Why God? An Open Letter to College Students
The challenges of trying to successfully defend Taiwan against an overwhelming Chinese attack have done much to propel the long-postponed (and still anemic) project of US defense modernization in the post–Cold War era. If Taiwan is to survive a savage opening salvo, it will be up to the United States to intervene rapidly, effectively, and directly.
If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn1
Dear Zoomers and millennials,
Some say rebellion is the essence of youth. I wonder. Consider your parents’ generations—the baby boomers and Gen Xers. Although the boomers in particular prided themselves on defying authority, most marched in lockstep on signature trends of the times: hippie fashion, rock music, anti-war politics, loosened-up sex—pretty much every game changer associated with the 1960s. Their conformism also included that generation’s growing indifference toward the subject of this letter: religious faith and practice.
After all, it was in the 1960s, not the 2020s, that Americans first accelerated their ongoing retreat from houses of worship. “Is God Dead?,” the most famous Time magazine cover in history, was not the title of a Pew Research Center survey in 2021, say. It dates all the way back to 1966.2 I mention this generational backdrop to bring the conversation about religion around to some other people: you.3
Millennials and Zoomers, as the instruments of social science show, are the most irreligious Americans since experts began measuring such things. About three in 10 adults are now religiously unaffiliated, and “none of the above” is the fastest-growing “religious” affiliation in the United States.4 Although many older Americans profess to be shocked by such numbers, they shouldn’t be. Secularization, as mentioned, began in earnest several decades ago. After all: If more people in the generations behind you had been men and women of faith, the nones out there wouldn’t be growing up without a faith to follow.
In addition to declining religiosity, millennials and Zoomers are distinct for other reasons. You’re said, variously, to belong to the “burnout generation,”5 the “boomerang generation,”6 the “Peter Pan generation,”7 or the “Me Me Me Generation,” to quote a more recent cover of Time.8 You marry later, if you marry at all; you profess even less interest in having children than the generations immediately before you; and your love of country appears to be at an all-time low. A headline from 2019 summarized the picture: “Poll: Patriotism, Religion, Kids, Lower Priorities for Younger Americans.”9
As such summaries show, people ahead of you on the age ladder complain about you, worry about you—even despair about you. In what follows, I’d like to do something different: talk to you. And I’ll do so by skipping over the younger boomers and older Gen Xers who are likely your parents. The middle-agers have had decades to build up their opinion silos. Your own are not yet calcified. So let’s leave behind the public surveys and hand-wringing commentaries and go straight to the demographic source of those nones: you.
Although you may not be used to thinking of it this way, each of you has a choice to make. Yes, the decline of organized religion in the graying, increasingly childless cultures of Western Europe and North America is an epic story.10 But it is not the only one. During these same years of sluggish religious loss in the West, for example, Christianity exploded across China and sub-Saharan Africa.
And even within the secularizing nations, decline has paradoxically been accompanied by a countercultural strengthening of religious orthodoxy in some precincts and a proliferation of new institutions seeking to keep the faithful in community.11 Such facts point to two under-attended truths of history: (1) Religious revivals never arrive on anyone’s schedule, and (2) they do arrive, including after periods of marked decline.12
So where will you fit into this panorama? As followers of today’s a-religious or anti-religious conformism? Or as countercultural pioneers, rediscovering and reclaiming a territory substantially surrendered by many in the generations before you? I’d like to sketch four arguments for why you might think about breaking with today’s secular orthodoxy—four reasons to think about something that will no doubt strike some of you as radical, even ridiculous: giving organized religion a shot.
That pitch may strike you as quixotic. After all, traditionalists have been in a defensive crouch for quite a while now. Then there are the social obstacles to professing belief these days—the raised brows, the marginalizing, the messages, tacit and overt, that the better sort don’t do God. Those of you hailing from secular colleges and universities will already know that a-religiosity and anti-religiosity are now the established creeds not only on campus but in the professions many of you yearn to join.
Even so, that religiosity is now countercultural is no reason for ruling it out—apart from cowardice, of course. But nobody likes that look.
The first argument has to do with that opening quotation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. You cannot understand the history of the 20th century without understanding what happened when people deliberately chose to live without faith. And you must understand the history of the 20th century—because to inoculate yourselves against the dangerous Rousseauian idea that people are endlessly malleable and intrinsically good, you need to grasp just how evil humanity can be and under which preconditions.
