October 20, 2019

Blaming Secularism

William Barr
William Barr, U.S. DOJ [Public domain]

We have all seen stories like this one in the news media, claiming that the kids are not alright. Without dismissing their importance or even their validity, I think it is important to consider them in context. They are nothing new. The focus today might be on Millennials, but these stories have been written about every generation. I say that as a member of a generation that was routinely described as a bunch of worthless slackers who would never contribute anything of value to society.

What I find most interesting about the notion that there is something seriously wrong with the youth is how the various solutions always seem to match up with the pre-existing biases of those offering them. It isn't like we detect a problem, thoroughly analyze it like scientists might, and then develop and test solutions tailored to the problem and what we have learned about it. Instead, we simply pull out whatever solution we've already decided we'd like to see and push it even if it doesn't seem to apply. It is always time to grind our ax even if an ax is not called for.

I might encounter one of these stories about Millennials and their various problems and conclude that this is the result of their addiction to smart phones and the manner in which they have tried to replace human contact with social media. I can bolster my case by drawing on the sort of examples I see every day of young people complaining about being lonely on social media and not seeming to understand that this type of communication is never going to be an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction. Or I might tell you about how I saw a college student wearing what appeared to be fairly expensive shoes step in the middle of a large mud puddle because she was playing with her phone while walking. I'd tell you that this sort of obliviousness to one's surroundings can't be good for one's mental health. Unfortunately, this sort of explanation leaves far too much out to be adequate.

A far more familiar example is that we could blame every problem facing today's youth on the lack of discipline, personal responsibility, and Jesus. You've all heard variations of this argument from conservatives. Some emphasize lax parenting, while others blame the self-esteem movement. I work with a guy who insists that every problem can be traced back to the moment public schools starting distributing participation ribbons. I know others who are still fond of blaming rock music or "Hollywood values." What's important about this is that the emphasis on tradition and respect for authority provides a natural fit for the injection of religion.

We've all heard religious conservatives (and conservatives who aren't terribly religious) blame our ejection of their preferred god from the public schools for pretty much every social ill. All problems can be laid at the doorstep of secularism. This sort of thinking is so common that we can hardly be surprised when we hear government officials pushing it. I'm not suggesting that they are not wrong to do so; I'm merely noting that this sort of thing does not happen in a vacuum. They are not breaking new ground but inappropriately parroting an extremely popular meme. I think it makes sense to oppose them when they violate the separation of church and state, but I would like to see even more effort aimed at dismantling this meme.

Liberals are fond of asking about what conservatives are trying to conserve even though the answer seems fairly obvious. Many are trying to preserve the traditions they value. They see most modern problems as consequences of the erosion of those traditions. And for many, these traditions are inseparable from the god(s) in which they believe. Trying to argue with them by pointing out that their cherished traditions did not work for everyone is doomed to fail. As long as their traditions worked for them, that is going to be good enough. We are going to need to develop some different tactics if we hope to change their minds.

When we run into one of these stories about how screwed up young people are, we should be careful about pulling out the things we've already decided we'd like to see change and acting as if they are viable solutions to the problem. Maybe some of them could be partial solutions, but we probably don't know enough about the nature of the problem to be confident about that. What I've found helpful in resisting this impulse is to remind myself that once someone has decided they want Christian theocracy in the U.S., they predictably blame secularism for all ills and push their god as the solution to all problems. I'd like to avoid making similar mistakes.