Ross Douthat and the Joys of Secular Heresy

Tuesday evening I attended a talk by well-known author and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who discussed his new book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”.  It was an interesting examination of some of the ways Christianity in the United States has changed since World War II, but it also raised some questions that go beyond the religious context of the book.  One of these is whether those of us involved in new and social media are creating our own secular heresies, in spheres such as politics and culture, and whether this is a good or a bad thing.

The term “heretic” is one designed to catch our attention, since it often provokes a visceral response.  Douthat’s definition of the heretic in the context of his book is someone who calls himself a Christian, but deviates in a significant way from fundamental Christian teachings.  He believes that a combination of four factors – sex, money, globalization, and polarization – have led to the increase in this type of heresy in America.

Douthat repeatedly made the point that although things have changed, unlike many European countries the U.S. is still fascinated by the person of Jesus of Nazareth, even if it is less institutionally religious that it was before.  Americans are also more interested these days in the happier aspects of Christ’s message – i.e. the various types of “Prosperity Gospel” – and less interested in hearing about their sins, the virtues of suffering, or feeling bad about themselves in any way.  Traditional churches have lost members to feel-good emporiums, where rules and regulations are few, man’s fallen nature and need for repentance is given little attention, and everyone gets to have a nice time and enjoy themselves.

For example, Douthat noted that much time and energy has been expended on blaming the decline of priestly vocations after Vatican II, which is now finally starting to reverse itself, on the sexual revolution that began in the 1960’s.  While not discounting the importance of that factor, he also questioned whether anyone had considered the concurrent rise in American materialism.  Previously, having a son who was an ordained priest or minister was considered to be something prestigious: it might be a life without much material prosperity, but it was nevertheless a vocation which was held in esteem in the community.  As Americans became more interested in personal wealth and comfort, the attraction of smart, intellectual young academics from schools like Harvard and Yale to the priesthood began to decline in favor of the pursuit of wealth as an end unto itself.

That being said, during the course of the evening the unexplored factor that stuck in my mind was that of technology, and not just with respect to the question of religious heresy, but also regarding the adoption of a heretical view of political and cultural sacred cows.  New technology has now allowed those interested in secular matters to dispute whether commonly accepted and preached dogma from political parties and the so-called mainstream media are in fact worthy of belief, or whether it is time to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes.

Take for example the issue of immigration reform, which set the internet alight on Friday.  Last weekend the New York Times wrote a front-page article about disaffected Latino voters, and Time magazine wrote a cover story about illegal immigrants.  So when the Obama Administration made a surprise announcement about loosening immigration laws, the more interesting and original reactions to the news came from the self-made pundits, rather than the 4th estate which seemed rather suspiciously to have paved the road for the announcement in the first place.

As the American people grow more media-savvy, they are proving more and more capable of asking questions and not being afraid to hear the answers.  Today content creators can use new and social media to express their opinions on political and cultural matters, without having to obtain the imprimatur of a political party, or an editorial board selecting which letters to the editor are worthy of publication.  And as is increasingly the case, creative individuals engaged in this type of heresy often poke fun at the supposedly sacrosanct opinions of long-established journalists or government officials, without any real fear of reprisal.

While the four factors explored by Douthat are significant for understanding the changes that took place in American religious society in the post-war period, I would argue that technology has made the avocation of heresy overall, not just in religion, easier than ever before.  Those who are not satisfied with the viewpoints of Douthat’s employer for example, can simply ignore them, publicly critique them, or create their own alternatives to them.  Thus if heresy is expanded in definition to include those who reject what they are told to believe by elites in government or media, then unquestionably the past ten years and the advances in technology we have witnessed during that decade have made this a reality.

So is this new reality a good thing, or a bad thing? New and social media can spark political revolutions and humanitarian efforts, but can also inspire cruelty and witch hunts.  People who blog or podcast, create YouTube videos or Facebook and Twitter accounts to criticize Congress or Hollywood or Wall Street do so with the knowledge that there is an audience out there for them, if they can only get to that audience.  Yet what the audience then does with the information or opinion is often out of the hands of the content creator.

And therein lies the rub, of course.  We simply do not know what others will do, based on what we decide to put out into new and social media. There is no real, fail-safe internet Censor Librorum other than  internet users themselves.  The danger of following our own brand of heresy is ultimately the law of unintended causes, as the more pacifist elements of the Occupy movement discovered far too late, after their more violent members alienated much of middle America by their tactics.

Ultimately I do believe that being a political and social heretic is a good thing, much as I reject it in my Faith; asking questions and being skeptical about what you are being shown, or led to, is a good thing.  A heretical point of view with regard to the status quo in the arts, for example, can help stop Frank Gehry from building a monstrous addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art or an ill-conceived mess of a monument to Eisenhower.  This means that the onus falls on both the content creators and their consumers, who must police the heresy providers themselves, of course, reminding them that civility still matters, and each of us needs to be willing to stand up and to hold others to basic standards of civility.  Otherwise, whatever our dissatisfaction with the relativism advocated by our governments, media, and society, and however much we may enjoy new and social media, we run the risk of ending up little more than a mob.


Detail from “The Adoration of the Magi” by Botticelli (c. 1474-1476)
The Uffizi, Florence