The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

It’s Wednesday, August 10th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Are Americans Abandoning Religious Belief? Rethinking the Research on the Rise of Religious ‘Nones’ — It’s More Complex Than You Think

Is America rapidly becoming a more secular nation? Is secularization basically shifting the entire landscape of the United States so that people are less and less religion? That there are less religious people? That the religious people aren’t so religious as they used to be, and more Americans becoming unbelievers, secularists of one sort or another? Well, actually, if you look at all the data, it’s a pretty complicated picture. You can come up with a lot of data indicating an increasingly secularized America. Now, in order to understand that in the way I think that for Christians is most important, we need to understand that if we’re looking at a social reality, not just defining it theologically, we’ll get to that.

Then as a social reality, religion appears to be less important, less formative, less authoritative in the United States than it used to be. Now there’s some awkwardness for Christians in using the term religion. So we have to define what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a sociological reality. We’re talking about different sets of beliefs. As we understand, believing Christians committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, understand that there will be many religious people in hell. That’s not the point. We do understand however that a secular society grows increasingly distant from its theological roots, and here’s the other side of that, antagonistic towards those theological roots. This turns out to be really important. How else can you understand or explain something like the reality of same sex marriage? So many of the moral debates that we see today.

A culture of rampant, permissive sexuality, and the loss of any kind of fear of God, or even direct reference to God in a binding way in our society. That is evidence of secularization. But as you’re looking at the data coming in, and by the way, it’s pretty massive. Now that’s interesting for another reason. If you were to try to look to this data 100 years ago, guess what, you wouldn’t have any, or you wouldn’t have much. And much that you had, if you had any at all, wouldn’t be authoritative or taken with much scientific credence today. That is because we are living in the age of quantification, and that is a new age. Now, not entirely new in the sense that if you recall the opening to the Gospel of Matthew, Caesar Augustus had ordered a census. That’s a mathematical statistical reality.

Cesar wanted to know how many citizens or at least how many people were included within his empire, who they were and where they lived, even who their fathers and grandfathers were. But as you’re looking at the modern day quantification, it’s entirely different. It’s the quantification of everything. One of the reasons why this came up in the United States was that the consumer age had dawned. If you’re trying to sell something to consumers, it comes in handy to know what consumers are looking for, who the consumers are, where they are, what their buying patterns indicate. But beyond that, the early decades of the 20th Century, saw the quantification of the study of human beings and human societies.

So you had the emergence of things such as consumer polling, the kind of public polling that became ubiquitous in the United States, the Gallup organization, and various other intelligence gathering and analysis, for-profit, non-profit organizations. They all are telling us who Americans are, what Americans buy, what Americans want, and increasingly, how Americans define themselves in terms of religious identity. The big story of the last 30 years or so consistently has been the rise of the nones, N-O-N-E-S. Those who check the box, none, as in no religious identification, no religious preference, none at all.

Now the big story in the beginning of this movement, when people began to recognize, the nones were a newly emerging force, numerically significant in the United States. So much so that it was estimated that say one out of five Americans identified at least in some surveys as having no religious identity or religious identification. The indications were that this number went far higher along with the ratio as you look to younger Americans, age 30 and under. Now, you don’t just have to look at this kind of statistical study to understand there really is something going on here. But there also has been a turn in the argument, and the reason for that is this. It turns out that people who check none aren’t exactly disbelievers. They don’t want to identify with any as say the brand names they have known in terms of their religious background.

They say they have no religious identity, but when religious researchers look at what they actually believe, what they believe isn’t irreligious. In many ways, it’s very religious. Sometimes it’s an alternative religion, sometimes it’s a do it yourself mash or mixture of all kinds of religious influences and symbols. But the one thing that researchers are increasingly detecting is they aren’t secularist. Not in the pure sense. There has been no radical rise, and in some surveys, not much of a rise at all in those who identify as atheist or agnostic. These people aren’t saying we’re unbelievers, they’re just saying we don’t want to associate ourselves with any particular religious tradition, anyone of the brand names. Now this leads to some huge questions for Christians in the United States, for Christian institutions, Christian churches, because looking at this from a gospel perspective, we can’t reduce everything to statistics.