In the monument to inhumanity known as Auschwitz, for example, there’s a pile of ashes made from incinerated bodies so large that it remains visible over 70 years later. Why? The greatest atrocities in the history of humankind occurred during the 20th century: the Holocaust, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the forced famine in Ukraine, the Gulag Archipelago, the Khmer Rouge, and more. Why? Solzhenitsyn—one of the most profound thinkers in any age—argues that the common denominator was atheism.13 He is not alone. Anyone with rudimentary knowledge of history can see that the atheism of leading 19th-century European intellectuals gave rise to ideologies untethered to any ethical system, which in practice countenanced slaughters on a scale never seen before. Nazis and Communists may have hated each other, but the carnage committed in their names was unthinkable, in both cases, without its precondition: atheism. Author David Berlinksi—himself an agnostic—puts this point brilliantly in his book The Devil’s Delusion:
What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.14 (Emphasis added.)
That historical conjunction of totalitarianism and atheism puts a choice before you (indeed, before everyone). Was Solzhenitsyn right—or not? If not, why not? To paraphrase what Samuel Johnson said about the immaterialism of George Berkeley, the mighty Russian’s argument cannot be refuted by kicking a stone. And if you conclude alongside him that the flight from God was instrumental to industrialized murder on a scale never before seen, then it just might be worth thinking twice about the flight from God.
Of course, to say that atheism was integral to the worst crimes in history is not to say that atheists are everywhere prone to criminality—or conversely, that religious believers are ipso facto upright. Counterfactuals abound. But it is to say that the reasons for one’s attraction to atheism—like the reasons for one’s aversion to faith—might require more introspection than they’re usually given.
A second cause to consider darkening the doorstep of a house of worship has to do with a word that everyone likes to use and nobody likes to practice: humility. This brings us to a Burkean point. Unless you are certain that you’re smarter than everyone who came before you—all those generations reaching back through time that now culminate in your unique person—you must pause to wonder about the collective wisdom embedded in religion.
After all: Our secularizing world is anomalous in history. Until recently, as is still the case across most of the planet, human beings have practiced some form of religious observance. Whether we like it or not, we Homo sapiens appear to be theo-tropic entities, inclined toward some form of belief in a God or gods. Once more: It is only within the past few decades that this unspoken consensus has come apart.
Is there really no truth, no wisdom, no hidden treasure in the holy books and rituals and other practices of those who came before? This question, too, puts a decision before you. To my detriment, I am not a particularly pious Christian. But I must admit, the weight of that question did push me in the direction of observance. I simply could not accept that the buck passed down by all my ancestors would stop with me—that centuries of spiritual capital were mine, and mine alone, to squander and that I was free to reject with impunity something that many before me had cultivated at what had to be considerable costs.
You might answer that all such ancestors, like everybody else’s, were captives of a bizarre hoax, a continuing grand superstition run amok and perpetrated on humanity for reasons unknown. But can we really contemplate the specters of those progenitors, mine or yours, and say with conviction that we the living know better than they did about the answers to inescapable questions: How are we to live? And how are we to die?
Personally, I’m skeptical that the short life of a single individual offers time enough to map thorough answers to those questions. So if you want to know instead what most of the greatest minds in history had to say about them, it’s worth realizing that you will find Aquinas, Augustine, Boethius, Maimonides, and much of the rest of the distinguished alphabet in the same figurative place: on their knees.
A third argument for entertaining religion has to do with you and the unique critical sensibility conferred on you as digital natives—the inaugural generations born into the internet age.
As consumers and processors of vast and unprecedented amounts of information, you are, in one sense, the least gullible generations in history. You sort through the flotsam and jetsam of the internet at speeds that your parents can’t imagine.15 You know better than to trust everything you read at face value. Your digital nativism confers a head start in understanding that a lot of accepted wisdom is in fact suspect. You are therefore more open to understanding something that many in your parents’ and grandparents’ generations did not: The so-called liberations of the 1960s onward were built on lies.
This is nowhere more true than of the body of works invoked to rationalize the most far-reaching social change of the 1960s: the sexual revolution. That revolution, as we know now thanks to generations of corrective scholarship, was born and nurtured by falsehoods.
