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Our Post-Christian Shrug of the Shoulders

Most Americans today aren't openly hostile to religion; they're just apathetic.

“The blues,” said the great bluesman Robert Johnson, “is a low-down achin’ heart disease, like consumption, killing me by degrees.” Often what kills comes not with dramatic flair or excessive violence, but the slow-burn death described by Johnson.

There have been many passionate attacks on traditional, religious ways of life in America—assaults on Christian adoption and foster care agencies, attempts to disqualify Christians from public service because of their beliefs and affiliationslitigation against Christian businesses. Do these portend even more aggressive, possibly violent political efforts akin to what Catholic France suffered in 1789 or what Orthodox Russia underwent in 1919? Or will the destruction of what little remains of Christian culture in the West appear as a more seamless, natural transition?

Recently I visited the home of a close friend who’d just had his first child. I’ve known this friend for a long time—he was in my First Holy Communion class almost 30 years ago. By just about any measure, he is a good man: conscientious, hard-working, and doggedly loyal to family and friends. He’s also an Irish-American Catholic who was once an altar boy and attended Mass throughout high school. Yet like many in our generation, he later strayed from the Church. Not that he bears any substantive antagonism towards it; he simply stopped going to Mass. So when I asked him whether he was planning on baptizing his son, it wasn’t particularly surprising to see him shrug his shoulders and answer, “I’m not sure.”

This paradigm, a “shrug of the shoulders” culture (with purposeful lowercase letters), is common among my generation of Americans. Those who fall within this description have little, if any, of the animus or hostility towards traditional forms of Christianity visible in, say, a Dianne Feinstein or Rachel Maddow. Rather, influenced by public education, mainstream media, and perhaps the lukewarm religiosity of parents, they view belief as a preferential, dispensable thing, akin to a hobby. Perhaps they were told that religion’s main purpose is to make us better people, or that church attendance has more to do with familial and cultural obligations than sincere belief. They recognize that religion may play an important role in some people’s lives, but have decided it won’t in theirs, and certainly shouldn’t influence the public square.

Of course, there are deeper ideological commitments behind the “shrug of the shoulders.” Daniel J. Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College and author of the recently published The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity, believes much of the blame falls at the feet of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers like positivist Auguste Comte and his secular religion of humanism. This, Mahoney argues, “remains the temptation of our age.” Three themes emerge from Mahoney’s treatment of the subject that identify the most salient characteristics of our “shrug of the shoulders” moment: a rejection of the reality of sin and evil, an irrational trust in humanity, and a commensurate loss of faith in God.

Secular humanism, Mahoney notes, is “woefully ignorant of sin and of the tragic dimensions of the human condition.” An offspring of the Enlightenment, it “necessarily occludes the seriousness of the stakes in this great and enduring conflict between good and evil.” Humans, so it is said, are intrinsically good, and any wrong actions are a result of external stimuli such as unfavorable familial, social, or economic circumstances, or provocations from others. Of course, this paradigm struggles to determine where such evil circumstances originated. It denies that the solution to the bad things is primarily internal reformation of one’s soul, one’s habits, and one’s inclinations. It seeks instead to change the external world, either by eliminating the stimuli and circumstances that provoke us to misbehavior, or redefining social mores so that what was once considered misbehavior is deemed natural and accepted.

To ignore evil is naive and misguided, but it correlates well with a paradigm of spiritual and moral laziness. “I’m not the problem,” the humanist argues. “The problem is out there in the world, and that’s what needs changing.” However, as Mahoney argues, “evil can ensconce itself in the very substance of the good, leading to profound spiritual, theological, moral, and political corruption.” This means that even those good things that remain for the “shrug of the shoulders” adherents can be corrupted. The best intentions regarding marriage and child-rearing cannot obviate the lurking power of sin, as evidenced in America’s high divorce rates. Nor can a “live and let live” mentality provide the ethics to address abortion, euthanasia, and sexual desire and behavior. Indeed, a humanist paradigm reliant on Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (maximize pleasure, minimize pain) creates ample space to eliminate anyone who is subjectively judged to not have a life worth living.

