Four different articles last month devoted a staggering number of syllables to decrying the effects of the slump in organized religious affiliation. My suspicion is that their authors get paid by the word. But what’s actually happening is simple and straightforward, a profound disappointment for those desperate to sound profound.
First we have Joel Kotkin and Alicia Kurimska at the Daily Beast arguing that “As the Old Faiths Collapse, the Greens, Social Justice Warriors, and Techno-Futurists Aim to Fill the Void.” The writers take a dim view of these alleged void-fillers. Social justice advocates, they claim, are guilty of the “intolerance and witch-hunting that so characterized medieval religion.” Environmentalists, they say, have “more in common with feudal clerics than they might suspect. Feudalism developed in an economic environment of extreme scarcity, something also embraced by greens. Rather than celebrate opportunity, the ‘green’ religion emphasizes the dangers of economic growth, a critical element in breaking down the old structures of feudalism.” They even “follow procedures common to the Inquisition, from taking dissenters to court to seeking to banish different ideas even by legal means.” Worst of all are the transhumanists, who want to create a heaven on earth for “a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans.” They accuse tech luminaries like Elon Musk, Ray Kurzweil, and Sergey Brin of being in on the plot.
In a similar vein, Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine characterizes “America’s New Religions” as boiling down to so-called illiberal politics:
We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
Sullivan even blames the decline of religion for the opioid crisis. “People who have lost religion and are coasting along on materialism find they have few interior resources to keep going when crisis hits,” he opines, so they busy themselves “extinguishing existential pain through ever-stronger painkillers.”
At the New York Times, Ross Douthat describes the decline of Christianity as simply “The Return of Paganism.” We’re now “a nation of heretics,” he says, who “cobble together pieces of the old orthodoxies, take out the inconvenient bits and pitch them to mass audiences that want part of the old-time religion but nothing too unsettling or challenging or ascetic.” That’s rather the opposite of the previously expressed view that the greens and social justice mavens are a little too darn ascetic, but why quibble over lack of consistency?
Last but not least, we’re told that religion is being replaced by: superheroes! They’re often self-sacrificing, just like Jesus. A Jesuit priest is studying the phenomenon carefully, he says, “because if we’re waiting for young people to come back to church, we could be waiting a very long time.”
All these analyses suffer from the same flaw: overcomplicating a simple phenomenon. That phenomenon is the information explosion, largely (though not entirely) driven by the internet. When I was growing up, there were three television networks, two major newspapers, and a handful of national news magazines. Their editorial policies differed only marginally, as each strove to capture the mainstream middle. Anyone who dared question religion, à la Madalyn Murray O’Hair, was spoken of in guarded tones, if at all.
Now there are literally thousands of information gushers, each screaming for our attention through an ever-expanding variety of media. The best ways to grab that monetizable attention are to differentiate and to outrage, and religion has become as fair game for attack as anything else. In response to such attacks, organized religion has started to crumble because its premises are flawed. It cannot stand the heat.
There is no basis to say that the demise of traditional religion has led to excesses from environmental and social justice activists, or even to Donald Trump. There were social causes before the decline of traditional religion—abolition, Henry George’s “Single Tax” scheme, Robert Owen’s communes, or, for something truly bizarre, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and prohibition—and there will be social causes whether or not traditional religion continues its downward trajectory. Those offbeat social movements of the past gathered steam when organized religion was in full swing, and they had just as many arguably religious overtones as today’s causes do. The fact that new emphases on the environment and the status of disadvantaged groups is occurring at the same time as religion is declining is a coincidence, nothing more.
The one recent piece that did make some sense, even if it was admittedly facetious, was Michael Jacobs’ essay asking, “Is the Internet God?” The obvious answer is no, because the internet doesn’t have a beard. But when the author found himself muttering “Thank God” one night after the internet provided him some timely directions he began to wonder. Jacobs argues that the internet is closer to the divine attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence than anything humanity has ever experienced, burning bush or otherwise. The information explosion it has fueled is almost certainly the prime factor in the demise of traditional religion, which is being replaced by the humanist value of people being empowered to think for themselves.