Describing modern America, David Brooks writes:
‘We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed. Millions of kids live in stressed and fluid living arrangements. Many communities have suffered a loss of social capital. Many young people grow up in a sexual and social environment rendered barbaric because there are no common norms. Many adults hunger for meaning and goodness, but lack a spiritual vocabulary to think things through.’1
Is this accurate? Perhaps, but what interests me is that this condition isn’t a result of nihilism but Pluralism. The problem today isn’t that people have stopped believing in truth, goodness, and beauty, but rather that there are now countless ways to believe in truth, goodness, and beauty (sources of stable meaning, community, culture, and identity). When I say that “religion has declined,” what has declined isn’t so much the presence of belief(s) as it is the absoluteness of belief: there is more possibility than ever before of what could be “the absolute truth,” hence rendering all “absolute claims” less authoritative and certain. As A.J. Conyers argued in The Long Truce, this has resulted from the (perhaps intentional) roll of the State to reduce the authority of communities, religions, and ethnicities in order to unify them (as we will discuss in more detail later), but this also results from the nature of Pluralism itself. Did Pluralism give rise to the Modern State or vice-versa? Did Capitalism give rise to both? Hard to say — for me, these kinds of questions are matters of “high order complexity” (as discussed in “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose) — beyond knowability.
In my view, religion has socially declined more so by inflation than abandonment. Yes, nihilism is on the rise, but not nearly as rapidly as is belief ever-multiplying. The Secular Age by Charles Taylor is imperative for understanding our present condition, and in it, Taylor makes the strong argument that our age is one of increasing belief(s) rather than increasing unbelief. For Taylor, there has been a “Nova Effect,” an ‘explosion of ethical, religious and atheistic options which took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.’2 Taylor suggests:
‘[I]n the face of the opposition between orthodoxy and unbelief many were cross-pressured, looking for a third way. This dynamic produced a kind of nova as more and more different “third ways” [were] generated and proliferate in a chain reaction. In particular, as the eighteenth century proceeded, many began to feel a deep malaise at the disenchanted world of Deism, seeking to break out of their buffered identities. However, many also felt that they simply could not return to religion and so began to search for different ways to compensate for the feeling of lost transcendence.’3
Taylor argues that since Descartes, the individual has become increasingly “individual” versus “communal;” Descartes is a marker for Modernity. It was thanks to Descartes that people began thinking of themselves as “disembodied,” and Taylor goes on to argue:
‘Where before man was unable to imagine himself outside of a particular social context, now for the first time the stance of detachment made this possible. Disembedded, society fragmented from a unified whole into a collection of buffered individuals. Indeed, society itself now became defined in terms of transactions and exchanges between individuals promoting a new worldview of the economy.’4
With individualization thanks to the Enlightenment and Reformation, there are now more modes of belief than ever: the skepticism and enlightenment that were supposed to free individuals from belief helped multiply beliefs. But they didn’t completely fail in making religion decline, for in contributing to the multiplication of belief, in my view, they also inflated belief. This applies not just in regard to religious belief, but belief in social movements, in the family, in gender, in sexuality, in social programs, and so on. Belief today has lost its sense of absolutism and hence authority. Is this bad? Not necessarily, for though this makes it more difficult to create communities in which people feel like they “belong,” this might also make “the banality of evil” less likely, but we will discuss that later.