Related to this is a second error: an irrational trust in humanity. Humanism possesses an “unlimited faith in progress, or a false and naive confidence in moral optimism.” Yet ironically, the ideology’s overconfidence in humanity leads to a certain laziness regarding progress. Citing French scholar Pierre Manent, Mahoney observes that contemporary humanitarianism is “remarkably passive,” its adherents detaching themselves from historic “communities of action like nations and churches.” In their place, humanists offer “strident affirmations of individuals and collective autonomy” where “good works…are welcomed, of course, but one can love Humanity through a vague and undemanding sentimentality.” This is indicative of much of contemporary American society, which dispenses platitudes of social justice and indulges in protests ad nauseam but is largely uninterested in traditional social structures that actually build and preserve community. As theologian David Bonagura Jr. notes in his recent book Steadfast in Faith, the secular humanist “is content enough with his current existence, and he considers himself a good person: he does not think church can make him any better.”

This kind of humanism reduces religion to “a project of this-worldly amelioration. Free-floating compassion substitutes for charity.” There is little room for true sacrificial love and robust, authentic community in the “shrug of the shoulders” paradigm. It is “shorn of any concern for that which transcends humanity and which ultimately grounds our dignity as spiritual beings.” It is largely ignorant of the ideas of life as gift and self-gift, because we no longer believe we are “fundamentally dependent on God and society.” Rather, we are told that we are autonomous individuals in charge of our destiny. Yet this individualism spurs another curious irony—humanism, despite its utopian vision, fosters a deep cynicism towards both the world and God.

Indeed, the “shrug of the shoulders” culture has abandoned faith, not so much in the sense that it does not believe that God exists, but rather that it doesn’t believe that God is intimately involved in our lives. Thus the rise of the “nones.” Mahoney writes, “those who lose confidence in the promises of God, or repudiate the supernatural dimensions of their faith, fall back on a humanitarian ethos where ‘man as such’ is the ‘measure of everything.’ Whatever Christianity they retain is reduced to a concern for ‘social welfare’ and the alleviation of poverty and suffering.” They are willing to recognize a continued role for religion only so long as its focus is this-worldly. Says Mahoney, “It combines relativism and moralism (each equally insistent) in a way that is characteristic of a ‘morality’ that loses sight of the capacious natural and supernatural destinies of human beings.”

Humanism results in “the flattening of souls and perspectives.” Without God and transcendence, our vision of the good life and humanity narrows. Mahoney explains: “Without a religious appreciation of the full range of human needs (and not the cacophony of human wants posited by humanitarian materialism), the spiritual dimensions of human life are all but forgotten.” Man’s “spiritual functions and capacities” are “understimulated, undernourished, underexercised,” and are “condemned to atrophy,” says Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai. This results, says Mahoney, in “a profound diminishment of our humanity.” The greatest irony here is that when man severs his relationship to transcendent reality, he cannot perceive the world as a created good to steward, and loses the “sheer capacity to enjoy temporal reality.”

The significance of my generation’s parents not baptizing their children cannot be overstated. For 1,500 years, my friend’s Irish ancestors baptized their children in a rite that marked recipients with salvific grace and entrance into a covenantal relationship with God. Of course, the degree to which they understood or believed this almost certainly differed from one generation to the next. Yet no one, until now, determined to altogether dispense with this ancient rite. As Remi Brague has noted, in baptism, man honors his father and his mother “by ensuring the continuation of the story, thereby implicitly acknowledging that it was not launched in vain at the outset.” Now, in 2019, descendants of many ancient Christian families bear children who will not be baptized, not because of a revolution-inspired hatred towards Christ or the Church, but with the neglect of a “shrug of the shoulders.”

None of this is to downplay the significance of the more pronounced and public attacks on Christianity. Both persecution and disuse are part of the same anti-tradition, anti-faith ideology. Secularism and progressivism proceed along two tracks: one quite aggressive and explicit, the other quietly placating the descendants of strong Christian families into a sense of complacency, deceiving them into thinking that their actions are not dramatic revolts against their ancestry. Of course, for the many millions of “shrug of the shoulders” Americans, there are others who still try, against many pressures, to maintain their faith and traditions. Great American Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, for example, never lost hope in America or in God’s ability to redeem it. As Mahoney notes, Brownson believed that Christian men and women “could renew an American republic worthy of the name.” We should pray that there are enough strong, broad-shouldered Americans to make up for all those who merely shrug.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.