Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Fall of Community and the Rise of Secular Modernity


Previously, I criticized C. S. Lewis for his argument that modernity took away people's ability to judge objective truths and make life-changing positions because they believed that something was true. What I believe is missing from that argument is the role of community. Modernity is important in the rise of secularism not because people stopped judging arguments objectively, they never were good at that in the first place, but that modernity broke down traditional community authority. This flipped the incentives when it came to religion. Where once people's lived experiences made it almost impossible not to be at least somewhat religious, now people live in a secular reality that makes it quite difficult for them to be religious. 

The importance of communal authority is most obvious when dealing with Judaism as the Jewish experience with modernity (at least in Europe) involved fairly clear-cut moments where communal authority broke down. Jews went from being members of their local kehilla to being citizens of a country, leading to rapid secularization during the following generation. The Christian experience of modernity provides fewer clean breaks with religious authority, the French and Russian Revolutions being the obvious exceptions. That being said, the practical implications of the modern breakdown of community, once it happened, are relevant to Christians as well.  

It is the combination of community and ideas that forces people to make life-altering decisions. If you grow up within a particular faith community, you might be very smart and be able to come up with all kinds of challenging arguments against your religion but as long as an alternative community with a superior doctrine then it is unlikely for a formal break to happen. One thinks of the tragic life of Uriel da Costa, who fled Catholic Portugal only to find that the rabbinic Judaism of Amsterdam did not suit him either. He found himself caught in a cycle of being excommunicated for heresy and humiliating himself in order to get the community to take him back. Eventually, he committed suicide. Most people are going to avoid such a fate by accepting the parts of their religion they can accept while quietly placing anything else as beyond their understanding. 

Take away the sense of a religious community and two things happen. One, our person likely will have encountered an anti-religious ideology with which to argue against any argument for religion we might wish to make. Two, even if you get past his arguments, as long as our person has no religious community, your arguments for religion will never get past the level of interesting theory that does not need to be put into practice. Before modernity, it was unbelief that had to get past people's lived experiences and, as such, even the best arguments against religion could be dismissed as interesting theories with no relevance to "reality." Now it is religion that has to scale that wall of people's lived experience in a secular world where the a priori assumptions of the game are fixed against religion.  

The problem of community helps us understand the challenge of science and other academic disciplines. For many people, science offers a kind of objective truth. Even if particular claims of science can be refuted, the scientific method carries authority as something against which other truths are going to be judged. It is very easy to make a convincing case for Genesis if there are no ready alternatives competing for the person's attention. Introduce evolution and the mere fact that it exists as an alternative explanation makes it harder to accept Genesis as an absolute. This becomes all the more so once we accept evolution as part of science and come to see science as fundamental to how we understand the world.  

From this perspective, it does not matter if I reconcile Genesis with evolution. The moment dinosaurs living millions of years ago becomes something to take more seriously than a literal Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, my religion is going to be critically hobbled. As my brain becomes filled with all sorts of things from science, math, and history that I honestly believe in at the bottom of my heart, the religious truths I hold are going to become pushed aside to the point when, even if they are not rejected, they become relativized to the point that it will not be able to make absolute claims over my actions. The only way to escape this trap is to undermine the very authority of the academic disciplines as a means of making any claims regarding even physical reality.   

Keep in mind that most people, myself included, are not professional scientists. Even among professional scientists, the number of people who are in a position to directly evaluate the case for evolution is going to be small. It is likely that there are only a few thousand such people on the planet. Everyone else is forced to accept what such people say as a matter of faith. This is going to come down to a question of whose authority are you going to accept. If you are part of a religious thought structure then it is easy to reject evolution. Scientists are just a bunch of power-hungry fools trying to convince people to reject the obvious truth of creation. This is in contrast to our wise and virtuous gedolim (or whatever your religious leaders like to call themselves). Once this is your a priori, it is easy to find evidence to justify this belief. The moment that science becomes the basis of your lived reality then the script flips and it becomes easy to dismiss any objections to evolution as religious backwardness.   

To be clear, when I talk about secularism, I do not necessarily mean that people become outright atheists. Religion can still survive as a social hobby that people attend to on a weekly basis. This does not change the fact that such people still live in a secular reality. Religion, no longer the full-time live experience, is pushed to the margins with little hope of reaching the next generation let alone the wider society.