Frankly, we don’t gather a lot of encouragement, theologically, from the fact that people identify as nones, but actually have some form of spiritual or theological beliefs. That’s because we actually believe that to be human is to have spiritual and theological beliefs. Christians actually believe this in such a radical way because we believe that every single human being is made in the image of God. We believe it so radically that taken to its logical conclusion, we actually don’t believe that atheists are atheists. They may even think they’re atheist, try to convince themselves they’re atheist, but they give indications of the imago Dei, of the image of God. That they really aren’t atheist.

My favorite one is the fact that Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford university, one of the world’s most famous atheist, perhaps the most famous atheist, actually, has said that he likes to go to choral, even song services, particularly around Christmas. Now, if you really are an antagonistic atheist, you don’t even believe that the aesthetics of Christianity are something that would attract you. Now, I’m not saying that Richard Dawkins is being hypocritical or even inconsistent, or that he’s lying to us, I’m simply saying that Richard Dawkins, even as he denies God, is, we fully believe and know, made in God’s image. And that’s the one thing he cannot undo. Well, thinking about this kind of research led to the emergence of an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Now The Wall Street Journal is interested in these things because The Wall Street Journal is very interested in the society. The editorial board, very interested in the culture around us. But remember The Wall Street Journal is also the main newspaper in the world about financial and business affairs, and that includes consumer affairs. Where there are all kinds of reasons why The Wall Street Journal may have been interested in this article. It appeared in the houses of worship weekly column, in the opinion section of The Wall Street Journal. It appeared on July the 28th. Byron R. Johnson and Jeff Levin are the authors of the article. They’re both professors at Baylor University in Texas. One is a professor of sociology, the other a professor of epidemiology and public health.

They co-author the article that came with the headline asking the question, “Religion is dying? They then say don’t believe it.” The subhead, “Many of the nones aren’t secular, they belong to minority face. The problem is how to count them.” They opened their article by making this argument, reports of religions decline in America have been exaggerated. You’ve heard the story, churchgoers are dwindling in number while nones, those who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation are multiplying as people abandon their faith and join the ranks of atheists and agnostics. They go on to point to a headline such as one that appeared in the Daily Mail in Britain in 2013, “Religion could disappear by 2041 because people will have replaced God with possessions, claims leading psychologists.”

They then summarize these conclusions are based on analyses that are so flawed as to be close to worthless. Now they then point to research, and this includes research about research undertaken by these two writers and a team of others they’re at Baylor. They come back to say the picture is far more complicated. Is religion in decline? Is belief in God in decline? Is organized religion in decline in the United States? They come back to say, “Well, yes, in some sense but no in another sense.” I went ahead and looked at their entire study, published a scientific literature, and it comes down to this. If you are defining religion in largely functional form, or even if you’re looking at religious beliefs, basically, as beliefs that happen to be religious, well, by that measure, it turns out that many of the nones, if not most of the nones, are actually somewhat, indeed, somewhat highly religious.

Now it depends on how you want to define that as a good or a bad thing. You want to define religion as a set of beliefs or an identity. But the bottom line is secularization implying that people just don’t believe in God, they’re less religious, they’re growing increasingly allergic to religion and distant from religion, well, it’s both true and false. That’s the bottom line, and that’s what’s of worldview importance to us. The secularization of the society is real. You see it, you sense it. The main point I want to make about that, as a Christian theologian, is that the bottom line is that a secularizing society or an increasingly secularized society is no longer moved by religious authority. No longer recognizes the binding authority, say, of Christian theology. The very theological worldview that gave birth to the West. And so that is a huge change.

But I also want to make the argument that people who think themselves secular or think themselves to have moved on from their inherited religious tradition or what they see as the religious tradition of the past, tend to be antagonistic towards that very same religious form. Which is something else we see in the society around us. The argument here would simply be this, we as Christians understand that made in God’s image, human beings are just by constitution. You could say by creation, religious, and that religious impulse is going to come out one way or another. The amazing thing is the scripture’s clear, that can come out in obedience to God, it can come out in antagonism to God. You say, well, there are many people who appear to be say in the middle, Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold.