So, for example, anthropologist Margaret Mead—whose work among Samoan adolescents was widely believed to prove that sexuality should not be subjected to rules—turns out to have cooked her books.16 Margaret Sanger, the revolution’s patron saint, was a eugenicist who worked with African American pastors to keep down the number of blacks—a set of practices so odious that even Planned Parenthood of greater New York has lately felt compelled to remove her name from their Manhattan clinic.17 Then there is Alfred C. Kinsey, a researcher whose supposedly scientific tabulations of American sexual behavior were touted as evidence that rules proscribing sex were hypocritical. A harasser of subordinates long before #MeToo, Kinsey also built some of his fabled corpus with “data” created by sex offenders, recounting what they had done to infants and children.18
And on the debunking goes.19 If you find any or all such legacies of the revolution problematic, that insight edges you toward religion’s corner, not secularism’s.
A fourth reason to entertain the radical possibility of faith concerns a different storehouse of capital: the human patrimony.
Ask yourself: Why does everyone, religious or not, agree that Gothic cathedrals are among the most beautiful structures ever created? It is because architecture embodies ideas, and the idea of man and his relation to God is incarnate in those cathedrals in a way that people find somehow commensurate with their own experience. The space inside a Gothic cathedral feels true. And what goes for Gothic cathedrals goes for other sacred art as well. From Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to African American spirituals, music written with God as its object stands among the most precious creations of humanity.
There is also the fact that Christianity, in particular, has transformed and stamped vast swaths of literature and the arts. These, too, are among the most exquisite and sublime creations bequeathed to us. William Shakespeare cannot be understood apart from his Christian themes, and Christian teachings suffuse his plays and characters as thoroughly as the Greek gods dominate the tragedies of Aeschylus. The same is true of Gothic art, Renaissance painting and sculpture, most of philosophy, all of Western theology, and the rest of the canon—facts that do not change, including in an age when self-hating legatees of our civilization are trying to burn that same canon.
This brings us to some questions concerning “none of the above” that are also part of your generational signature: How about the DIY solution? Can’t people design their own personal “spirituality” and leave church out of it? I submit that the answers to those questions, rightly understood, also litigate on the side of practicing faith in community, rather than as a solo sport. This is so for three reasons.
The first is a variant on the Burkean observation made earlier. Some of the most luminous souls of the past dedicated their earthly lives to living and working out the rules of the Talmud, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and related texts. Was all for nothing? As Irving Kristol, one of the most creative conservatives of the modern age, once bantered, young people “should not have to invent new ones,” because “the old religions are pretty good.”20
The second caution against a church of one’s own has to do with the boundless human capacity for self-delusion. Say you’re charged with designing a menu for a dinner party—one that you’ll attend. What do you suppose its particulars will be? From appetizers to dessert, they will surely line up with your own predilections. If you don’t eat meat, for example, it won’t be the entrée. If you like seafood, crustaceans will probably be featured. If you dislike red wine, then obviously your dinner will feature white wine instead. And so on.
The point is that when we Homo sapiens are left to devise rules for ourselves, we will inevitably concoct whatever is easiest and pleases us best. The same is true of self-conceived religions, or personal “spirituality”; in fact, such is true of those endeavors, above all. If I’m a Texas Hold’em enthusiast, you can be sure that my own “personal” spirituality won’t proscribe gambling. If I’m itching to leave my husband, I’ll devise rules about marriage that are helpfully elastic.
In Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, the antagonist John Claggart wantonly destroys the life of the eponymous innocent sailor for no reason other than envy. It’s not that Claggart lacked a conscience, Melville remarks in passing. It’s just that his conscience was “but the lawyer to his will.”21 And so it is with DIY religions. Given the robust human capacity for self-deceit, such subjective “spiritualties” will not test us, improve us, or deepen us.
They will serve instead as de facto justifications for whatever it is we want to rationalize about our behavior.
Let’s grant that this might seem an unpropitious moment to take up the hymnal.22 Once upon a time, participation in organized religion and its good works enjoyed social cachet in this country. In many parts of America, that day has passed. Today the public expression of faith is increasingly penalized and stigmatized by an ascendant secularism that sees religious belief as an adversary to be vanquished, rather than as a competing body of thought that might peacefully coexist in a plural society.23
And there remain other reasons—or professed reasons—for disdaining religiosity. The Catholic Church, for one, has lately assembled an outstanding record of own goals in the form of sex scandals, financial scandals, and overall confusion. The politicization of faith, left and right, has brought further institutional discredit to the followers who struck that Pyrrhic bargain. But here as elsewhere, human error does not invalidate truth. The fact that computers can be hacked only makes sound coding more important, not less so.
