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Culture War Roundup for the week of July 10, 2023

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Is it possible to be genuinely religious in the modern secular west?

My dad, as far as I know, was a lifelong atheist. But my mother’s family was pretty religious. Typical American, nondenominational but pretty hardcore Protestantism. My dad worked a lot when I was small and I didn’t see him too much so I was mostly raised by my mother and her side of the family.

We believed Jesus died and rose for you (you, reading this, specifically), Catholics are idolaters who need the gospel, Harry Potter is shady at best, every time someone sneezes in Israel the End gets one day closer, and Daniel’s fourth beast is checks notes the European Union.

Growing up, all this felt very very real. God felt like someone standing right next to me - even if you can’t see him, it would be ridiculous to think he wasn’t there. When I sinned it felt like God’s eyes were burning a hole in the back of my head. Once when I was about four, there was a car wreck outside my house and I rushed to the window to see if the Tribulation had kicked off. Whether I would ever grow up was a doubtful proposition because Jesus was coming back very, very soon to judge the world.

I stopped believing in middle school, partly because my dad was around more and he made no effort to hide his contempt for all this stuff, partly because I started going online and got drafted into the Internet Religion Wars of the 2000s. Long story short, after years of online arguments and reading I’m pretty well satisfied intellectually that Christianity is false (I’m less sure about theism in general), but I still feel it deep down.

I have an instinctive reverence for Christian symbology. I get uncomfortable when I hear jokes about God and Jesus, at least the more blasphemous ones. Sometimes I still feel that presence standing next to me, and it doesn’t seem completely out of the realm of possibility that one day I will find myself the unwilling star of my very own Chick tract.

But the vast majority of my acquaintances these days are secular liberals who were raised secular liberals. Some are nominally Jewish or Catholic but as kids they maybe went to religious services once or twice a year. God was a vague idea at most, they never prayed, whatever morals and beliefs their parents raised them with were totally irreligious ones.

When I tell them yes, I have family members who really believe God literally created all life forms as they are now by speaking them into existence, literal demons rejoice when you sin, and Jesus is literally going to come back on a white horse to destroy the wicked it sounds totally insane to them. It’s like talking about Star Wars. Just totally outside their conception of reality. And sometimes I wonder, if they were somehow began, as some do, to intellectually entertain the possibility that Christianity is true, even then would they feel it? If I read some really good apologetics for Islam (maybe they exist, I’ve never really looked) and started to think, “hey, this could be true” I'm not sure I would viscerally fear the wrath of Allah.

America becomes more and more secular every year, and more and more kids grow up like my friends did, and less and less like me. And yet there seems to be a sort of religious revival going on. It’s not really large-scale, at least not yet. But it’s real. On the left-liberal side of the spectrum, this mostly takes the form of ‘alternative’ spiritualities, astrology, energies, and witchcraft. I feel like everybody my age or younger knows at least one person who calls themselves a witch or a satanist or something. There are huge subreddits and other online communities dedicated to this stuff.

But I don’t think it’s real. I know “you don’t really believe what you say you believe” is one of the most infuriating things to hear, but in some cases I think it’s true. Sorry, not only do I not believe you can cast spells or commune with the great goddess, I don’t believe you believe you can cast spells and commune with the great goddess. Maybe you’re not consciously lying, but deep down I think you know you don’t actually have any magic powers. If you did, I think you would behave differently.

The right-wing equivalent to this is the surge, at least online, of young RW (mostly men) converting to various forms of conservative Christianity, whether it be traditional Catholicism or Orthodoxy or Reformed Protestantism or whatever. And I see it as almost perfectly equivalent to the “witchy art student” case. Sorry, twenty-five-year old guy raised by lapsed Episcopalians in New York who calls himself a “Catholic monarchist” on twitter but is totally considering Orthodoxy after reading Fr. Seraphim Rose, and will be considering sedevacantism by next week, I don’t care how many epic deus vult memes you post, I don’t think you really feel it in your bones that one day you’re going to stand before the creator of the universe and be judged.

In both cases I make allowances for exceptions. Some people, I’m sure, really do believe they have some kind of occult power. Some people, I’m sure, despite totally irreligious upbringings, really do have a Road to Damascus moment and come to deeply believe in Jesus Christ.

But for the majority of people, I think this sort of thing is a fashion statement more than anything. And that makes conversion–whether it’s to Christianity, Islam, or occultism–in the modern west different from revivals of previous eras.

Someone who responded to Jonathan Edwards in the 18th century or Billy Sunday in the early twentieth might not have been a very good Christian, but they were still raised in a Christian society where the existence and power of God were taken for granted. So when they heard a guy shouting, “therefore, repent!” it felt like a real threat. They didn’t have to completely rebuild their worldviews from the ground-up, they just had to be reminded, “oh, that’s right! God is real and he does want me to behave!”

Even if you decided to be a satanist a hundred years ago, you were raised believing that Satan was a real, terrifying being with very real power, so you would be making a serious commitment to serve a mighty god, even if you were choosing the other side. Nowadays someone who calls themselves a satanist probably doesn’t even believe Satan is real, and if they do their point of reference is maybe a TV show or a comic book.

In short, I think to really believe in gods and the supernatural, you have to be raised believing in gods and the supernatural, or at least raised in a culture that takes gods and the supernatural seriously. Even, say, someone who converted to Christianity in the 1st century is in a better position than a modern westerner. He already believed the world was in the hands of the gods, which were real beings of power, and had believed this since he was born. He just had to be told, “hey, this new god, he’s even stronger than Zeus or Ba’al!”

For better or worse, has succeeded in obliterating that fundamental sense that I think people have had for most of history that, “the gods are real, and they’re watching.” I find that pretty fascinating.

I think a good exploration of this topic is John Michael Greer's series of posts on the "disenchantment of the world." While I have always found his religious sensibilities (the guy is an honest-to-god(s) Archdruid after all) a bit peculiar and had the same suspicions you might about the sincerity of his beliefs, I can't deny that he is about as good a translator as you could wish for of many concepts that we rationalist and rationalist-adjacent moderns have lost touch with.

This is a great read. I think this is exactly what I'm getting at. A lot of people have responded and said that most people were not religious fanatics, even in the most religious of times, which is true, but not really my point. My point is more that while most people may not have been zealots, most people did have a worldview in which zealotry made sense.