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America’s Nervous Breakdown

We are living out the 'materialist horror' of the death of God

A word of truth from a friend in France:




America is having a slow-motion nervous breakdown. At The Federalist today, Thane Bellomo writes that we have always had problems, but we have also had social structures in place to deal with those problems. No more. Excerpt:

[T]he thing that has fundamentally changed is that we have discarded those regulating social institutions that have helped people understand their value and place in this world for thousands of years. Their decline is not just mirrored in the rise of mass shootings, but more broadly in a host of statistics that reveal an epidemic of despair.

For example, between 2000 and 2017, the rate of deaths due to drug overdose increased 400 percent, from 3 per 100,000 to 15 per 100,000. The suicide rate has increased from 10.4 per 100,000 in 2000 to 14 per 100,000 in 2017. These horrific increases have literally reduced the life expectancy in the United States from 78.9 in 2014 to 78.6 in 2017.

These statistics mirror the death of the family and the decline of faith. Children born out of wedlock increased from 20 percent in 1985 to more than 40 percent in 2013, with crime statistics tracking this trend almost exactly. Church membership declined from 70 percent in 1998 to 50 percent today. Taken together, these statistics of despair demonstrate what happens when people feel they have no place, no purpose, and no value in our world.


We know what happens when communities deteriorate. Isolation, loneliness, and a decline in social norms. And when we destroy the church, the very institution that has been our bedrock of values, morality, and redemption for thousands of years? Despair, immorality, desperation, and evil.

Combine all three, and we know exactly what happens. An opioid epidemic so severe that it has literally reduced our average life expectancy. A suicide rate that continues to climb for almost all demographic groups. Mass shootings. 

Destroy the family, abandon the community, raze the church to the ground. What could go wrong? Everything.

Take a look at this piece in Quillette, by sociology researcher Terry Newman, commenting on the mass shootings. She talks about the sociology of these shootings, and explores the work of the founder of sociology as a discipline, Emile Durkheim. At the turn of the 20th century, Durkheim observed a spike in the number of suicides.

Durkheim also noted that many people who killed themselves were young, and that the prevalence of such suicides was linked to their level of social integration: When a person felt little sense of connection or belonging, he could be led to question the value of his existence and end his life.

Durkheim labelled this form of suicide as “anomic” (others being “egoistic,” “altruistic” and “fatalistic”). Durkheim believed that these feelings of anomie assert themselves with special force at moments when society is undergoing social, political or economic upheaval—especially if such upheavals result in immediate and severe changes to everyday life.

Durkheim came from a long line of devout Jews. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had all been rabbis. And so even though he chose to pursue an academic career, his experiences taught him to respect the mental and psychological support that religious communities supplied to their members, as well as the role that ritual plays in the regulation of social behavior. In the absence of such regulation, he believed, individuals and even whole societies were at risk of falling into a state of anomie, whereby common values and meanings fall by the wayside. The resulting void doesn’t provide people with a sense of freedom, but rather rootlessness and despair.

Durkheim’s thesis has largely stood the test of time, though other scholars have reformulated it for modern audiences. In his 1955 book The Sane Society, for instance, Erich Fromm wrote that, “in the nineteenth century, the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century, the problem is that man is dead.” He described the twentieth century as a period of “schizoid-self alienation,” and worried that men would destroy “their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.”


But if he were to visit us in 2019, Durkheim would be surprised at the extent to which once-dominant ideas with no connection to economics have been marginalized as regressive and hateful—such as nationalism, patriotism and even masculinity.

This is one reason why so many people now feel unmoored. As Canadian science fiction writer Donald Kingsbury eloquently put it in his novel Courtship Rite, “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back.” Faith in god, country and manhood might be seen as regressive by modern lights. But insofar as they were holding back male anomie, we perhaps neglected to consider what damage would be done if we discredited those ideas before finding replacements.

Read the whole thing. The friend who sent me this essay notes that its author walks right up to the point of saying that religious conversion is the only thing that could save these lost young men, but flinches. It’s true.

As I’ve said many times before, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq understands this. In his book Submission, a conversion to Islam saves a dissolute French academic from meaninglessness. Interestingly, it’s not a true conversion. The man doesn’t actually believe in Islam. Rather, formally converting is the way to assure a meaningful place for himself in  the new Islamic order in France (the novel is set in the near future). It does nothing to resolve the philosophical and religious questions gnawing at him, but it does give him a sense of purpose and belonging, which may be enough to get him through until his natural death. The context of the novel is a world in which a decadent, malaise-sodden France turns to a confident Islamist political party to lead. What’s happening in the life of François, the protagonist, is also happening in the life of the nation, in the novel.

The American academic Louis Betty has written a must-read study of Houellebecq, whose novels he describes as

 a kind of fictional experiment in the death of God. And this experiment is best understood as a confrontation between two radically opposed domains: the materialism of modern science and the desire of transcendence and survival, which is best expressed in and through religion.


The unbinding of humanity from God lies at the heart of the historical narrative the reader encounters in Houellebecq’s work: lacking a set of moral principles legitimated by a higher power and unable to find meaningful answers to existential questions, human beings descend into selfishness and narcissism and can only stymie their mortal terror by recourse to the carnal distractions of sexuality. Modern capitalism is the mode of social organization best suited to, and best suited to maintain, such a worldview. Materialism — that is, the limiting of all that is real to the physical, which rules out the existence of God, soul, and spirit and with them any transcendent meaning to human life — thus produces and environment in which consumption becomes the norm. such is the historical narrative that Houellebecq’s fiction enacts, with modern economic liberalism emerging as the last, devastating consequence of humanity’s despiritualization.

