the usefulness of an ideology should not be separated from its truthfulness. That makes us no better than Richard Spencer.
Cole DeSantis is a recent graduate of the Master’s Program in theology at Providence College, a Catholic college run by priests of the Dominican Order. He is an aspiring writer and teacher. His academic interests span metaphysics, religious epistemology, metaethics, and the relationship between religion and culture.