They’re not antagonistic nor are they obedient worshipers. But that’s where the scripture helps us to understand that a seemingly blase, supposedly, neutral position on these issues isn’t actually neutral. Now that doesn’t mean that people don’t make arguments that put themselves somewhere in the middle between belief and unbelief. It is to say that it is, according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just believing in God, but believing in the Lord, Jesus Christ as God’s Son. And believing that God has raised him from the dead. If you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.

Now just thinking about religious people as religious, the authors of the article in The Wall Street Journal say, “The religious landscape in the US is changing. But not in the ways that draw headlines. Hundreds of new denominations, they say, have quietly appeared as have thousands of church plants.” That means new congregations. They have to explain that to readers of The Wall Street Journal, “And numerous non-Christian religious imports. These more than make up for losses from mainline Protestant denominations, which are indeed in free fall and have been for decades. But the decline of established institutions is easier to track than the formation and growth of new ones.” Now that actually makes perfect sense. It is easier to look at established organizations, like the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. And all you have to do is look at them since the 1960s and they are, as described in this article, in a free fall.

As a matter of fact, they’re being emptied of people. On the other hand, more conservative forms of Christianity in the United States have been thriving, though, we have to be clear and we have to be honest against significant headwinds right now that are affecting evangelicals writ large, and even groups like the Southern Baptist Convention. It is clear that evangelism is harder, church planting is harder, cultural headwinds are real. It is important for us to recognize that pictures just more complex. It’s more complicated than some people would like to acknowledge. These professors also say this, “The proportion of nones has increased sharply from 15% in 2007 to 30% in 2021, even though the proportion of atheists in the US has held steady at 3 to 4% for more than 80 years.” They go on to say, “And there are reasons to question the assumption that even truly unaffiliated nones aren’t religious.”

They went on to say, “Their study looked closely at their actual practices and beliefs.” I looked at their entire study, read it page for page, and yes, that’s exactly what they find, and that makes a great deal of sense. But this is where Christians theologically and biblically defined to understand the fact that they’re religious, well in theological terms, that really doesn’t much help us other than giving evidence of the fact that they’re made in God’s image. In cultural terms, not associated in so many ways with traditional biblical Christianity, they are increasingly going along with the liberalization of the culture. There were some responses in The Wall Street Journal to this piece they were interesting in themselves. One writer representing American Judaism wrote in to say that, “If these trends are true, they are especially true in non-Orthodox American Judaism, where Jewish identity is evaporating very, very fast.”

Now, there have been many who pointed out that just as in conservative Christianity, there is retention and growth in Orthodox Judaism. But the point made by this writer is that the numbers still are just incredibly small. There have been authoritative and influential writers within Judaism suggesting that in the decades ahead, if these trends are not reversed, Judaism could disappear from much of America. Another writer on another day wrote in responding to the article to say, “Look, everything comes down to how you ask the question.” The devil, according to this writer, is in the questions. You ask people, “Are you religious?” They’ll say, “No.” You ask them what they believe? They might say something religious, but that does not make them self-consciously religious.

Again, we, as Christians, are not looking for people merely to be religious. But as we think about our society, the question as to whether or not they are identified with their religious belief system has a lot to do with how they vote, how they live, how they understand sex and marriage and all the rest, so it does have cultural consequences. And Christians, in a gospel understanding, also see that it helps to define our evangelistic challenge and our mission field. In any event, the bottom line of all of this, people may think they are increasingly secular. In some terms they might be, but increasingly it’s clear that made in God’s image, there is only so far that most individuals can go in actually trying to move in a secular identity.

But, furthermore, as you’re looking at the culture around us, it is secularizing because the binding authority of religion. That is to say how many people actually believe their conscious is to be bound by something like scripture. That is a decreasing percentage of our population, and that’s increasingly important as you think about our culture, politics, and the entire picture.

