Dogs roaming the street in Cairo, 24 April 2020. (Photo by Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images)
He felt an envy for religious people that he’s sometimes felt before. This time, John Harris writes, it came from “a year of lockdown, the sudden fear of serious illness and death, and the sense of all of it being wholly random and senseless. … Like millions of other faithless people, I have not even the flimsiest of narratives to project on to what has happened, nor any real vocabulary with which to talk about the profundities of life and death.” Many people like him have found that “life without God has turned out to be life without fellowship and shared meaning.”
In the fourteenth century, people faced with the Black Death looked to their communities for help and for hope, writes Harris, a Guardian columnist, in “How do faithless people like me make sense of this past year of Covid?” Now, he notes, “a mixture of individualism and collective denial leaves many of us without the ideas or language to conceive of Covid like that. And besides, even if we wanted, once rules allow us to try and make shared sense of our recent experiences in the company of others, where would we do it?”
Life Without Religion
The article was winsomely honest. Usually when people write this kind of article, they make sure you know that being godless is great, thank you, and much better than being religious. It’s just not yet quite perfect. Just a couple bugs we’ll be able to fix momentarily, while you religious people will still be stuck with your sour religion and your beastly sky-god.
Harris faces honestly the challenge of having no religion. More honestly, to be fair, than many religious people face the challenges of being religious.
He looks for an answer in the creation of new communities — “sympathy groups” — to replace the ones work, neighborhood, religion, and other things once created. To heal the nation, he says, “fund and create public spaces — parks, halls, arts venues, meeting rooms — and revive the most grassroots aspects of local government, and you would create roughly the right conditions.”
I don’t think that will work.
Hip Capitalism, Not the Answer
For some reason, just after I finished Harris’s article, the Guardian site suggested an article from last December on the collapse of WeWork under its “messianic CEO,” who liked his weed and liked to spout what the writer calls “spiritualist pablum.” It ended badly: “WeWork had wrapped itself in gauzy rhetoric about its ability to change the world. This led to predictable tension when it turned out that the company’s biggest funder was Saudi Arabia.”
The story reminded me of young friends who’ve told me about working in what I call “hip capitalism.”
New companies that boasted of the ping-pong tables and the craft beer and the overstuffed couches in the lounge, the rooms for nursing mothers, the flexible hours and the team atmosphere. Companies that talked about work-life balance but were even less interested in it than traditional corporations. That were, as my young friends found out, even more rapacious and politically brutal than the older companies they claimed to surpass. Flexible hours meant working long hours because you never knew when enough was enough.
These companies attempt to create the communities Harris wants. A capitalist one, whose failure we could predict in three-two-one fashion. Harris has gentler, more humane hopes. Parks, halls, arts venues, meeting rooms, but I don’t them much more likely to work. They would help, because people need spaces to gather. But they also needs reasons, and ways to be better than they are.
The secularists’ problem, I think, is that they think they begin at zero. This or that proposal should work, because it so clearly benefits everyone. It solves a problem everyone feels. It’s relatively easy to do. There’s no downside. The only way it can go is up.
And yet things always go wrong.
The Fall of Man
They don’t believe in the Fall of Man, the reality that explains why the best laid plans of mice and men go oft, in fact pretty much always, awry. When the web started to become popular, people wrote almost ecstatically of the new community it would create. Now we have porn and trolls, anti-vaxxers and neo-fascists, and normally kind people sending abusive tweets.
We don’t start at zero. Christianity knows this. We start perched on a very narrow ledge, with a steep rise on one side and on the other a slope down. Staying on the perch without falling is an accomplishment, climbing very far up the slope almost unknown, and sliding some ways down the hill almost inevitable.
We need some reason to band together, with enough solidarity to at least stay on the ledge, if not climb up. Something positive, something that draws us to itself and therefore closer to each other. Those like Harris without a religion have not much reason to band together, outside emergencies that make mutual care necessary for survival. Or extremist ideologies, like nationalism, that create an idol in the worship of which people gather and find purpose.
Absent religion, I don’t think John Harris will find what he knows we need. We might provide parks, halls, arts venues, meeting rooms, but without some deeper, more attractive, more binding reason to form friendships that make communities, providing them won’t make much difference. He’ll still be as lonely as he was.