In some secular progressive circles, a certain myth persists. If you defeat the forces of traditional Christianity — you know, the rubes and fools who believe the Bible is the Word of God — then you’ll make way for a more enlightened, rational, and humane nation and world. In other words, the alternative to religion is reason, and reason is mankind’s great liberating force.
Although I’ve heard some variation on this argument countless times, as I grew older I noticed something odd. Many of the best-educated and least-religious people I knew weren’t all that reasonable. They held to downright irrational views about reality. I remember an elite-educated secular friend in Philadelphia who scoffed at my wife’s Christian faith; this friend was also convinced that her child had an “indigo aura” that imbued him with special gifts. I recall conversations with Harvard Law School classmates who laughed at the New Testament but thought reincarnation was “cool.” And how can I forget the strange sight of Harvard students walking in and out of the neighborhood witchcraft store?
Just today, I saw the news that much-beloved singer Lana Del Rey has admitted to asking her fans to join a “mass occult ritual against President Donald Trump.” Here’s Del Rey:
I’m in line with Yoko [Ono] and John [Lennon] and the belief that there’s a power to the vibration of a thought. Your thoughts are very powerful things and they become words, and words become actions, and actions lead to physical charges.
You believe the Bible? How stupid. Pass me the tadpoles. I need them for my potion.
Lest you think these are isolated and meaningless anecdotes, I’d urge you to read a fascinating article in this Sunday’s New York Times. It turns out that America’s less religious citizens are far more likely to believe in things such as ghosts and UFOs than people who attend church. The author, psychology professor Clay Routledge, locates this phenomenon in the quest for meaning:
An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.
Americans aren’t the only “first-worlders” who nurture their superstitions. Post-Christian Europeans have their own tendencies to believe in elves, trolls, and mental telepathy.
In other words, maybe God actually “set eternity in the human heart.” Maybe man’s search for meaning will continue no matter the popular attitudes for or against orthodox Christianity — even if it takes you straight into the arms of E.T.
Here’s the core problem. In the United States we’re replacing an organized, systematic theology with basically nothing. Sure, there’s the moralistic therapeutic deism of the modern “spiritual” American, but its “God wants me to be happy” ethos isn’t quite up to the challenge of dealing with real life. So, we search and search, and in the immortal worlds of the philosopher Aaron Tippin, we learn the hard way that “you gotta stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything” — and “anything” can include indigo auras or the “vibration of a thought.”
Ross Douthat has written powerfully about the political consequences of post-Christian conservatism. It turns out that when men and women shed their faith, they don’t necessarily get more liberal, but they do get more tribal and vicious. Many members of the alt-right, for example, famously shun Evangelical Christianity (calling its adherents “cuckstians”). Indeed, as we learn from the battle between social-justice warriors and their right-wing counterparts — the emerging class of godless, angry populists — when you remove from your moral code any obligation to love your enemies, politics hardly improves.
The damage extends far beyond politics, of course. If there’s one abiding consequence of the shallow theologies and simple superstitions of our time, it’s the inability to endure or make sense of adversity. It’s a phenomenon that fractures families, fosters a sense of rage and injustice, and ultimately results in millions of Americans treating problems of the soul with mountains of pharmaceuticals.
Human beings are hard-wired to search for meaning and purpose. As we conduct that search, will our nation and culture continue to value and respect the faith that grants hope of redemption, patience through present suffering, and a means to discern between good and evil? Or will it continue to shun the way, the truth, and the life in favor of a grab-bag of ghosts, UFOs, and wishful thoughts? The choice isn’t between reason and religion. It’s all too often between religion and superstition. Post-Christian America will be a less rational place.