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We think of unbelief as the enemy of piety. To a certain extent that’s true. But there’s a more profound threat. Sovereign desire wars against faith with the greatest ferocity. Modern secular society makes faith difficult. So much goes forward without reference to God. I can recall my undergraduate years: Psychology, physics, even philosophy operated independently of any particular religious faith. Most of my friends were decent, caring people, in some cases positively admirable in their commitments to the common good, though without faith.

It’s easy, then, to just drift along in our secular age, not worrying one way or another about our souls. Career, success, marriage, family—we’re carried forward with something like meaning in our lives, enough at least to make piety seem optional.

So, yes, secularism weakens faith by diminishing the social supports and distracting us from hard existential questions about our souls. But it doesn’t work against piety in an active way, which is why, as Peter Berger has pointed out, under the right circumstances a robust faith can flourish in parallel with secularization. Debilitating as it may be for Christendom, secularism doesn’t itself drive people away from piety.

What does drive us away is a rival vision of human flourishing.

From time immemorial cultural conflicts, even revolutions, concerned debates about what to serve and how. The early Christians were accused of impiety by the Romans, not because they were unbelievers in the modern sense, but because they didn’t believe in the right things. Luther was condemned as a heretic, not because he lacked beliefs, but because he had the wrong ones.

That’s changed, and changed dramatically. A child from a conservative Evangelical household doesn’t encounter teachers who want to convert him to Catholicism. Or Judaism. Or Islam. Or even to the high humanism of someone like Immanuel Kant. Instead, teachers encourage tolerance and a spirit of “critical questioning.” For the more sophisticated, this becomes a pedagogy of irony, something our popular culture does a great deal to encourage. This approach isn’t meant to change beliefs but instead to weaken them, making room for the sovereignty of desire. There are indeed people like Richard Dawkins out there, but for the most part our current pedagogues aren’t theologians of unbelief. They instead inculcate a weak belief that doesn’t get in the way of desires.

This disenchanting work on behalf of sovereign desire, a work that defines postmodern culture as postmodern, is an enemy of piety. The Latin root means dutifulness. A pious person sees life as best lived by serving or being devoted to something higher. Put simply, piety requires us to subordinate our many desires—for food, for sex, for wealth, for comfort, for dominion.

In many and various ways, then, today’s culture in the West teaches us that we’re happiest and our society is most just when we’re free to satisfy our desires. True, we have to accept some limits. We can’t harm others, and we have to respect their freedom to satisfy their desire. But those limitations operate on the perimeter. The core commitment is to sovereign desire.

Sovereign desire is not just an enemy of religious piety. Patriotism is very much out of favor in postmodern culture. It’s thought to be naïve, even dangerous. Even filial piety, the most natural form piety takes, has eroded. The notion of elective family structures, ones we form and dissolve in accord with our desires, weakens the bonds of duty.

It’s important not to overstate the impiety of our age. We’re made to serve. The impulse toward pious modes of life is built into our nature. As a consequence, there are countervailing trends. Family continues to exert a tremendous centripetal force. Neighborhoods still have residents who make sacrifices for the common good. People choke up singing the Star Spangled Banner. But our culturally dominant postmodern beliefs about what is right and good now work against these natural impulses.

As a young graduate student I read Donald Mackinnon, one of the quirkiest (and most brilliant) Christian intellectuals of his generation. He wrote: “The philosopher of religion easily tends to think that the greatest obstacles today in the way of religious belief are to be found in the unintelligibility and inadmissibility of such fundamental concepts as the creator God, an immaterial soul, etc. But it may be that as a matter of empirical fact, the most deep-seated unwillingness to take seriously the claims of the Christian religion has its roots in a sharp criticism of Christian ethics, of the Christian image of the good life.”

I have come to see that Mackinnon was right. Our age proposes an antithetical vision of the good life: sovereign desire. This is the sleepless enemy of piety.

R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.

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