Merely a few decades ago, religion had a strong hold on society. While the Enlightenment had long since passed, and church and state were clearly separated in most developed nations, many would still have considered themselves ‘religious’. Around 81% of Americans identified as white and Christian in 1976; that number has since fallen to 43%.
Secularization, in the face of globalization and an increasing access to technology, has created problems that did not previously exist. In this post, I want to un-pack what I understand this shift to mean. Tl;dr is that secularization is not intrinsically a bad thing, but the lack of change in other aspects of society is. And for anyone about to close the tab, I’m not preaching that religion is/is not a good thing, nor that you should / should not convert — that choice is up to you! This is purely a thought exercise to flesh out my thoughts and why I view the world the way I do.
A solid foundation
Religion, across the board, is a great source of values and morals for the average person. Many religions, and as a Christian I’ll speak primarily to that, preach the importance of community, loving thy neighbour, and being honest and void of temptation (alcohol & other influences).
They also preach a specific way of life that adheres to their vision of a perfect world. This comes with gender roles, denouncing certain types of behaviour (read: social conservatism), and often altering the world order from its current state. Cue debates on whether abortion or homosexuality should be made legal or not.
In an era where religion was extremely salient, many individuals could lean on religion as reasoning for their beliefs and decisions. You didn’t need to justify why a certain viewpoint was valid, you could simply state that it says so in scripture. This alone may not sound like enough — however when the majority of the country is religious, mounting an opposition is challenging.
Over the years, this dominance eroded; not just in the population as a whole, but especially in youth. Exposure to The Internet meant you no longer had to rely on your parent(s) to develop a worldview, which included your view on religion. Why ask Mom why the welfare gap exists when you could ask Google?
The challenge to this is lack of guidance — someone between the ages of 8-15 doesn’t have a de facto system for browsing The Internet and discerning what is real/fake. More importantly, there is no system for discovering what path they need to pursue in order to live ‘The Good Life’.
This used to be provided by religion. When you were lost or unsure of how to act, leaning on religious values or even scripture itself was the solution. The rise of secularism frowns upon that — as an individual, you should pride yourself in being able to reason over everything else.
The education gap
This phenomenon doesn’t just affect youth, but adults as well; perhaps even more. While youth had little guidance on how to form their world view, adults had little guidance on how to alter their world view. As mentioned above, previous arguments that used religion as reason could no longer be accepted. An adult in 2019 needs to be able to justify their world views using reason.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the most reasonable person, agreeableness aside. Although I try to ‘logic’ my way out of most decisions and scenarios, emotions get in the way and my judgement can sometimes be clouded. Don’t believe me? I’ve written full posts on regret and decision-making to rationalize (to myself) why I operate the way I do.
While I do falter on occasion, I’d like to think I’m quite capable of thinking critically about decisions and coming to reasonable conclusions. I don’t know if this is true for the majority of people — especially those who may be less educated. A prime example can be found in fake news: how many people are guilty of reposting (and/or commenting on) something they didn’t verify as factual? Worse yet, how many people are guilty of doing this without verifying if it was factual?
Niche news outlets and pundits allow for your typical individual in 2019 to consume content that solely affirms their views and beliefs. If I was socially conservative (I’m not), then following Fox News and selectively listening to Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro could be enough to get by. I could find justification for anything I believed in, without needing to explain my reasoning.
I blame education more than anything for this phenomenon. For starters, the K-12 system is more interested in teaching history and biology than it is with teaching financial and digital literacy. As much heat as liberal arts degrees get today for producing ‘unemployable’ graduates, the benefit is that they teach you how to read, not what to read. Being able to identify the bias in an article, find comparable pieces, and come to a conclusion on your own is the essence of critical thinking.
For adults, this problem compounds. Most adults aren’t in an environment like K-12 or post-secondary education where they are forced to learn. 24% of Americans haven’t read a book (even in part) in the last year. For those that never developed the ability to reason and filter information — whether due to dependence on religion, lack of education, or other factors — are lost in an age that throws more information at them than ever before.
‘Societal norms’ aren’t helping this. The minute I identify as conservative (I do), a whole swath of people shut their eyes/ears like they are in a terrible combination of Bird Box and A Quiet Place. People are afraid of debate, whether due to micro aggressions and fear of conflict, or simply because they don’t want to rock the boat. The value of ‘reason’ that led us to the Enlightenment is being shunned in an age where we are more developed than we ever were.
Steps to reason
This is usually the point in an article where I have a solution that gets me high fives from a handful of friends (and my Mom), before stumbling into a conclusion. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to this ‘crisis of choice’, but I have a few ideas:
Set a timer for 5 minutes and write a list of statements that you believe to be true about the world, including about yourself. Look at those statements and find reason as to why they are right/wrong. Then, challenge yourself on your reasoning. For some points, you may have no qualms. For others, you may furrow your brow, urging you to dive into that topic.
2) Read & write
Find areas of interest and read a lot about them. Philosophy, finance, politics, gardening, whatever you fancy. Then write about it — leverage the monster we call The Internet to organize your thoughts in a way that is presentable to a general audience, and invites discussion around it. This post took me about an hour and had me researching statistics on religion and reading to either challenge or validate my points.
I have a number of strongly held opinions — corporate jobs suck, everyone can get experience + money while in college, and sales is an underrated career path. None of these opinions are universal, that much is obvious. However, it’s not until I put my thoughts out there (and have them challenged), that I either further validate or invalidate them. For example: corporate jobs don’t suck, they’re a great outlet for people in tough financial situations, specific paths (i.e. doctor), and/or technical routes (i.e. engineer).
The dominance of religion throughout the 1900s allowed many to lean on it as reasoning for their values, morals, and the basis of social order. Through challenging the status quo, society was able to progress to guaranteeing basic human rights and equality to a larger group of people (i.e. ending apartheid + segregation, allowing gay marriage, etc.).
Increasing secularization and The Internet brought an influx of information and variance of choice that requires the ability to reason and think critically in order to come up with valid opinions. Most people don’t do this, nor do they need to.
Aside from a shift in education, individuals need to re-evaluate their existing views, read to answer lingering questions, and write + debate to further improve their understanding of the world. Failure to do so will further embed a culture of toxicity and fear that has already polarized a number of nations (i.e. USA).
Thanks to Phillip and a few other friends for sparking this idea and giving their thoughts. As always, if you disagree or have a strong opinion, please message me!