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The fall and rise of American religion
The one social trend that dominates the 21st century
It’s often the case that whenever something new and interesting appears on the horizon, excitable prophets will step forward to tell us how it’s going to transform our world; then the thing doesn’t transform our world, everyone laughs at the failed clairvoyants, goes back to their lives and fails to notice as they turn out right, just later than expected. It happened with air travel, with soaring and wild predictions about how it would change the world, which just happened to be a bit premature. It also happened with the internet to some extent.
Perhaps the same is true of the decline of religion, or at least Christianity in the West, predicted from the 18th century and with great confidence in the late 19th and 20th. As it turned out, Christianity outlived Bolshevism and the various other political religions that hoped to bury it, so you would be foolish to bet against the Church just yet.
But maybe the prophets of secularisation were not wrong, only premature — for the most important social trend of the 21st century so far has been the rapid decline of Christianity in the United States. Perhaps no event in the world has had such a great impact on our lives in the West; not the growth of China, the demographic explosion in Africa, nor the conflict in the Middle East; not even economic turmoil or disease.
For the first time in history, a recent Gallup poll found, church membership among Americans has dropped to below 50%, and that up to a third describe themselves as having no religion. This is a drastic change from the start of the century when the country was seen as being resistant or even impervious to the secularisation which had spread across Europe. And it is having dramatic effects everywhere. The convulsions spreading across the West, convulsions which for reasons of language Britain is extremely susceptible to, are related to the sharp decline in American religion.
This is part of the wider cultural revolution ongoing since the 1960s and which is comparable to the Reformation or the Christianisation of Rome. Religious observance across the West has been in decline since that culture war began, but the tipping of the United States, by far the largest and most influential of western nations, acts like the melting of an iceberg, with colossal consequences for culture and politics outside of the immediate area. It is even relevant to the crisis facing the British Conservative government, and a party which came into existence in order to represent a Church and a belief system which it can no longer defend against the torrent of ideas coming across the ocean.
This huge change in religious belief and attendance has gone in tandem with a number of social trends, most of them negative: there has been a sharp rise in extreme loneliness, with huge numbers of young men now saying they have no friends; among teenage girls in particular there are rising levels of anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders, not to mention gender dysphoria. Fertility has declined to European levels. People are unhappier. Perhaps most disturbingly, drug overdoses and suicides have risen so sharply that the United States has become only the second industrialised country not at war to see life expectancy start to drop; the first, in the late 1960s, was the Soviet Union. All of these things, a vast amount of social science literature shows, are influenced by religious belief and observance.
What drugs are for the American poor, an addictive distraction from anxiety, so politics is for its university educated; and as religion affiliation faded in the first decade of the 21st century, so another form of collective belief and identity has filled the hole.
Smartphones came onto the market in 2007, the year of the financial crisis and the great recession which, in some countries, has seen wages stagnate. Then in 2012 something began to change, with increasing rapidity. That year — and to think we laughed at the Mayans and their prophecy — is seen as the start of the ‘Great Awokening’, the name for the radicalisation of upper-middle-class American opinion on race and gender.
The name was a play on the Great Awakening, reflecting the quasi-religious nature of the movement; indeed the nebulous term ‘woke’, coming from ‘awake to social justice’, echoed the idea of seeing the light. From 2012 onwards, use of highly-moralised words and phrases like racism, homophobia and white supremacy started to rapidly rise as a smartphone-addicted generation sought a new absolute morality, accelerated by media coverage of black men dying at the hands of the police — even though the news-consuming smartphone junkies developed a wildly distorted idea of the facts.
The change in tone since then has been remarkable. Comparing a New York Times or Guardian article from before 2012 to one today is like comparing Old and Middle English. I recently stumbled upon a piece from 2012, from a serious historian, arguing in that great British liberal paper against comparisons between Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Such an independent thought would be, well, unthinkable today.
This radicalisation of opinion among the university educated would culminate in the dystopian year of 2020. Following the anxiety, boredom and isolation of lockdown, the great yearning for racial justice exploded in June. I don’t know how much you remember — I’ve blotted out a lot of that month from my mind — but my main memory was of police officers in London kneeling before BLM protesters, some of whom were carrying those ‘don’t shoot’ signs, in a country where the police aren’t even armed.
There were people who had spent weeks enclosed alone, washing their shopping and avoiding their parents, who suddenly wanted to join a crowd of tens of thousands of people, because a man had been killed 5,000 miles away in a vastly different country over which we have no influence, and of which most people have a shallow understanding. (As it turned out, outdoor crowds were safe, but almost nobody knew this.)
That man, in some ways, has in death come to have more influence on Britain in the 2020s than anyone still alive. What my children are taught at school has been changed by George Floyd, as has the institutional structure of much of British civil society. That’s absurd, you think, some criminal killed by the authorities in a distant land having this huge impact on our lives? Would never happen.
The Great Awokening has numerous causes, including material factors. Globalisation, especially the trade pact with China, played a big part in pushing the American ruling class to the Left, and its working class to the Right, because people are following their economic interests.
But the radicalisation was also, in my view, intimately linked to the sharp decline in religion, and its replacement by something else. Surveys show that 30% of liberal Americans find a great deal of ‘meaning’ in politics, compared to just 9% of conservatives. When people lose their religion, then politics becomes their religion.
The Floyd protests inspired a proliferation of essays about the religious nature of this new movement (some by me). That progressivism is a new religion may be a cliché, indeed the idea that modern politics is religion-replacement is ancient, but only because it is obviously true. The summer of 2020, with its often-hysterical scenes of foot-washing, brought that religious nature to light.
The most obvious comparisons at the time were with the Flagellants, the medieval religious mania which caused large crowds to beat themselves in public, hoping to save mankind. The movement arose in 12th century Italy but became most popular after the Black Death, with the Germans taking the concept to extremes (as they have a habit of doing with Italian ideas). The crowds, triggered by the tensions and fears of the plague, inevitably descended into violence against the authorities and against Jews, resented for their wealth and hated for their different beliefs.
But sometimes the language of modern redemption was overt and obvious (even if theologically dubious). At one point Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, even thanked George Floyd ‘for sacrificing your life for justice … Because of you and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.’
The writer Peter Juul has identified three religious strands to the awokening. Most important is anti-racism, with whiteness and white supremacy ‘as the mystical and all-pervasive source of evil in the world’. Juul writes how ‘the concept of “white privilege” stands in for the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, complete with ritual confessions of sin that can never fully absolve a person of their fallen state’. White supremacy is a form of evil that explains all sorts of injustice, however logically implausible.
Then there is climate apocalypticism, which has more straightforward biblical undertones. I’m concerned about climate change — I’m fairly pessimistic about most things — but I agree that there is an obvious apocalyptic element to the movement, which is not backed up by the (admittedly worrying) scientific models.
Finally, there is gender identity, whereby someone’s ‘soul’ might be separate from their body. This last belief is the most recent of the strands, and in some ways the most extreme. It also feels the most obviously religious; the endless wrangling debates about whether someone has a female or male essence is perhaps the most theological our politics has got in years.
That this is proclaimed by people who otherwise declare that we ‘trust the science’, including members of the scientific establishment, makes it doubly strange (of course, what many people say about this is issue in public varies with what they say in private). But then, I suppose, it is only strange if you don’t appreciate that politics and religion are inherently linked.
Much of this soul-searching has become bleakly absurd, with progressive politicians and commentators tying themselves in knots trying to justify placing a literal rapist in a woman’s prison. But one of the characteristics of the new believers is the complete imperviousness to any sense of absurdity. We’ve come to think that mocking irony can bring down the power of the gods, but this happens only once society’s leaders have stopped believing in them; instead the power of taboos has only grown as faith has receded. (As an example, the complete absence of discussing crime statistics over the issue of police fatalities.)
