A new awakening
Give me that old time civic religion
I grew up in the church. Ours was one of those families that was there most every time the doors were open. I sang in choir from when I was four until I left for college, did vacation bible school, mission trips, choir tours, all of it. It was a Southern Baptist Church, but of a genteel, suburban sort. The pastor played a lot of tennis, and church events had a way of ending early when there was ACC basketball on. There were many things I liked about church life: the music, for one, and the friends and mentors I found there. But after years and years of trying to make myself feel things I didn’t feel and believe that things had happened which had not happened I decided I’d had enough. After heading off to university I pretty quickly left church stuff behind.
My views then swung pretty hard the other way. I came to see religiosity as a mark of ignorance. I was repulsed by expressions of spirituality. Events contributed to this about-face. I was a young adult and a lefty in the early 2000s, when George W. Bush was the bible-banger in chief and there were warbloggers readying for the civilizational conflict between the judeo-christians and the islamofascists. I wanted nothing to do with all that. If we wanted to improve the world, we needed the application of science and reason, rational thought and empiricism. That was the way to make society better.
You get older, though, and you start to reflect on things and see them from new perspectives. I am no closer to believing that a dead dude got up and walked out of his tomb than I was twenty years ago. But I have revised some of my ideas about the role of religion in society. And so I’ve found it fascinating to see the spiritual context in which a number of writers have discussed what superficially seem like distinctly non-spiritual social developments. John McWhorter, for instance, has written that he sees in “wokeness” the hallmarks of a religion rather than a political or social-reform movement. Adrienne LaFrance recently wrote a thought-provoking essay on how QAnon, an amorphous and insidious conspiracy theory, has the makings of a new religion.
And then there was an intriguing passage just a few weeks ago, in a column by Ross Douthat, concerning one of the many running jokes that appear in the twitter feeds of the Very Online intelligentsia:
One of the tics of Twitter in this strange and deadly year is a tendency to anthropomorphize the year itself (“Oh, 2020, what else do you have in store for us?”) or to make jokes about the TV writer’s room that’s supposedly responsible for our series of unfortunate events.
Many of the people making those jokes don’t believe that history really has an Author. But I do. And the aspects of our circumstances that seem ridiculously scripted to the atheist are, for religious believers, a reason to meditate on what is being revealed, how we’re being tested and what lessons and examples we can draw from watching tragedies unfold.
Ross doesn’t quite do justice to the “writer’s room” joke motif, which is good fun. But the riff in the passage above comes quite close to getting at something I’ve been thinking about, albeit in a very different way from Ross.
Start with this: human existence, if you think about it, is just one big, repeated, interminable collective-action problem. We can do far more in collaboration with each other than we can as isolated individuals: build pyramids, decode the theories which govern the cosmos, produce necessities in such abundance that people have time to spend most of their day arguing on twitter, and so on. But it’s really hard to get people to engage in the right sort of collaboration! You have to get them to agree on what sorts of things ought to be done and how, and you have to find ways to ensure that people don’t renege on their social commitments. If everyone agrees to go out and work hard obtaining necessities which will then be shared across society, and if everyone sticks to the bargain, then life is good. But if people defect because they want to keep a little more for themselves or see no reason to exert themselves when others can find more than enough for everyone, well, things fall apart.
History, then, is a process of social evolution, in which humanity experiments with different ways of doing things and occasionally stumbles on a valuable social innovation which somehow does a better job facilitating collaboration than alternatives. And what’s crucial to these innovations is the extent to which they are able to persuade individuals to act in ways that contribute to a broader social good. You need guidelines, of a sort, which are meant to influence individuals’ behavior. And you need a broader social structure that confers legitimacy on those guidelines and encourages individuals to keep to them. The idea then, is that if a sufficient number of people follow those guidelines you arrive at a better social equilibrium.
Now we can put all of this into very boring and prosaic terms. Like: societies become richer when governments invest in public goods, but investment in public goods requires raising money through taxation. In a society with strong social norms against tax evasion, raising the necessary funds is fairly easy, everyone does what they’re supposed to do and you have a well-maintained mass-transit system or whatever. In the absence of those norms, or should those norms erode, then raising the money isn’t so easy and society gets crummy public goods or none at all.
But we can also recast this dynamic and tell a very different sort of story. The norm is just this information which lives in people’s heads. If you go looking for it out in the world, you won’t find it. It’s encoded in our brain goo in a form we cannot as of now decipher. The power of the norm, though, emerges when it is shared by a sufficient number of people. Then, something extraordinary happens. The norm becomes this greater, unseen force—this invisible influence living in the ether between us—guiding the actions of a society: shaping history. And the effect of it is something socially desirable, in at least some sense. Stability, perhaps. But maybe also prosperity. Or justice. So long as people are faithful, and walk in the path of that shared behavioral code, they are rewarded.
