Why does it seem that orderly, prosperous, and well-run societies are usually less religious, but the less religious a society becomes the more disorderly it gets?
The situation is complex, it’s hard to do comparisons, and polling results are subject to a great deal of interpretation, but general trends seem clear. Northern and Western European countries are irreligious, Northeast Asian countries such as China and Japan are irreligious, and communist and post-communist countries are irreligious, except where religion was part of resistance to foreign ideological domination. In contrast, less developed areas such as Africa, South America, and Asia outside the Russian and Chinese cultural spheres are usually quite religious.
Given all that, it seems clear that religion doesn’t mix with success or modernization, right?
Actually, the picture is more complicated than that. It does appear that more order and prosperity mean less religion. That should be no surprise: people have been saying for some time that there are no atheists in foxholes and the poor are closer to God. It’s also true that the trend throughout the world seems to be away from religion. On the other hand, it’s equally true that less religion means less order and prosperity. Kill a country’s religion, and you kill the country. Throughout the West the post-60s period has been marked not only by a trend toward extreme secularity, but by an end to the postwar boom and by intractable social problems, including radical increases in crime and family instability.
To explain the situation we need to look at the relation between religion and social order. That relation is both close and complex. Religion has to do with ultimate principles and loyalties, social order with the principles and loyalties that connect us to others. The two are closely linked. Man is rational enough so he’ll try to avoid a situation in which what he accepts ultimately is too much at odds with what he accepts socially. One way or another, the two sides of life mostly come to mirror each other. The influence is usually mutual. Christian and Muslim societies are different, so it’s evident religion influences social order. Irish and Mexican Catholicism are different, so the reverse is also true: society influences religion. It’s a dynamic relation, and it’s usually hard to be sure which side is in charge. Sometimes, though, one side becomes altogether dominant and the other an appendage. God becomes the only king, or the State becomes God. Such situations are always temporary. Attempts to build the New Jerusalem here and now are corrupted by less elevated concerns, and the New Jerusalem turns out to have a lot of the Old Babylon in it. Religion can’t be altogether merged with political power without loss of integrity: that’s why Catholicism doesn’t favor rule by priests, but only acceptance by secular rulers of their obligations to God and religion.
On the other hand, the totalitarian effort to create a wholly secular order with no king but Caesar also corrupts itself and falls apart. People find it hard to believe that the will of the leader, the determinations of experts, or the decision of the market is really the highest law, and the strain of trying to do so means they close their eyes to reality and do stupid and destructive things. Eventually nature reasserts herself, the people lose faith, and the authorities stop believing their own claims. The New Order slides into chaos, and religious believers emerge from the catacombs and try to rebuild a society in which religion limits and purifies worldly power.
It can take a while for all that to happen. The West today is heading ever more strongly in the direction of radical secularism. Politics are liberal and thought is technological, which means that human preferences have become the highest standard and the political and moral ideal is the transformation of the world into a sort of machine for maximizing their equal satisfaction. The social order that results from that ideal is usually considered anti-religious. That’s true in the most obvious sense, but not as comprehensively as people believe. Something that functions as religion is a social and political necessity. People need to believe that social and moral obligation is somehow inscribed in the nature of things, so when we accept and follow it we are acting in accordance with how things are. We all believe in natural law of some kind or other. So if the established religion isn’t Catholicism or Islam or some other traditional religion it will be something else put together to satisfy the same human need. If Caesar is the only king, then the king will not be Caesar simply as Caesar, but Caesar deified.
The religious outlook that corresponds to a secular liberal social order is not worship of a literal Caesar so much as belief in individual man as the supreme divinity. If the highest good is promoting individual preferences and autonomy, within the limits of a system that does that for everyone, then every individual makes things good simply by desiring them. His will creates moral reality, and thus has divine efficacy. Such an outlook leads to problems, which are at bottom the same as the problems of advanced liberalism. How can you have seven billion supreme beings, each of them establishing what is good with equal authority? What do you do when they disagree? Liberalism can be viewed as the religious system that has grown up to answer such questions.
Like other religious systems, liberalism has certain dogmas and disciplinary requirements. Its first requirement is that the divine individuals accept liberalism itself, and recognize each other’s equal godhead. To the extent one of them fails to do, for example by recognizing a supreme being that transcends the secular liberal system, he is trying to suppress some divine wills in favor of others, or so it is thought. Such a person has no place in the system, so he is cast out as a fallen deity, a demon, an oppressive bigot with no right to any kind of consideration.
The divine individuals must also support and accept the authority of the hierarchs of the liberal church, in the form of the governing structure that constitutes the liberal state and determines the practical resolution of conflicting wills. The authority of that structure is based on its claim that it is indifferent to the intrinsic value of what the billions of divinities happen to choose—to judge such matters would be to judge one divine will better than another—but only concerned with their joint fulfillment and mutual non-interference. It determines such matters, or so it claims, in a purely rational matter, so that to reject its authority is (once again) to favor arbitrary oppression of one will in favor of another and thus to fall from grace and become demonic and unworthy of consideration.
Such a governing structure, which rejects intrinsic value in favor of equality, efficiency, and manageability as supreme goals, is at odds with human nature, and becomes conceivable only through the remarkable success of technological forms of social organization such as the transnational corporation and the expert bureaucracy. The effect of making it supreme is that goods and ties that transcend individual desire must be suppressed because they get in the way. What place is there for family, church, or local community when experts, advertisers, and administrators run everything? The result is that the ideal for citizenship becomes careerism, political correctness, and moderate self-involved hedonism. That’s not an ideal that supports social order or efficiency in the long run, so the society tends (as we see today) toward dysfunction that with time grows ever more radical.
That is the irony of liberalism: it is made possible by ties and loyalties that it rejects and destroys. That kind of irony is what leads to cycles in history. Every social order is associated with a religion, or something that functions as such. If the religion corresponds to realities and human needs the society will function well and become successful. As the society becomes more and more successful, the need for a religion distinct from the society seems less pressing, and the religion that made the society successful is likely to become more and more identified with the society itself. If the society is successful enough, or singleminded enough in its pursuit of success, the religion that made it successful will effectively disappear and the secular religion that replaces it is unlikely to be functional enough to prevent radical social decline. It is that process that we now see all around us in the West.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared July 10, 2013 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above from the U.S. Supreme Court Building depicts Moses holding the 10 Commandments.