Around 15 years ago, when I first started writing about politics and culture, a large section of progressive thinking was engaged in mocking the supernatural, part of a conflict referred to as ‘the new atheism wars’. I couldn’t fault the activists following their beliefs, nor was I ever convinced that atheism is ‘just another religion’; what I only found tiresome was how old and uninteresting all the jokes and talking points were, the same talking points that had been made in the 18th century and with more wit. But worse was the naivety that eradicating the last elements of Christianity from British life — motivated, I suspected, by an unspoken fear of Islam — would make society more rational or happy. It was obviously going to have the opposite effect.
There was a small conservative minority within the New Atheism movement, but the bulk of it evolved into what was called ‘Atheism+’ and then more broadly the social justice movement. The people campaigning against religion took to protesting against racism, discrimination, homophobia and other sins.
Today some of the same people who thought their take on the absurdity of transubstantiation was edgy and transgressive now insist that a man can become a woman, even without surgery; not only that, but social and even legal pressure should be exerted on those who deny their belief. They proclaim this without any sense of irony or self-awareness, but how can irony defeat such force of belief?
Belief is buttressed by taboo, and the collective understanding that people who transgress certain boundaries are to be punished; it is also often protected by an outer ring of legal enforcement. England’s blasphemy laws were abolished in 2008, still close to the peak of the New Atheist movement and just a year after the publication of Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great. Yet the last Englishmen sent to prison for mocking Jesus Christ had served his sentence almost a century previously; in contrast anyone in the 2020s thinking of poking fun at George Floyd’s sacred identity ought to think twice.
Schools in London now have two holy months, Black Heritage Month in October — my daughters are both taught only black history for that period — and Pride in June. Even notionally Christian schools are decked out with the various and confusing array of flags for this celebration of personal liberation; children are encouraged to attend Pride parades, a modern-day Corpus Christi but with fewer clothes, and sponsored by all the major corporations.
Wokeness is confusing and contradictory because it is both an offshoot (and heresy) of Christianity and its anthesis. Modern progressivism, like Christianity in the fourth century, has also gained momentum by winning over urban dwellers, the educated, the young, and women in particular.
Because it emerged from the United States, and in particular colleges founded by Congregationalists and Presbyterians, it’s also easy to see its Calvinist echoes: the idea of the saved and damned is clear in attitudes to race. That is why today’s political zealots are often compared to Puritans — yet that does a grave disservice to 17th century Protestant independents, who were typically very functional, successful and well-balanced people. They helped create the most powerful and successful country in history, after all.
Today political liberalism and radicalism correlates with higher levels of neurosis, anxiety and mental illness. With the best will in the world, the overtly woke are generally not the sort of people who are going to found a global superpower.
Other differences are obvious; if you have ever had the misfortune to read White Fragility, you will notice that, while there are echoes of original sin, there is really nothing you can do to save your soul, and clear yourself of your white privilege. There is no hope. Similarly, the discourse on social media: while it often has the sanctimony and moral purity associated with religious zealots, it is also notably free of forgiveness; people may submit, recant their bad opinions in the hope that the mob might disperse, but that is another thing altogether.
Christianity also produced great art and inspired incredible personal sacrifice. It is a religion aimed at suppressing the ego and narcissism of the people at the top of society, while today’s politics inflames it. And, as many have pointed out, Christianity also triumphed by winning the battle of the cradle, while progressivism is today associated with very low fertility — eventually it will run out of other people’s children to convert.
Rather than being an established religion, this post-Christian progressivism is far more like a millennial cult, the kind that arises during periods of great stress. In that way it most resembles the various wacky movements that emerged in 19th century Russia among the newly-educated middle class, young men and women who had experienced a decline in respect for the established religion, an expansion in education not matched by career prospects, and bitter generational conflict with elders, not to mention unbearable pressure caused by rising rents. One such group, with the confidence of historical inevitability on their side and convinced that heaven on earth could be achieved, would emerge triumphant when everything fell apart. And, as we all know, that ended well.
This is based on a speech I gave in Oxford earlier this week. Sort of.