Conservative writer David French recently penned an article for the National Review website called “Post-Christian America: Gullible, Intolerant, and Superstitious.” I thought it was worth commenting on.
French begins by criticizing the view held by many secular humanists that if Christianity is defeated, society will become more rational. He writes:
Many of the best-educated and least-religious people I knew weren’t all that reasonable. They held to downright irrational views about reality. I remember an elite-educated secular friend in Philadelphia who scoffed at my wife’s Christian faith; this friend was also convinced that her child had an “indigo aura” that imbued him with special gifts. I recall conversations with Harvard Law School classmates who laughed at the New Testament but thought reincarnation was “cool.” And how can I forget the strange sight of Harvard students walking in and out of the neighborhood witchcraft store?
He goes on to cite a New York Times story reporting that “America’s less religious citizens are far more likely to believe in things such as ghosts and UFOs than people who attend church.” The Times writer locates the motive for such beliefs in “the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants [in a series of studies] were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.”
French ads that “post-Christian Europeans have their own tendencies to believe in elves, trolls, and mental telepathy.”
After some musings on the deleterious consequences for national politics and civil discourse, French concludes:
Human beings are hard-wired to search for meaning and purpose. As we conduct that search, will our nation and culture continue to value and respect the faith that grants hope of redemption, patience through present suffering, and a means to discern between good and evil? Or will it continue to shun the way, the truth, and the life in favor of a grab-bag of ghosts, UFOs, and wishful thoughts? The choice isn’t between reason and religion. It’s all too often between religion and superstition. Post-Christian America will be a less rational place.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First, French is not wrong to say that people – or at least very many people – have an innate need to find meaning in life. While there do seem to be individuals who never give a thought about any higher purpose and just go through life from day to day, they are probably an exception to the general rule.
Second, it seems pretty clear (as French suggests) that some people have merely taken the Christian hope of a Savior descending from on high to redeem our beleaguered planet, and have reimagined it as benevolent ETs descending in spaceships, like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, to rescue us from ourselves.
Third, it’s true that Christianity has developed a complex and erudite theology that can serve as a comprehensive explanation of good and evil, happiness and suffering, and the ultimate purpose of human life. Meanwhile, popular alternatives do not offer anything nearly as intellectually nourishing or sophisticated.
That said, some of French’s other views stand on less solid ground.
For one thing, he seems to assume that people could find what they want and need in Christianity, but that they perversely turn away from it and seek less satisfying alternatives. What’s more likely is that they have tried Christianity, or at least looked into it, and found that it simply does not satisfy them. It’s not that they’re searching for meaning because they’ve given up Christianity; it’s that they gave up Christianity because it didn’t answer their quest.
Undoubtedly, people who open themselves up to non-mainstream spiritual options are at risk of accepting dubious or outright silly ideas. But this is simply the price paid for exploring unfamiliar terrain.
More important, it’s an error – in fact, a logical fallacy – to lump together all unorthodox beliefs as equally baseless. “Elves” and “mental telepathy” do not occupy the same position on the spectrum of empirical evidence and scientific research. As far as I know, there's no evidence or research regarding elves, while there is more than a century of evidence of and research into mental telepathy, including such robust and massive studies as the ganzfeld and autoganzfeld experiments. Even such an outspoken Skeptic as Richard Wiseman has stated:
I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven, but [this] begs the question: do we need higher standards of evidence when we study the paranormal? I think we do.
Wiseman later clarified that he didn’t mean to single out remote viewing but was speaking about psi in general: “It is a slight misquote, because I was using the term in the more general sense of ESP – that is, I was not talking about remote viewing per se, but rather Ganzfeld, etc as well. I think that they do meet the usual standards for a normal claim, but are not convincing enough for an extraordinary claim.”
Nobody could say that by the standards of any other area of science, the existence of elves has been proven.
Or take French’s conjunction of indigo children and reincarnation. The notion of indigo children is trendy in certain New Age circles, but I don’t think it’s supported by any hard evidence. On the other hand, reincarnation is supported by surprisingly powerful evidence, mainly in the form of the spontaneous recollections of past lives by young children. Thousands of such cases have been identified and documented worldwide, some of them extremely striking.
While the current spirituality movement undeniably lacks the intellectual heft of Christianity, with its legacy of world-class thinkers like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, it is still in its early days. It’s arguable that we’re experiencing a paradigm shift from traditional religion to a new, more empirically grounded spiritual outlook that will require new philosophical insights and explications. Transition periods are always uncomfortable and messy, but in the long run, they can result in progress.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that, for all the admirable theological complexities of Christianity, the religion is ultimately founded on stories like this:
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
French tells us that the choice is “between religion and superstition.” It may be more correct to say the choice is between age-old superstitions codified as respectable theologies on the one hand, and, on the other, challenging new approaches based on present-day observation, experience, and research.