But if people begin to stray? If they no longer follow the code? Well, there are consequences. A certain coherence within society which has increased its capabilities begins to slip away. Bad things begin to happen. People may wonder whether they are being punished for their bad behavior, and in a way they are. That force in the ether which had favored them has now turned against them. But the Author of this retribution isn’t some independent intelligence. The Author is the product of our collective activity. That’s how we arrive at an enduring, confounding conception of god: wanton, occasionally just but too often cruel, something both personal but beyond our ken, familiar yet impenetrable. But it isn’t god. It’s us, bound to each other, pulling madly in different directions. We’re not at the mercy of god. We’re at the mercy of each other.
So, it is possible to see the narrative and the moral guidance provided by a religion as a way to try to get a society on the same page, working harmoniously. And because of the way these collective systems of belief work, we can see how the wrinkles of history lend themselves to interpretation through a framework of divine retribution or justice. But religion is by no means the only social innovation humanity has landed upon in its effort to direct the resources of its anarchic masses. Over the centuries, critical proportions of some societies developed a shared respect for certain values: relating to the rights and responsibilities of individuals, the legitimacy of certain modes of interpersonal interaction (like a voluntary exchange of goods or services which results in profit), and the moral acceptability of efforts to understand nature and make use of its laws in the service of human welfare, among others. These values allowed society to make use of complex, formal institutions: like democratic states bound by rule of law and market economies.
Relative to the systems of social organization which dominated in the past, these institutions are really, really good at directing humanity’s collective resources in beneficial ways. So good, and generating such different outcomes that they feel fundamentally different in substance to what came before. But are they? They are still both fundamentally human in nature but also something more, mysterious and powerful. They still stir in us the feeling that our fates are in the hands of something beyond our ken: like a kind of invisible hand, for example. And they still function better or worse depending on how dutifully we all adhere, individually, to certain enabling codes of behavior.
Democracies aren’t simply jumbles of constitutional structures and legislative procedures. They depend upon a critical mass of the citizenry believing that it is important to do one’s civic duty: to vote, to follow the news, to become active in civic organizations. They depend upon informal constraints of conscience which bind people in positions of power. Even markets rely upon such things. To unlock their magic, a society must collectively see market outcomes as fundamentally legitimate. But nothing could be more corrosive of the legitimacy of markets than powerful participants who see themselves as free of any obligation other than the pursuit of maximum profit: and who therefore cut every corner, bend every rule, and pay no heed to the effects of their actions on employees, customers and society at large.
When we follow certain codes—when we are a righteous society, in which most people walk in the path of certain moral guidelines—we become capable, collectively, of much more than would otherwise be the case. We are rewarded by the mysterious entities which we ourselves call into being through our collective behavior. But if we begin to stray? Well then we are not exactly wrong to perceive a connection between degenerate behavior and the punishments meted out by our misfiring institutions. Neither are we completely off base when we seek spiritual renewal.
I think many of us feel, now, that renewal is needed. Periods like this recur in history, when spiritual awakenings emerge as a response to social crises. In American history such awakenings have produced mixed results, but have typically been accompanied by campaigns for social reform: for expanded access to public education, for example, for greater protections for vulnerable workers, and for abolition of slavery. What we ought to see in these experiences, I think, is that progress and reform are about more than changes in policy. They are also about reestablishing an ethical equilibrium which has been lost. That’s why the mass-movement element is essential. Social cooperation is a collective action problem, and better behavior on the part of just a few people simply creates opportunities for exploitation by the unredeemed—unless a critical mass of people embrace the new behavioral rules all together.
Of course when seekers go seeking, there’s no telling what they’ll find. They may find wokeness, which seems to me like a very good thing. Trying to establish the norm that people, especially those in positions of privilege and power, should try harder to understand what life is like in others’ shoes and to show some basic empathy strikes me as a very worthy social cause. On the other hand, people might find QAnon. Or who knows what else. This is not a process, I imagine, that wonks and technocrats can steer. But we can try to understand why it is occurring, and perhaps we can also allow ourselves to see that it is in some important way necessary that it occur. We might even—ever so carefully—engage with it. Not as itinerant preachers or self-proclaimed prophets, but as people who recognize that these codes of behavior matter, and that progress and prosperity aren’t all about utility maximization and incentive-compatible tax structures. We could have a discussion about what values we want our society to reflect, and we could make an effort to affirm displays of those values with status and esteem, even if the people displaying those values aren’t rich or famous or good at social media.
We could talk about the essential dignity of every human being, the fundamental equality of all people, the importance of treating others with respect. We could acknowledge that when it comes to addressing climate change, or making it through a pandemic, or generating broad-based economic prosperity, “love thy neighbor as thyself” isn’t a bad place to start.
There is no wrath more fearsome than that which humanity is capable of delivering upon itself. Many days, I feel that wrath lurking around every corner. I feel powerless to keep it at bay, and I am, so long as I am acting alone. But we can create something better—not a heaven on earth, but an improvement over where we are now. I am not a religious person, and honestly I don’t see that changing in the future. But I continue to believe that salvation is possible.