When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”

     You have probably run across the quote above, usually attributed to G.K. Chesterton.  While Chesterton never actually said it in quite those words, it does appear that he really did express this sentiment in a somewhat different form in several places (for more information, see this discussion on the website of The Apostolate of Common Sense).  More to the point, the events of the recent past have shown this observation by the  “The Prince of Paradox” to be tragically on target.

G. K. Chesterton

     In that regard, allow me to direct your attention to some other quotes (albeit somewhat less witty) that you have probably run across.  In the run up to last year’s election yard signs started popping up with a rainbow colored litany that ran something like this:

science is real

black lives matter

no human is illegal

love is love

women’s rights are human rights

kindness is everything

     The interesting thing is that, not only do none of these statements mean what they appear to mean, not a single one of them is even intended to mean what it appears to mean.  “Science is real”, for example, is declaration that if you disagree with a certain global climate theory, however much you ground your argument in data and scientific reasoning, you’ll be branded a “science denier” (and don’t you dare even bring up the lack of any scientific basis at all for the current vogue for genderism or other current enthusiasms).  “Love is love” means that intrinsically sterile homosexual relationships are exactly the same as the generative relationships between men and women. “Women’s rights are human rights” refers to the “right” of grown women to kill their unborn babies (including unborn women) if they find it convenient.  And of course, “kindness is everything” means that if you disagree with any of the above you are ipso facto a “hater”, and kinder folks have every right (indeed, the responsibility) to destroy your reputation and your livelihood.

     Again, don’t expect any effort to explain or justify the statements above: they’re not intended to form any sort of coherent argument; they’re not even intended as a coherent political program, although they are very much intended as a political statement.  The litany above is in fact a religious Creed, a statement of adherence to a political religion, the apotheosis of pure Will in the form of Government Power.

     So, what’s the connection between the Kindness Creed and the quote attributed to Chesterton? Let’s go back to the first clause of the initial quote: “When a man stops believing in God . . .” If you doubt that we in the United States no longer believe in God, consider the report just released by the Gallup organization: for the first time in American history, a majority do not formally belong to any religious body. In 2020 the figure had declined to 47%:

When we look at the generational breakdown, we can see that each successive generation is less religious than its predecessors.  This is not simply a matter of people becoming more religious as they age; in fact, the trend lines move in the other direction: every group actually becomes less religious over time, including those born before 1946.  The big story that the chart below shows is that, as decade follows decade, proportionally fewer Americans have any experience of religion at all:

     Now, people can believe in God, and even identify with a particular religious group, without the benefit of formal membership.  The Gallup report indicates that there are in fact a fairly sizable number of people who fall into this category:

The U.S. remains a religious nation, with more than seven in 10 affiliating with some type of organized religion.

. . . but there’s a big “however” coming:

However, far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship. While it is possible that part of the decline seen in 2020 was temporary and related to the coronavirus pandemic, continued decline in future decades seems inevitable, given the much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger versus older generations of adults.

     I would take it a little further.  While it is certainly conceivable that someone could have a strong and meaningful faith in God without belonging to a church (or synagogue, mosque, etc.), joining with other believers in worship of God is the primary way in which that faith becomes a reality in our lives, rather than just an abstraction. People who never attend church are unlikely to have any experience of religion in their lives, and are correspondingly unlikely to be influenced by religious moral teachings and values.  

    In other words, the change noted in the graphs above is of enormous significance.  A generation or two ago the accepted wisdom of our society was taken directly from Christianity.  This is not to say that everyone lived perfectly in accord with Christian teachings, but that everybody’s attitudes and expectations were shaped by those teachings, even among the non-religious.  That is no longer the case, and we can see the results in, for instance, radically changed attitudes toward marriage, sexual morality, and so on. Christian morality used to be the default; no longer.

     What’s true of morality is true in other areas as well.  Fifteen years ago Arthur C. Brooks published a book called Who Really Cares, in which he explored in meticulous detail all the statistical data that demonstrated, contrary to popular impressions, that political conservatives give more time and money (a lot more) to charity than do liberals. Among the various factors that Brooks examined, one of the most prominent was the fact that statistics show that religious belief is a large determinant in personal charity.  Believers are much more charitable than non-believers, and so religious liberals, for example, give more of their time and treasure than non-religious conservatives do. The main reason why conservatives over all were more generous fifteen years ago when Brooks published his book is that religious liberals made up only 7% of the population. Conservatives were then and are now more generous givers largely because conservatives are much more religious.

     Or were.  Conservatives are still quite a bit more religious than liberals, but the data from Gallup cited above indicates that, along with everyone else, they are less religious than they used to be, and will be even less religious in the years to come. Expect less charity in our society, and more government.

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

-Justice Anthony Kennedy, Planned Parenthood v. Casey


   Which brings us to the second half of the Chestertonian paradox: “. . . he believes anything.”  The problem goes beyond charity and personal morality. We should expect all sorts of craziness to manifest itself in the years to come. That’s the significance of the Kindness Is Everything Litany.  When a critical mass of the population is no longer constrained by a belief in a Transcendent God, what is left to limit the human will? U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a moment of unintentional self-parody, authored the most famous formulation of the Creed of the Unconstrained Will in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  This quasi-mystical piece of fantasy (derisively called the “Sweet Mystery of Life Passage” by Justice Antonin Scalia) is now the closest thing we have to a dominant political philosophy in the West.  

     Politics can’t fix this. That’s not to say there isn’t an important role for politics in mitigating the damage: just this past week another Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, suggested in a concurrence that the protections our increasingly totalitarian big tech companies currently enjoy might be up for legal challenge.  We should take him up on that.  As I previously explained here, here, and here, however, the political issues are in fact a consequence of cultural and, prior to that, religious causes.

     So, yes, by all means, let’s keep fighting the political fight, but given the societal trends (and the Gallup data above is just the latest evidence), we can expect the political arena to become increasingly difficult. Long term we need to work on bringing our country back to Christ.  One of my two favorite quotes is this one from John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Well, we are no longer a moral or a religious people.  Welcome to mission territory: we have our work cut out for us.

Featured image above: “Francis Xavier” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo  , c. 1670. St. Francis Xavier is a patron saint of missions.

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