Paul L. Caron

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Can The Meritocracy Find God?

New York Times op-ed:  Can the Meritocracy Find God?, by Ross Douthat:

[N]ew data from Gallup [shows] that for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2020. And lately the trend has inspired fewer Voltairean hosannas and more anxiety about a future where the impulses of religion are poured into politics instead. ...

Even if there is a resilience in American religion — especially in evangelical Christianity, still the most numerically robust form of faith — it doesn’t alter institutional faith’s general weakness, its limited influence, its subordinate position to other personal affiliations, from partisanship to ethnic identity to sports or superhero fandom.

A key piece of this weakness is religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia — meaning not just would-be intellectuals but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or “knowledge workers,” the “professional-managerial class.”

Most of these people — my people, by tribe and education — would be unlikely models of holiness in any dispensation, given their ambitions and their worldliness. But Jesus endorsed the wisdom of serpents as well as the innocence of doves, and religious communities no less than secular ones rely on talent and ambition. So the deep secularization of the meritocracy means that people who would once have become priests and ministers and rabbis become psychologists or social workers or professors, people who might once have run missions go to work for NGOs instead, and guilt-ridden moguls who might once have funded religious charities salve their consciences by starting secular foundations.

As a Christian inhabitant of this world, I often try to imagine what it would take for the meritocracy to get religion. There are certain ways in which its conversion doesn’t seem unimaginable. A lot of progressive ideas about social justice still make more sense as part of a biblical framework, which among other things might temper the movement’s prosecutorial style with forgiveness and with hope. Meanwhile on the meritocracy’s rightward wing — meaning not-so-woke liberals and Silicon Valley libertarians — you can see people who might have been new atheists 15 years ago taking a somewhat more sympathetic look at the older religions, out of fear of the vacuum their decline has left.

Frankly I would welcome conversions of both types: In future clashes between East Coast progressives and West Coast techno-libertarians, let them clash as brothers and sisters in Christ.

But the obstacles are considerable. One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. ...

A second obstacle is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking. ...

My sense is that these two obstacles effectively work together to block people from religious faith. ...

Like Pascal contemplating his wager, it always seems to me that if you concede that religious questions are plausible you should concede that they are urgent, or that if you feel the supernatural brush you, your spiritual curiosity should be radically enhanced.

But clearly many highly intelligent people disagree. Which perhaps makes it a mistake to focus too much on overt obstacles to upper-class belief. They could be partially removed, rolled back a little way, and for a revival you would still need the impulse, the push, that makes people seek and knock and ask.

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink