On the Monday before Easter 2021, Gallup published a poll indicating that membership of a church, synagogue, or mosque had dropped below fifty percent of U.S. adults for the first time in eight decades.
For six of those decades, the number hovered around 70 percent. It has since dropped to just 47 percent, with the sheerest decline occurring in the past two decades.
Religion In America Is Hollowing Out.
The study noted:
“The decline in church membership… appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong. The change has become increasingly apparent in recent decades because millennials and Gen Z are further apart from traditionalists in their church membership rates (about 30 points lower) than baby boomers and Generation X are (eight and 16 points, respectively).”
Similarly, Pew Research has found that more Americans (41 percent) reported the global pandemic strengthening family bonds, compared to the 28 percent who reported it had strengthened their personal religious faith.
Despite that, America led other advanced economies by 12 percentage points in believing their faith had been strengthened.
Religion in America is hollowing out—but impassioned appeals to moral authority permeate the media environment. Where do these value systems derive—and where is all the fervent belief going?
A Tale of Two Huxleys.
Aldous Huxley is best known as the author of Brave New World, a dystopian examination of a future where the state regulates childbearing through the use of artificial wombs and controls the minds of citizens with drugs. His brother, Julian Huxley, is known as the father of transhumanism—belief in the use of advanced technology to enhance the human condition.
Whereas Aldous feared mind control, Julian feared an improper balance between what he called “death control”—modern medicine—vis-à-vis birth control, leading to overpopulation.
Julian Huxley was a eugenicist who believed in the inferiority of certain races, and espoused the use of immigration protocols to exclude undesirables. He was an enthusiastic early adopter of new media, making television and film appearances in the 1930s in a bid to reconfigure public opinion of eugenics—and preach that good character, as well as moral defects, are inheritable traits.
He worked to seize what he considered a constructive vision of eugenics from the jaws of Nazi race theory, trading out the more explicit word “race” for the phrase “ethnic groups.” While Huxley did not believe the unfit should be slaughtered, he did believe in separating them from society and discouraging their reproduction.
An Oxford-educated First World War veteran, Huxley’s main contention with Communism and Nazism seems to have been that they were destructive social movements of a religious nature, at odds with his desire to reconfigure the field of biology as a means of social reconstruction for a post-religious era. As the first Director-General of UNESCO, Huxley put population control on the agendas of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other international assemblies.
His true life’s work was not scientific research, but developing a creed he called evolutionary humanism: faith in mankind and its potential.
His February 16, 1975 obituary in The New York Times records that “in the early thirties Huxley’s writings took a marked philosophical tack as he strove to formulate the implications for man of the rapid increase of scientific knowledge… He suggested that a religious spirit did not require belief in mysticism or in the supernatural, and indeed was circumscribed by such beliefs.”
“Of all Huxley’s views, his evolutionary humanism was the most far‐ranging and the most disputed, for it sought to offer a field theory of evolution as well as a set of behavioral, ethical and religious tenets for modern man. The core of his theory is that man now has the capacity to be ‘the sole agent of further evolutionary advance on this planet.’”
This belief caused Huxley to become known as the father of transhumanism. According to him, in order for man to truly drive his evolution forward, a reconfiguration of religious belief was necessary.
Christianity – in Huxley’s view – would pass away. A secular religion, where knowledge and relationship with self was as crucial as knowledge and relationship with God, would take its place.
In his essay The New Divinity (1965), part of Essays of a Humanist, Huxley proffered his theory on the future of religion in an age of rapid scientific advancement: obsolete, monotheistic faiths must, and will, be supplanted by evolutionary humanism in order to sustain progress.
“The radical evolutionary crisis through which man is now passing can only be surmounted by an equally radical reorganisation of his dominant system of thought and belief . . .
“The central long-term concern of religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies . . .
“A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular man with contacts with all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence; indeed, with every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations not only of his day-by-day existence in the equivalents of shared worship, but of his little secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs….Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even vaster human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But its consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.”
A Culture Of Narcissism Puts Its Faith In Science.
Just 15 years after Huxley published his “New Divinity,” social critic Christopher Lasch traced the development of a new personality structure of the post-war generation in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism.
Lasch’s pocket definition of narcissism was “a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one’s own fears and desires.”
For the narcissist generation, Lasch wrote, the ailments of human existence became projects for professionals.
An unlimited spectrum of anxieties, fears, and challenges required medical observation and intervention. Even parenting required expert guidance at the risk of doing irreversible damage to offspring. Amoral “values” such as achievement, social survival, and a pleasing personality have replaced true allegiances and non-performative beliefs.
Afraid of old age and little-connected to the next generation, no project is more crucial to the narcissist than improving his health and extending his lifespan, Lasch wrote.
