Like Twain, Gandhi, and Einstein, Chesterton is misquoted almost as often as he is quoted accurately. One of my favorites is the statement that once people stop believing in God, they will believe in anything. This quote is actually a reinterpretation of a line from a Father Brown short story: “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense.”
Some recent headlines brought this quote to mind, starting with a recent article at The Atlantic, titled “Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians.” Like many Internet headlines, this one promises more than it delivers. Citing research from Pew, the article goes on to compare religion and irreligion in America and Western Europe: “Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception.”
The author, Sigar Samuel, offers no real insights into atheists as a stand-alone set, and confuses the specific with the general. “Researchers found that American ‘nones’—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones,” she writes. “The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.”
One has to dig into the research for clarification. The Pew study states: “While one-in-eight unaffiliated U.S. adults (13%) say religion is very important in their lives, hardly any Western European ‘nones’ (median of 1%) share that sentiment.” But “unaffiliated” or “none” is a much broader group than “atheist” or “agnostic.” I would define an atheist as someone who consciously withholds religious belief, who has indeed sworn off belief in God and prayer. An agnostic ventures neither belief nor unbelief. And a “none” may be a believer, though not in any established creed.
Also at The Atlantic, one finds an article on a related phenomenon, the popularity of astrology among millennials. In part, we can blame the internet, argues Julie Beck. “In some ways, astrology is perfectly suited for the internet age,” she writes. “There’s a low barrier to entry, and nearly endless depths to plumb if you feel like falling down a Google research hole. The availability of more in-depth information online has given this cultural wave of astrology a certain erudition—more jokes about Saturn returns, fewer ‘Hey baby, what’s your sign?’ pickup lines.”
In 2016, the research firm J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, which describes itself as a center for provocative thinking that focuses on identifying shifts in the global zeitgeist, issued a report called Unreality. Beck cites the report as an example of how the business world has come to understand the popular movement toward the surreal. “We are increasingly turning to unreality as a form of escape and a way to search for other kinds of freedom, truth and meaning,” Unreality reads. “What emerges is an appreciation for magic and spirituality, the knowingly unreal, and the intangible aspects of our lives that defy big data and the ultra-transparency of the web.” Unreality observes a correspondence between the rise of digitally mediated psychic and astrological consultations, and a rise in the incidence of young women presenting themselves to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. It tentatively attributes both phenomena to “uncertainty about the future and a desire for a more directed destiny.”
But a second interesting correspondence goes unremarked. The popular revival of astrology and other pseudo-sciences comes at a time when schools are throwing resources into variants of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) curricula, which have largely supplanted the humanities disciplines (art, literature, and history).
We are neglecting the humanities, which offer a true understanding of the human heart, in order to develop better touchscreens and smartphone apps, so that our youth can get better horoscopes and learn new yoga poses. This state of affairs confirms Chesterton’s original quote, and shows how much work needs to be done. There is a real cure for the anxiety afflicting today’s youth, but it’s hard work and the answer is not really found in the digital cloud, but well beyond.
As Chesterton said (accurately, I checked): “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.