Editors' Note: This week, a guest First Draft from our friend Murtaza Hussain, a journalist at The Intercept. If you enjoy this post, consider supporting our work.
Over the past decade, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the inner lives of Americans. They have begun to collectively turn away from traditional religion and embrace new ways of giving life meaning. A recent study in Foreign Affairs underscores the incredible scale and speed of this change. “From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little,” the authors noted. “Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.”
The impact of rapid technological change, social fluidity, and the collapse of decrepit institutions have all played their role in dissolving this once-sturdy pillar of American life. In a historical blink of an eye, the United States has gone from being one of the world’s more religious countries to one of the least religious for which data is available.
Some will naturally welcome this change, while others won’t. But there is no denying its basic importance. Such a transformation is unlikely to pass without some kind of turmoil, no less than the transition from pagan Europe to Christianity did two millennia ago. The slow-rolling death of religion in American life begs the question, then, what type of new world will emerge from the wreckage of the old?
In the best case, a people fully uprooted from religion could devote their energies “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world,” as Robert F. Kennedy once said (citing Aeschylus), rather than placing their hopes on a world to come. This has certainly been the hope of many noble atheists in the past. But there is a darker possibility as well. Shedding our old beliefs and developing new ones, we might end up reviving in new guises the worst aspects of the old religions, including moral censoriousness, judgmentalism, heresy-hunting, and the persecution of those who think differently. Frighteningly enough, these base sentiments would also be unchecked by any countervailing religious imperatives towards mercy or the recognition of human frailty.
These are questions we should consider sooner than later. Because while people have rapidly stopped believing in organized religion, they have certainly not stopped believing. As old ways of belief pass away, loosely-knit mass movements have already begun developing their own texts, rituals, mysteries, martyrs, and moral hierarchies. The pandemic has given these changes a massive push forward. Like plagues throughout history COVID-19 has triggered an outpouring of public spiritual energy. In doing so it is also revealing how new systems of morality and belief are already beginning to fill the God-shaped hole that has emerged in America’s collective consciousness.
If you look closely, you can already glimpse what the future may look like. Just like the pagan pre-Christian West was characterized by a vast pantheon of beliefs, so seemingly will post-Christian America. People will continue channeling their energy into the forever war of partisan politics, identity-based movements of both the Left and Right, and even quasi-mystical beliefs like the QAnon conspiracy theory. These beliefs are not all morally equivalent, nor are they quite “religions.” But to the extent that they give people’s life purpose, moral structure, and spiritual sustenance, they are clearly parts of the emerging pantheon of American belief systems.
The protest movement triggered by the death of George Floyd is just one vivid example. The old Civil Rights movement was animated by a strong connection to Christian morality and ethics, to the point where its most famous leader was himself a Christian minister. But the contemporary movement against racism and other forms of injustice is conspicuously secular. Many protests have been characterized by proud antinomianism and the showcasing of new forms of eros and sexuality as a means of challenging the status quo. They have also been experienced as a vehicle for non-traditional spirituality by many young people. Older expressions of religion are not completely absent in public, to be sure. But compared with the past, their influence over events feels akin to the light of a dead star.
At this moment of unprecedented suffering in the United States, high-profile religious figures have meanwhile gone to impressive lengths to highlight their inability to provide moral guidance. It’s no wonder then that even among the diminishing numbers still connected to institutions like the Church, new beliefs are spreading that might be called high-tech heresies. Time-honored ways of making sense of the world and our place in it are perishing, as new ones emerge rapidly before our eyes.
People seldom abandon their old ways without good reason. But recognizing that there was never a Golden Age worthy of nostalgia is not the same as pointing out that not all new things are improvements. An America without its traditional religious moorings risks freeing people from old psychological shackles only to expose them to new ones. Instead of an easygoing world able to entertain a diverse array of human expression without stigma, we could just as easily create a new set of intractable conflicts and moral hierarchies.
This is a question that is particularly important to consider for movements of the Left, which have the overpowering momentum of youth behind them and are also at the avant-garde of shedding older beliefs and embracing robust new ones. In keeping with the zeitgeist of the moment many of these beliefs have centered around identity. This in itself is not bad. As a minority who has experienced a fair share of real racism in my life, it’s been genuinely heartwarming to see progressive movements take an overwhelming stand against such prejudice. I have no nostalgia for the cruel racial hierarchies of the American past and little patience for those who do.
At the same time, it’s important that powerful new structures of morality are regulated to acknowledge how prone to emotion and error all of us are, while always keeping the door clearly open to redemption for those who err. Failing that, the alternative isn’t exactly encouraging. Fired with zeal by new ideologies, we could end up on a path that leads to us shaming and damning one another as immoral heretics with the same intensity that inquisitorial religion once did. Even worse, since many emerging beliefs are based on evolving preferences rather than agreed upon first principles, we risk leaving people at the mercy of a disorienting permanent moral flux. Without solid guidance on how best to live and interact, we might simply start avoiding each other. Perhaps we’ve already begun to do that.
In that light, something like the ongoing debate about “cancel culture” can be viewed as a proxy for a more serious discussion of what acts and beliefs in a post-religious society justify inflicting the old punishment of social death. It’s a serious question.
In a recent essay on our ambiguous new moral landscape, the British professor and author Alec Ryrie wrote the following:
We know what evil is, but we’re not so sure what goodness is. We can agree what to demonstrate against, but not what to demonstrate for. We know what we hate, but not what we love. And it is no good to say that what we value is everyone’s right to choose their own values, not when at the same time we are trying to unite in condemning the values we have collectively decided are unacceptable. It is one of the reasons we have become so susceptible to purity spirals. We are free to explore our own values—that is, until we step over a shifting line, or it steps over us, and suddenly we are not.
If we are going to develop new moral codes for public life, as we seem to be doing in many spheres, we should do it with the self-conscious idea of improving on the mistakes of organized religion. Finding new ways to treat each other terribly, or to tar each other with the shame of sin while denying the prospect of redemption, hardly seems appealing. Above all we should avoid falling into the trap of denying mercy and understanding to others, even when they fall outside our evolving ideas of virtue.