”The fear of death takes on a new intensity in a society that has deprived itself of religion and shows little interest in posterity… The denial of age in America culminates in the prolongevity movement, which hopes to abolish old age altogether. But the dread of age originates not in a ‘cult of youth’ but in a cult of the self. Not only in its narcissistic indifference to future generations but in its grandiose vision of a technological utopia without old age, the prolongevity movement exemplifies the fantasy of ‘absolute, sadistic power’ which… so deeply colors the narcissistic outlook. Pathological in its psychological origins and inspiration, superstitious in its faith in medical deliverance, the prolongevity movement expresses in characteristic form the anxieties of a culture that believes it has no future.”
Where Huxley had predicted that a new, secular religion would fuel the next evolution for humankind, Lasch saw a newly-secularized culture anxiously laboring in service of late capitalism under the illusion of self-improvement.
Intense though their fear of death and fantasy of power may be, they have every reason to cheer up.
The last several generations have witnessed extraordinary scientific advancements in their own lifetimes that point to the promise of understanding, correcting, and upgrading the human condition.
To name only a few: Watson and Crick discovered the double helix; the contraceptive pill handed over control of reproduction; gene-editing technology is on the cusp of revolutionizing the future of genetic diseases; a vaccine for a global pandemic took not years, but months, to develop. More granular, but nonetheless stunning developments are happening every day.
Within the month of March 2021, a synthetic model of a human blastoma was developed inadvertently in a lab in Australia. (For one writer, it was “safe and ethical.” For another, it “raised ethical questions.”)
Israeli researchers gestated hundreds of mouse embryos in a synthetic womb, immediately prompting speculation on whether such technology might be used to “emancipate” women from giving birth themselves.
On April 1, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first test therapy using CRISPR gene editing technology to directly correct the genetic mutation causing sickle cell disease in humans, the fruit of a decade of pioneering in CRISPR and the Cas9 enzyme.
These “miracles” aren’t spurring mass conversion to monotheistic faiths, but religious conversions—indeed, tectonic shifts—are happening, as Gallup’s data indicate.
A Mass Conversion Event.
Huxley believed mass media would spur faster acceptance of a new, secular religion; add a pandemic and a mass conversion event unfolds.
The COVID-19 outbreak raised the authority of medical scientists—who appear to hold the confidence of most Americans, but with notable partisan and demographic differences—to quasi-religious dimensions.
Behavioral protocols such as social distancing, isolating at home, wearing a mask, keeping schools closed, and receiving a vaccine derived moral significance from their purported basis in scientific data, a process that was accelerated by panic and blind faith that the mandates would in fact follow empirical evidence.
In April 2021, more than one year into the pandemic, President Joe Biden made the religious character of COVID-19 mitigation efforts explicit when he described consenting to the Coronavirus vaccine as “a godly thing to do” and a “spiritual and patriotic” duty.
The shift in attitude is best illustrated by the cloying, coy, ethereal expression “believe in science,” favored by Democrat politicians and the very young.
Before 2020, this phrase was used mostly by politicians to refer to acceptance of an anthropogenic climate disaster scenario. From 2020 onward, “believing the science” means placing full trust in the authority, capability, and intentions of the scientific establishment.
The improperly-constructed rejoinder has nothing to do with actual knowledge of the science on any particular issue. “Believe in science” is an expression of scientism: a supplicant posture toward scientists and obedience to their decrees.
This posture treats science not as a method, but as a source of knowledge of good and evil, moral instruction, and even salvation.
Take it from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who tweeted on April 11, 2021:
The good thing about Science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) April 11, 2021
“The good thing about Science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it,” – deGrasse Tyson
Substitute any other discipline for “Science” in Tyson’s sentence—say, structural engineering or history—and the proposition is self-evidently simplistic and absurd. Substitute any other ideology—“The good thing about Christianity…”—and risk being called a fundamentalist.
But the capital-S “Science” dogma—an abstract rendering of the real discipline, imbued with moral authority—has been launched into a league of its own, where no one can disbelieve, and everyone must obey. A sound method, empirical facts, and truth are three different things. Not so for capital-S “Science,” which exists for elites to understand, and for the masses to believe in. (Not accept—believe in.)
It’s no surprise that Tyson, like Huxley, also asks: “Are we wise enough to shepherd the future of our own civilization?”
Implicit in the question is Huxley’s pretext for the new divinity: “Man is a product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.”
For the converts of scientism, capital-S “Science” is divinity without God, but with all of His authority.
History will judge whether the Coronavirus pandemic was indeed the mass conversion event to the “new divinity” that it seems to have been. But there are more pressing questions that must not wait on history to answer: Who is doing the science? What are their aims for the future of mankind? And what expression will scientism find when COVID-19 recedes into the past?