Part II

Does Freud Explain Cancel Culture? A Steady State Understanding of Moral Judgments in a Secularizing World

But speaking of The Wall Street Journal, a very interesting article recently appeared. I don’t agree with the premise, but I do find it very interesting. So interesting that I want to draw attention to it. The author is Andrew Hartz, he’s a psychologist in New York City and he argues that if you want to understand the cancel culture going on undertaken by progressives in our society, you need to look to Sigmund Freud.

The title of his article, “Freud Explains Cancel Culture.” He goes on to say it’s moralistic, but it isn’t necessarily moral. He takes us, of course, to Sigmund Freud, one of the formative figures of the 20th Century, and I would argue, one of the four horsemen, so to speak, of the worldview apocalypse of the century now behind us. He points to Freud’s division of the human psyche into three parts, the “id,” that would be unconscious drives, the “ego,” that would be the conscious self, and what Freud called the “superego,” and that’s where moral ideals, inhibitions and shame are located, reminds Andrew Hartz. Now, as you are looking at Sigmund Freud, he suggested that one of the imbalances that happens in his psychotherapeutic worldview in the twisted psyche of humanity tortured in the modern age is an overactive superego.

Now it appears that whether or not this particular rider is self-consciously a Freudian, Freud has clearly influenced him. Now what he’s basically arguing is that Freud used this kind of argument largely against conservatives, so did profits and figures on the American new left in the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond. But he’s arguing as a psychologist that at least part of what’s going on in the cancel culture, among progressives on the left, is that they are driven by an overactive superego. They are moralistic, they are making moral judgments. Remember, a part of his article is they are very moralistic whether or not they hold to any particular morals. Trying to explain the superego, he writes, “The superego isn’t always ethical. Someone could feel intense shame for having something stuck in his teeth during a date and no guilt at all about cheating on his taxes. The superego,” he writes, “is often irrational, though its pronouncements can feel as if they come from on high.”

Now remember that Freud, famous for his Oedipus complex, argued that, that was rooted and the fact that overly domineering and authoritative father figures tend to operate with very powerful, superegos. Now you can understand how this was used to subvert all kinds of authority in the 20th Century. But then the psychologist ask, “How does all of this fit into the transformation of the 1960s counterculture?” He explains, “In the 1960s, many figures on the left tried to abolish the superego. Some consciously,” he writes, “others less deliberately, and this goal seeped into the entire counterculture. It wasn’t only the overthrow of the patriarchy, an anti-father ethos or the shifting of sexual morays, but a deeper attempt to overthrow rules and gratify desire.”

But just to cut to the quick here, this psychologist says that doesn’t work, and instead, that moralism still shows up and what he describes as a patchwork morality that can often be very harsh in judgment but very inconsistent, actually, in terms of any particular moral code. Explaining this imbalance, Dr. Hartz says that it’s the misattunement of moralization. He explains, “Criminals get compassion while police are vilified. There’s sometimes more judgment of people who don’t wear a mask than of people who rob stores. Insults directed at white people or men are seen as the epitome of justice and wisdom even while unconscious bias against other groups is seen as unforgivable.”

Now you can certainly understand the point he is making here. Indeed on the left, indeed on the increasingly self-conscious secular left, there is an increase in this kind of moralism and this kind of moral judgment. Now the professor’s answer is to reign in the dysfunctional superego. He says this requires, “Leadership that can speak directly about the cost of excessive morality and uneven standards and let people be people with the diverse desires they have under fair pragmatic rules.” But this is where we as Christians have to come back and say to this psychologist, “Well, Doctor, we think you have misdiagnosed the problem, but you’ve seen a real problem, and you’ve also suggested a therapy that won’t work.” The problem is not an overactive superego, is the fact that made in the image of God, human beings are moral creatures and can never be anything other than moral creatures.

