Modern Spirituality Is a Consumer’s Choice Now

The decline of organized religion has privatized people’s search for meaning.

Hands cupped in prayer

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What is your relationship with organized religion? How has it affected your life, and has its impact changed over time? I’m eager to hear anything about the varieties of your religious experiences.

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Conversations of Note

A Secular Lament About the Decline of Organized Religion

Brink Lindsey has never subscribed to an organized religion, but he shares with their adherents a sense that the decline in their ranks has been bad for the United States. At The Permanent Problem, he cautions those who regard that decline as a turn toward a more rational world:

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.

The Danger of a Bipolarized World

After President Joe Biden visited Ukraine this week and reassured its leaders of America’s support, Noah Millman surveyed recent geopolitical developments in relation to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and more broadly. In Gideon’s Substack, Millman voices his fear of “unpredictable escalatory spirals” in a world where democracies are at odds with all major autocracies:

Iran has emerged as a major supplier of drones to Russia, which has not only significantly bolstered Russia’s war effort but no doubt enhanced the reputation of Iran’s own military capacity ... Now, in a much more significant development, China appears to be heading in the direction of supplying Russia with military assistance, including lethal assistance. China’s productive capacity is unparalleled; if China does indeed step up to make sure Russia never runs out of ammunition, it’s hard to see how Russia could outright lose a war of attrition with Ukraine. The burden would fall on Kyiv to change the dynamic on the battlefield, which is a much taller order than letting the Russian army destroy itself.

That’s not the most worrisome thing to me about this development, though. What worries me most, rather, is the degree to which it implies a firming up of the lines of alliance. The United States is already wielding Iranian military support for Russia as a justification for keeping nuclear negotiations with that country on ice, even as the country edges closer to the nuclear threshold. The prospect of some kind of military conflict with Israel has surely increased. Meanwhile, if China does wind up supplying Russia with weapons, it would be a remarkable development not so much because of what it would do to U.S.-China relations—those continue on their downward spiral, which is precisely what one would expect after the United States all but declared war on China’s semiconductor industry—but because of what it might do to Sino-European relations.

I can’t think of anything better-calibrated to help the United States win Europe to its side in its confrontation with China than direct Chinese assistance for Russia’s war in Ukraine. If that hasn’t been an important consideration for the Chinese, it’s an indication of just how far down the road to globally polarized conflict we may already have gone. I worry about that development for many reasons. For one thing, it means that any regional or local conflict could potentially be polarized … But my biggest concern is that a bipolar system is fundamentally unstable, prone to unpredictable escalatory spirals.

On Jimmy Carter

James Fallows, who worked for Carter, argues in The Atlantic that the former president’s defining feature was his consistency:

… old or young, powerful or diminished, Jimmy Carter has always been the same person. That is the message that comes through from Carter’s own prepresidential campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best?, and his many postpresidential books, of which the most charming and revealing is An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. It is a theme of Jonathan Alter’s insightful biography, His Very Best. It is what I learned in two and a half years of working directly with Carter as a speechwriter during the 1976 campaign and on the White House staff, and in my connections with the Carter diaspora since then.

Whatever his role, whatever the outside assessment of him, whether luck was running with him or against, Carter was the same. He was self-controlled and disciplined. He liked mordant, edgy humor. He was enormously intelligent—and aware of it—politically crafty, and deeply spiritual. And he was intelligent, crafty, and spiritual enough to recognize inevitable trade-offs between his ambitions and his ideals. People who knew him at one stage of his life would recognize him at another. Jimmy Carter didn’t change. Luck and circumstances did.

Roald Dahl’s Sensitivity Readers

Commenting on intrusive edits made to new editions of books by the beloved children’s author, Helen Lewis argues in The Atlantic that the urge to profit is an important driver of the controversy:

A more honest stance would be that it’s time to take Roald Dahl’s work, put it on a Viking longboat, and sail it flaming into the sunset. Plenty of people are writing new children’s books; whatever we lose by discarding Dahl can be gained elsewhere. A form of Darwinism is rampant in the literary canon. Most authors who were best sellers in their day are now forgotten. Who reads Samuel Richardson’s Pamela now, except first-year literature students? Where are the Netflix adaptations of Hannah More’s pious-conduct books or the gratuitously blood-soaked plays of John Webster? The three best-selling books of 1922—the year when Ulysses was published—were If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson, The Sheik by Edith M. Hull, and Gentle Julia by Booth Tarkington. Like most literature, those titles couldn’t escape the age in which they were written.

But Dahl staggers on, embarrassing the cultural gatekeepers by remaining popular despite being so thoroughly out of tune with the times. The work does so because of the dirty secret that children, and adults, like nastiness. They enjoy fat aunts and pranked teachers and the thrilling but illegal doping of pheasants. Today’s corporations want to have it all, though. They want the selling power of an author like Roald Dahl, shorn of the discomforting qualities that made him a best seller. They want things to be simple—a quality that we might call childlike, if Dahl hadn’t shown us that children can be so much more.

Provocation of the Week

Drawing on the free-speech rankings of colleges published by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, David Zweig writes:

The colleges with the most stifling atmospheres for speech also have the most aggressive Covid vaccine policies. The colleges that most welcome and protect a free exchange of ideas, in turn, have the least intrusive vaccine requirements.

Number 1 ranked Chicago has no vaccine mandate at all. The university merely “strongly recommends” Covid vaccination. Numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the list—Kansas State, Purdue, Mississippi State, and Oklahoma State—do not require any Covid vaccination either. They do each highly encourage vaccination, though.

At the bottom, Columbia not only requires the primary series for its students, but also requires the most recent bivalent booster. Ditto for second-to-last place Penn. For the many students who received an initial booster early on, this means a requirement of four doses. Rounding out the worst five colleges for free speech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgetown, and Skidmore also mandate all students be boosted. Though compared to Columbia and Penn they are relatively lax, only requiring “a booster,” meaning the third shot could have been from a long while ago, and not necessarily the bivalent.

… That there is an association between respect toward free speech and respect toward bodily autonomy—or a lack thereof for each—at academic institutions shouldn’t surprise anyone. Both reflect attitudes either in agreement with or against a libertarian ideal of individual freedom. But the degree of correlation is still disheartening.

There is no evidence that requiring boosters (or even the primary series) at many colleges made an iota of difference regarding the transmission of Covid on campus or, more importantly, the incidence of severe disease relative to colleges that simply encourage vaccination. (It is not a secret that the vaccines do not stop infection or transmission, a phenomenon that most people have experienced firsthand.) But the administrators at Columbia and the like, by being the most militant with their vaccine requirements, get to signal their progressive bona fides, which, it seems, is what their institutions care about most.

An authoritarian is (per academic literature in political psychology) a person who so values oneness and sameness that they would rather impose it coercively on others than tolerate diversity and difference. Once you grasp that, it’s no surprise that institutions and people who coerce in one domain tend to also do so in seemingly unrelated domains.

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That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.