Trickle down

We hear a lot about the culture of disbelief these days, and the reasons given for our “secular age” are many and varied.

Writing about today’s atheist vogue, David Bentley Hart drills all such reasons for disbelief into a single thread: a society driven by marketization. Hart explains,

This, I think, is how one must finally understand the popular atheist vogue that has opened so lucrative a niche market in recent years: it is an expression of what a Marxist might call the “ideological superstructure” of consumerism. Rather than something daring, provocative, and revolutionary, it is really the rather insipid residue of the long history of capitalist modernity, and its chief impulse – as well as its chief moral deficiency – its bourgeois respectability. Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred wit is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it was really only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of acadame and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form. It was equally inevitable that, rather than boldly challenging the orthodoxies of its age, it would prove to be just one more anodyne item on sale in the shops, and would be enthusiastically feted by a vapid media culture not especially averse to the idea that there are no ultimate values, but only final prices. In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys (The Experience of God, 312-313).

As Hart makes clear, it’s not so much that people no longer believe in God as much as it is that people believe in nothing, or believe in nothing but the drive for acquisition.

In so many words, it’s a short step from an uncritical belief in the merits of a capitalist economy to disbelief in God, according to Hart. If one doubts the veracity of this claim, one need only briefly survey any of the major business publications on display.

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