As I give apologetic and theological lectures, I often describe this as a steady state understanding of moral judgment. The point I want to make is that all human beings constantly make moral judgments. Even the people who say they don’t make moral judgments, make moral judgments about the people who do make moral judgment self-consciously. If you say you shouldn’t make a moral judgment, it’s wrong to make that moral judgment, you have just made a moral judgment, and that’s the conundrum. Now philosophers can say it’s just a philosophical trap, but Christians understand it’s actually evidence of the image of God. But, nonetheless, it does tell us something about the progressive left. Now having abandoned and perhaps even absolutely opposed traditional Christian morality, they are not immoral, they are just directing their moral judgment elsewhere.

Even as they see themselves as absolutely liberal and progressive on so many issues, say on sexual morality, they’re making moral judgments about those who they think aren’t keeping up with the revolution. You’re making moral judgments all the time.

Part III

60 Years Of the New Left: The Port Huron Statement and the Transformation of America — (And the Newer Left Leaving It Behind)

But that takes me to one final issue, Professor Hartz is right to point to the new left in the 1960s and ’70s as seeking to overthrow traditional American institutions and American morality based in a Christian or a Judeo-Christian tradition. One of the things I want us to know is that this year marks the 60th anniversary of a manifesto released by the leaders of the new left, particularly, as a student movement. And 60 years ago, they released what was known as the Port Huron Statement in order to demand vast changes in American society.

Their manifesto blew wide opened the doors of revolution and their mandate for personal authenticity would eventually birth later revolutions that would encourage, among other things, biological males to declare their authentic selves to the women and to demand to swim on women’s swim teams. But that wasn’t envisionable 60 years ago, and that’s my point. If you are going to do as the new left did, if you are going to oppose all traditional, say, Christian morality, biblical morality, if you’re going to explain that as oppression, then in the name of liberation, you’re not going to stop making moral judgments. You just turn the moral judgments upside down. The moral judgments are seen right now, for example, in that swimmer on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team.

Now the swim season is over, but Leah Thomas, as the swimmer went by as a name, was of course a biological male on the women’s swim team. Very controversial. You’re very familiar with the controversy, but note, there are people who believe that it’s absolutely wrong for a biological male, regardless of self-understanding, to be on a women’s team. And there are those who believe that it’s absolutely wrong to believe that there could be anything wrong with a person who is biologically male but identifies as female demanding to swim on the women’s swim team. You’re not looking at moral judgment on one side and no moral judgment on the other side, now you’re looking at conflicting, indeed, contradictory. But the thing to note is that both are equally and often presented with equal force moral judgments.

Tom Hayden was, in many ways, the convener of the meeting and the main author of the manifesto. He would later be married to actress Jane Fonda, you can do the math on that, very much, in one sense, the first man and the first woman of the new left in the United States. They didn’t stay married for all that long, but they were central figures in the new left of their times. The main group behind the statement, that is Students for a Democratic Society, they wanted what amounts to a Marxist revolution that would transform American society from top to bottom. Karl Marx had indicted capitalism for alienating the worker from his work. The Port Huron Statement would accuse the entire national culture of robbing individuals of their inner authenticity.

Now you see all this holds together. You think about psychology coming in the last issue, and now you realize it’s back because the psychotherapeutic movement calling for persons, not so much to be right or just, but rather to be authentic. Authenticity became the great goal of so many and still is today even if the language has somewhat changed. But as we come to a conclusion, we need to recognize that even as most Americans have no idea that there was, or ever was for that matter, a Port Huron Statement. And even as most Americans don’t know that there was, ever was a new left, the new left is now very much in control in much of American society. In particular, in American academia. But also in some sectors of American politics. But the other thing to note is that the new left has given birth to a newer left and that newer left is taking the argument of the new left even further.

That’s the way this works. The hinges of history rarely turn on a single event, but one event can put things in motion. One of those events took place now 60 years ago. Those college students are now mostly in their 80s, but in one sense, we are living in the world they set loose. That seems like something we at least ought to think about. It is interesting, finally, to note that the new left presented itself as a replacement for what they saw as outdated, the old left.

You’ll notice that doesn’t last very long. There’s a new, new left, or even a new, new, new left to argue that the new left is now hopelessly outdated. After all, they had not even imagined a biological male on a university women’s swim team. How out of date.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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