‘What is different [today], Taylor argues, is that now, for the first time, the social, political and ecclesiastical structures that people rely on [have] to be [mobilized] into existence; they cannot simply be assumed.’5, 6 Nothing is given; everything must be earned; no belief is fenced off as unquestionable (though that’s not to say we don’t smuggle in unquestioned premises and assumptions when focus is elsewhere — we must function, after all). Philosophically speaking, this is arguably advantageous: people should be critical of what they believe and not just blindly accept it. There’s truth to this, but it’s also true that no one can avoid assuming absolutely nothing. Those who don’t believe in God don’t know God Doesn’t Exist but rather feel they have reason to think God Doesn’t; those who believe in free will don’t know determinism is false, but rather have reason to believe in freedom; and so on. At some point, we must make a jump from reason to a position, even though we often can never know for sure that our position is true (though confidence is possible, certainty is rarely justified). In an age where “nothing is given,” whatever position we land on is a position that we will find ourselves never entirely satisfied with (existentially): we will be ever-anxious, especially in light of “the other.” We will ever-question that which we ultimately must assume or abandon, but even if we abandon it, we still have to “leap” and accept something else that must ultimately be “assumed.” Where everything must be questioned, nothing is ever settled, and this can be hard to live with while trying to scrape out a living for you and your family. It’s unsettling, and I’m afraid it primes people to be against “the other” who makes them reflect on themselves and existentially suffer. Considering this, I’m not sure if our age of hallowing-out community is one free of the possibility of “the banality of evil,” but that must be addressed later.
Whatever we ultimately assume, it will entail “exclusive truth claims” that necessarily put us in opposition with those who have leapt onto other assumptions. As Timothy Keller argues, all truth claims are exclusive: if I claim all truth claims are equally valid, I exclude those who believe Islam is more true than Christianity; if I claim that Christ Saves everyone, I exclude those who believe that only the Elect are Saved; if I claim “the Truth” is something all religions and philosophies know in part, I exclude those who say “the Truth” is known through only Krishna. We all must ultimately assume that which excludes (though that’s not to say some exclusions can’t feel more justified and existentially acceptable than others); we must choose a view of “the Truth” that necessarily implies that the ways others live are “incorrect.” And this will necessarily impact the nature of our communities, our daily lives, and so on. Considering this, our age of every-multiplying beliefs is an age of ever-multiplying “exclusive truth claims,” which means we are perhaps just as prone as any other age for social conflict, disagreement, and worse. If anything is saving us, it’s perhaps the very inflation of these beliefs: the “hold” they have on their adherents may be so diminished that we have nothing to fear. Then again, this might be the source of our trouble.
Whatever exclusive “Truth” we decide to assume, in our age of inflated beliefs, it will probably not feel “robust” enough, precisely because of the ever-multiplication of beliefs and “the other” of who forces us to reflect on our (perhaps not absolute) beliefs. In Pluralism, the absoluteness of our beliefs can feel increasingly weak, which amongst what Taylor calls “cross-pressures,” can lead to existential anxiety, unhappiness, and social tensions that could erupt into violence.7 They can feel less definite to us, less valuable, and this will weaken the value of the communities that have formulated around these beliefs. Communities can lose their authority, and like their underlying truth claims, become and uncomfortably feel “fragile.”
1Allusion to “The Next Culture War” by David Brooks, June 30, 2015:
2Allusion to “A Secular Age”, as can be found here:
3Allusion to “A Secular Age”, as can be found here:
4Allusion to “A Secular Age”, as can be found here:
5Allusion to “A Secular Age”, as can be found here:
6This means that average moderns have to “work” to live in the world they want to live in; it’s no longer just “there.” This could contribute to resentment and ‘populist’-esq reactions.
7Intensifying social tensions and making communities more difficult to establish, and in line with “The True Isn’t the Rational” by O.G. Rose, there has been a radical multiplication of “being trues” thanks to Pluralism, to the point that we can’t even “reason together,” and where there is a lack of common rationality, community will provide difficult to establish. People who can’t agree on what constitutes rationality, morality, and the like are those who will struggle to “belong together,” being one another’s source of existential anxiety and “cross pressuring” (to allude to Taylor).
7.1Where people feel issues are constantly “thrown” at them (to allude to Heidegger) — issues of sexuality, gender, race, occupation, etc. — especially issues they don’t understand, people will feel existential anxiety. Where this occurs alongside a “legitimation crisis” — a lack of confidence in authority, institutions, etc. — people will lack vital means for escaping their existential anxiety, especially if they lack philosophical training. This will likely lead people to “just wanting it all to stop,” which is what authoritarianism seems able to accomplish.