Everybody Worships

Today I’m happy to publish my first essay at National Review.

Today I’m happy to publish my first essay at National Review, “We’re All Fundamentalists Now.” In the essay I reflect on the curious similarities between the secular social justice movement and religious fundamentalism. I think the two movements are similar because they express the same truth about humans: We must worship and devote ourselves to something that has transcendent power.

Here’s an excerpt:

My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.

The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power?

The crucial difference, of course, is that Christians and many other religious conservatives have a coherent theological narrative. Because we retain the language of sin and guilt, we have the categories necessary to confront cultural decadence with more than outrage.

Read the whole thing here.

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Shelter in the Shame Storm

We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.

Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.

This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.

Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.

At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?

I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.

Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.

I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.

The Campus Crisis is a Parenting Crisis

Mere Orthodoxy has kindly published my long review/essay of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The piece is lengthy, because I think Christians need to grapple with the book’s arguments very carefully.

Here’s an excerpt:

Herein lies the ironic failure of contemporary parenting: In trying to insulate children from the exterior threats to their physical safety and academic performance, we have made kids exponentially more vulnerable to other threats to their flourishing—threats that seem less worrisome in principle but make up for the deficit in sheer omnipresence and residuality. The failure to see the trade-off is why, for example, so many parents have been blindsided by the research showing negative effects of screen time and social media. When your imagination is filled with images of kids getting snatched off the sidewalk or murdered on their way home from school, it’s almost impossible to feel a proper trepidation at the thought of their safely and warmly spending the weekend on the couch scrolling through Facebook or Instagram.

The result is a generation of American citizens who have been prohibited from valuable experiences that teach them their own antifragility and capacity to empathize with those unlike them.

Read the whole piece here.

Has Trump De-Legitimized the Pro-Life Movement?

My answer in First Things: No.

Excerpt:

Warnings about the optics of Trump as a leader of religious conservatives aren’t totally misguided. Trump’s pro-life politics almost certainly arise from convention and convenience, rather than conviction. His rhetoric is incompatible with a holistically Christian worldview, and there may be some political blowback to the pro-life agenda in the midterms and 2020 elections. But the notion that the pro-life movement can be identified with Trump or the Republican Party is specious. It bespeaks a political and moral math that seems to apply to abortion and nothing else. That some think one politician can singlehandedly delegitimize the pro-life cause is evidence of Screwtape’s success in fogging up the abortion debate with propaganda.

Read the whole thing here.

Gender Equality and Gender War

I have a piece up at First Things today on the sexual revolution, #MeToo, and why women are always the biggest losers in a sexually autonomous society. Here’s an excerpt:

The two most consequential gains of the sexual revolution in my lifetime have been birth control and pornography, both of which have radically shaped the public square in the image of male desire. Both oral contraceptives and abortion have been cast as victories for female liberation, and to the degree that “liberation” means the weaponizing of our bodies against nature, this is true. But it is the men who have reaped the richest rewards (sex without children), without any of the tradeoff. Men, after all, need not concern themselves with the physiological effects of the pill, or with the surgeon’s knife, or with the risks of darkness and depression. It is the liberated women, not the men, who are asked to sacrifice their bodies for equality.

You can read the whole thing here.

Interestingly, and purely coincidentally, my friend Alastair Roberts has a new post about “weak men” and the gender wars. He riffs on a recent interview of social psychologist Jordan Peterson, in which Peterson appears to offend his interviewer by suggesting that men who perpetually defer to women in their life are ironically frustrating the ladies they’re trying to placate. Instead of being constantly admonished to support strong women, Alastair argues, men should be encouraged to shed immature weakness of their own and assert virtuous control over their lives and responsibilities.

Alastair:

Women, Peterson argues, deeply desire competent and powerful men as partners, because they can contend with and rely upon such men. Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues. Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them, but such relationships are almost always unhappy and frustrating for both parties in the long run.

Just how threatening the development of powerful men is to our society and how invested our society has become in stifling men and discouraging their strength is illuminating, and the responses to Peterson are often telling here—both the instinctive resistance of many women to the prospect of more powerful men and the immense hunger of young men for a maturity they feel they lack.

And:

Contemporary feminism is a cause doomed to frustration in key respects because the healthy strength and commitment that women so desire in their partners is something that they are invested in systemically stifling elsewhere and because their natural sexual power over men has been traded off for advantages in the realm of economic participation. There is a strong connection between the weakening of men and the progression of feminism, yet the result isn’t satisfying to either sex.

Had I read Alastair’s piece before writing my own, I would have connected our two points explicitly. While the economic dynamics of modern life are tilted to favor women, the sexual dynamics are perhaps more male-biased than ever. That’s because, as Alastair and Jordan Peterson point out, contemporary culture encourages women to lay aside their natural leverage over men and embrace a homogenous sexual ethos, one that is eventually reduced to competition, resentment, and consumerism. These attitudes erode trust and communal accountability. All that’s left is litigation and the will to power, which, unsurprisingly, plays right into the hands of amoral men.

Gender equality, unmoored from a transcendent moral vision of the sexes, culminates in gender war. If we are to push back against the tide of sexual violence and exploitation, we have to push back all the way, all the way against the sexual nihilism that convinced us first of all that we could be and do whatever we want.

New Atheism vs Science

Thomas Nagel has an erudite and punchy review of a new book by “Four Horseman” Daniel Dennett. Read the whole thing here, but here’s the haymaker:

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs…”

…There is no reason to go through such mental contortions in the name of science. The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. It should not disturb us that this may have radical consequences, especially for Dennett’s favorite natural science, biology: the theory of evolution, which in its current form is a purely physical theory, may have to incorporate nonphysical factors to account for consciousness, if consciousness is not, as he thinks, an illusion. Materialism remains a widespread view, but science does not progress by tailoring the data to fit a prevailing theory.

This is, I think, the fatal flaw in the New Atheist project. Its commitment to naturalistic materialism works wonders on glassy-eyed undergraduates and Bill Maher, but it fares less well when live questions of science and philosophy are put to it. Nagel is an atheist like Dennett, but where Dennett’s naturalistic materialism commands every element of his philosophical strategy, Nagel is hung up–like a scientist!–on questions that materialists seem unable (or uninterested) to answer.

Nagel’s right that there’s no reason to go through “mental contortions” for science’s sake. Nor, I would add, is there any reason to debase your humanity and siphon beauty and wonder from your worldview for the sake of “rationality.” There’s a better explanation for everything. You just have to be open to it.