Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ronald Knox on the decline of religion

The main causes of this decline, so far as causes need to be adduced for the defection of human wills, are manifest enough. Undoubtedly popular education and the spread of newspaper culture must be credited, in part, with the result: some of us would say that the mass of the people is now growing out of its old superstitions in the light of new knowledge; some of us would see, rather, the effect of reiterated catchwords upon minds trained to read but not trained to think. The industrial development of the country has added its influence, partly by focusing men's thoughts upon their material interests, partly by setting up, in England as elsewhere, a reaction against old faiths and old loyalties, crudely conceived as old fashioned. Further, the modern facilities for pleasurable enjoyment have killed, in great part, the relish for eternity. I do not know that this influence has been given its proper importance hitherto. Mass production has made luxury cheap; steam travel, motor-cars, and the penny post have brought it to our doors; anesthetics and the other triumphs of medicine have mitigated the penalties which attach to it. And the same causes which have multiplied pleasure have multiplied preoccupation. A rush age cannot be a reflective age.

--Ronald Knox, "The Belief of Catholics", 1927

Thoughts on the passage:

Trained to read but not trained to think: People seem to imagine that we're better at thinking than our ancestors were-- more logical, better able to follow a chain of reasoning to its correct conclusion. I think the opposite is true. Our age prefers to believe whatever feels good. The reason we think we're smarter than folks in (say) medieval times might be that we have wider literacy and better technology. But how is it used? The fact that I can read Sports Illustrated and laugh at LOLcats on the internet hardly makes me a better thinker.

Focusing men's thoughts upon their material interests: Look at the news and see how much our fluctuating wealth is taken as an indicator of the health of the nation. It's not a decline in morality but a decline in the Dow that casts the country into gloom. What a narrow view of life, to say the least.

I was recently with a group of old college friends, and one of them asked how our nation might recover from its current economic troubles. After we'd discussed it a little, he said that he thinks what America needs is to invent better stuff than the rest of the world in order to compete, and he added that what gives him most hope for the future is the quarterly issue of a magazine he gets on the latest technology. I had a feeling that we were missing the point. We seem far more obsessed with wealth than our ancestors were, even though (or rather because) we have so much more of it. "You cannot serve both God and money."

The modern facilities for pleasurable enjoyment have killed, in great part, the relish for eternity: Insightful, and if this was true in 1927, how much truer it is today, when our TVs and computers and iPods and cell phones ensure we need never be alone with our thoughts, never face ourselves as we truly are and realize our need. Even the process of dying is much less painful and probably doesn't offer as much inducement to reconcile with God as it used to (a hospice chaplain reflects on that here, and so does Richard John Neuhaus in a really, really good article on death here).

What I notice in general when I read people like Knox and G.K. Chesterton is that the trends they diagnosed in the 20's and 30's are all the same today, only accelerated. Probably the trends began well before that. We've been heading down this road for a long time now. Beats me where it ends.

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