Yes, religious faith comes with rules attached, including rules to which many people today furiously object. But millennials and Zoomers may yet turn out to be made of more rugged stuff than the “snowflakes” moniker suggests. As college students, you’ve already been honed by the rigors of a sometimes-punitive meritocracy. By virtue of your birthdays, you’ve endured knocks that the boomers and Gen X never faced when young—the anxious years following 9/11, the crash of 2008, social media bullying, a global pandemic, education by Zoom. And the generations that made Peloton one of the hottest stocks of the 2020 pandemic are no strangers to the concept of discipline.
These trials have left you longing for happier, deeper days and a reality more congruent with energy and hope. That puts you in fine company. A long line of converts stretching back through millennia was propelled by nothing less than the same unbidden sense: that they were made for better things than the material world alone could supply.
Adversity can beget insight. We live in a moment when a molecular confection about 1/1,000th the size of a human hair has upended just about every aspect of human society. All across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has lately slapped humanity with a profound truth: The most important reality in the world can be something invisible to our eyes. Maybe, just maybe, the virus isn’t the only such fact.
Sincerely yours, Mary Eberstadt
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Acceptance Address by Mr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,” Templeton Prize, May 10, 1983, https://www.templetonprize.org/laureate-sub/solzhenitsyn-acceptance-speech. (Emphasis added.)
- This idea didn’t originate with the boomers, of course. American academia, to name one influential precinct, has been enthusiastically irreligious for a long time. It is now almost 70 years since William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” blew the whistle on anti-religious indoctrination on the campus—a broadside that with just a few updates would ring as true today as when it was published.
- In the interests of transparency, I speak as a cradle Catholic who was once a lapsed Catholic—what the cognoscenti call a “revert.” That said, this letter does not concern any particular denomination, nor even any particular faith; “church” could just as well be shorthand for “synagogue,” say, depending on your coordinates.
- Gregory A. Smith, “About Three-in-Ten Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated,” Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated.
- Anne Helen Petersen, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” BuzzFeed News, January 5, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/millennials-burnout-generation-debt-work.
- Kim Parker, “The Boomerang Generation: Feeling OK About Living with Mom and Dad,” Pew Research Center, March 15, 2012, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2012/03/15/the-boomerang-generation.
- Ann Farmer, “Millennials: A Peter Pan Generation with No Happy Ending?,” Mercatornet, April 27, 2020, https://mercatornet.com/millennials-a-peter-pan-generation-with-no-happy-ending/61445.
- Joel Stein, “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time, May 20, 2013, https://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation.
- Rebecca Klar, “Poll: Patriotism, Religion, Kids, Lower Priorities for Younger Americans,” Hill, August 25, 2019, https://thehill.com/homenews/news/458752-patriotism-religion-kids-lower-priorities-for-younger-americans-poll.
- In a book published in 2013, I advance an explanation for religious decline that focuses on changes in the Western family following the sexual revolution. See Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2013).
- For a roundup, see Mary Eberstadt, “The Phoenix in the Ashes of the Culture Wars,” Catholic Thing, April 18, 2017, https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2017/04/18/the-phoenix-in-the-ashes-of-the-culture-wars.
- Think of how Methodism led by John Wesley transformed London and eventually other parts of the Western world during the 18th century and beyond. Or consider the extraordinary examples of religious fervor in the sparsely populated “burned-over district” across upstate New York in the first half of the 18th century—out of which two global religions, Seventh-Day Adventism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to be born. History also shows that conversion and decline can coexist dramatically, including over a lifetime. The same faith that Evelyn Waugh eulogized in his novels gave rise during the early decades of the 20th century to an astonishing Christian literary revival, powered by some of the most famous writers and artists of the century: Hilaire Belloc, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Muriel Spark, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Waugh himself, to name a few. So numerous were these converts that scholar Joseph Pearce has written an extensive book about them. See Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999). See also Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015).
- For more background, the philosophically inclined might see Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995).
- David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 26.
- As corollaries, you laugh when they hit “reply all” by mistake, do something cringey on Facebook, don’t know what a meme is, and answer emails that are phishing scams. OK, Zoomer.
- See Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).
- William McGurn, “Margaret Sanger Gets Canceled,” Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/margaret-sanger-gets-canceled-11595889653.
- See, for example, James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).
- See Donald DeMarco and Benjamin Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004).
- Irving Kristol, Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea (New York: Free Press, 1995), 326.
- Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 2006), 36.
- For accounts of the social costs newly attached to the public expression of faith, see Mary Eberstadt, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). See also Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017); and Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
- See Mary Eberstadt, “The Zealous Faith of Secularism,” First Things, January 2018, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/01/the-zealous-faith-of-secularism.