“Materialist horror” is the term most appropriate to describe this worldview, for what readers discover throughout Houellebecq’s fiction are societies and persons in which the terminal social and psychological consequences of materialism are being played out. It is little wonder, then, that these texts are so often apocalyptic in tone.

Here is a vital quote from Betty’s book — vital, that is, to understanding what I’m getting at in The Benedict Option:

Houellebecq’s novels suggest that once religion becomes definable as religion that is, once its symbols no longer address themselves to society at large as representative of discipline and moral authority, but rather address only the individual as motivators of religious “moods and motivations” — it is already doomed. Religion must do more than provide a space for the individual to enter, à la [anthropologist Clifford] Geertz, into the “religious perspective.” This is simply not enough for modern people; the symbols therein are too weak, too uncoupled from ordinary existence to give serious motivation. Religion must set a disciplinary canopy over the head of humankind, must order its acts and its moral commitments, must furnish ultimate explanations capable of determining the remainder of social life; otherwise, religion loses itself in the morass of competing perspectives (scientific, commonsense, political, etc.) This is precisely what has happened in the West… .

Think about the mass killers as you read this passage from Betty:

However, the causality I propose, which does justice to the totality of the Houllebecquian worldview, is one in which materialism – conceived of as a generalized belief in matter, which in its political manifestations contributes to the rise of ideologies as diverse as communism, fascism, and liberalism – represents the true menace to human relationships and sexuality in Houellebecq’s novels. From this point of view, the gradual erosion of the theological conception of the human being, which began with the scientific revolution and reached its apex in the twentieth century, has given rise to a social order in which the value of human life is restricted to the parameters of economic exchange – that is, the human being is understood in essentially economic terms. One’s attractiveness and even lovability are determined by indisputable criteria of market value, as if the human being were no different, in principle, from any other consumer product. The economic reduction of human value is fed by the materialism of modern science, which dismisses the possibility of free will and reduces the human being to a haphazard, fleeting collection of elementary particles. Humanism, which attempts to assign people rights in the absence of a deity capable of legitimating the moral order, does not stand a chance in these conditions.

But yes, by all means, let’s blame Donald Trump’s big fat mouth, and the commercial availability of a certain kind of gun.

Yesterday, there was a mass killing in southern California. The killer used a knife, not a gun, and he, and all his victims, were Hispanic, so this is not useful to the left-wing narrative. Still, the Hispanics dead in California are just as dead as the ones murdered by a racist white guy in El Paso:

A man who was “full of anger” went on a two-hour stabbing and robbery rampage in Southern California, killing four people and wounding two others, authorities said Wednesday.

The 33-year-old Garden Grove man was taken into custody after he came out of a 7-Eleven in Santa Ana, southeast of Los Angeles, and dropped a knife along with a handgun that he had taken from a guard, police said.

The violence appeared to be random and the only known motives seem to be “robbery, hate, homicide,” Garden Grove police Lt. Carl Whitney said at a news conference.

“We know this guy was full of anger and he harmed a lot of people tonight,” he said.

The suspect and all the victims were Hispanic, he added.

The attacker robbed some of his victims, but one of the wounded was a man he approached at a gas station, and nearly severed his nose, for no apparent reason, other than he was angry.

My point is not to say that Trump’s big fat mouth (and yes, he is a disgrace) is not playing a role in making things worse, nor is it to say that we shouldn’t seriously talk about gun control. My point is that none of these things address the core problem. T.S. Eliot called it in 1939:

“If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

Something will rush into the vacuum. We are preparing ourselves for a totalitarian form of government — left-wing or right-wing, I’m not sure what. Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 classic The Origins Of Totalitarianism, writes:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.


Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.

Totalitarian governments worked to isolate individuals so they could control them. We, in our technology-driven late liberalism, have managed to isolate ourselves. More Arendt:

In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice; only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable… Isolation then becomes loneliness. …

While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.

Totalitarianism, says Arendt, bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.

Wake up! We are playing with fire here. The problem is not merely a right vs. left one; our news media will tell you all the things that the right is doing to make things worse. Sometimes they’re correct, though in my view, the main fault of the right is that in its uncritical worship of the free market, it has embraced a main source of our society’s own dissolution. You won’t find much of an answer in contemporary conservatism to this crisis. Someone last night sent me a link to a new book out by a couple of conservative Evangelical authors, who argue that Christians need to double down on being “salt and light” to this world, by engaging more in politics and community. That sounded fresh in 1996, maybe, but it is completely out of touch with what we’re dealing with today. We are living in a world in which Christians can’t even hold on to what makes them different. Most Christians have been absorbed by the culture, and those leaders who ought to be leading the countercultural charge — pastors, bishops, laity in positions of authority — don’t even understand the nature of the crisis, and how badly the churches — all of them — have failed to catechize and to form the generations alive today.

The kind of moralistic exhortations that we hear from the churches today are nowhere near capable of countering the materialist horror, and what Prof. Betty calls “the terminal social and psychological consequences of materialism.” Far, far too many of our churches and our religious leaders — progressive and conservative — aspire to be nothing more than chaplains to a social order that has killed God, and is also killing man. They don’t think so, but that’s what is happening. We may or may not be living in the Apocalypse, but this definitely is an apocalypse, in the sense of an unveiling. We are seeing with clear eyes what post-Christian society means — and what it means when the churches are too demoralized and self-deceived to witness effectively against the rough beasts displacing the old religion.

So: what you will never hear our media say is that all these things that the left today promotes — radical individual liberty, sexual autonomy, the deconstruction of family and sex, the exaltation of anti-white, anti-male tribalism, the destruction or denaturing of Christian religion —  are driving us very quickly to the brink. They seem to believe the same old discredited Rousseau-ish nonsense that insists that we will be free only when all the chains to the full expression of individual will are cast aside.

Well, guess what: we’ve got that kind of society. Happy now?