I don’t know what vision the term “decadence” conjures up for you. Some advertising campaign years ago implanted an association for me with chocolate cake. But Ross Douthat sees a rich and powerful society no longer going anywhere in particular. We’re stuck with economic stagnation, political stalemates, cultural exhaustion, and demographic decline.
He writes: “For the first time since 1491, we have found the distances too vast and the technology too limited to take us to somewhere genuinely undiscovered, somewhere truly new.”
That line comes from his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, published by Avid Reader Press. Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times and author of the book Bad Religion, for which I previously interviewed him. The last time we talked was spring of 2016. A few things have changed since then. But not Douthat’s abilities as a must-read writer. I could do an entire podcast just reading my favorite lines from this book. As a former Methodist, I especially liked how he described “thin cosmopolitanism that’s really just the extremely Western ideology of liberal Protestantism plus ethnic food.”
This is a serious book, though, and it deserves serious attention. What’s next when there are no more unexplored frontiers or fresh discoveries? What’s the point of life if there are no more worlds to conquer? Douthat says we see a world in turmoil, but it’s more like we’ve lulled ourselves to sleep.
If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that, a convincing simulation waiting. But in the real world, it’s possible that Western society is really learning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.
Yet Douthat does envision a possible renaissance for the West, an escape from our cultural malaise. That’s part of what we discuss in this episode of Gospelbound.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: I don’t know what vision the term decadence conjures up for you. Some advertising campaign years ago implanted an association with me for chocolate cake. Ross Douthat sees a rich and powerful society no longer going anywhere in particular. We’re stuck with economic stagnation, political stalemate, cultural exhaustion and demographic decline. He writes this. “For the first time since 1491, we have found the distances too vast and the technology too limited to take us to somewhere genuinely undiscovered, somewhere truly new.” That line comes from his new book, The Decadent Society, How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, published by Avid Reader Press.
Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times and author of the book, Bad Religion, for which I previously interviewed him. The last time we talked was in the spring of 2016. A few things have changed since then, but not Douthat’s abilities as a must read writer. I could do an entire podcast just reading my favorite lines from this book. As a former United Methodist, I especially liked how he described thin cosmopolitanism. That’s really just the extremely western ideology of liberal Protestantism plus ethnic food. Good line there.
This is a serious book, though, and it deserves serious attention. What’s next when there are no more unexplored frontiers or fresh discoveries? What’s the point of life if there are no more worlds to conquer? Douthat says we see a world in turmoil, but it’s more like we’ve lulled ourselves to sleep. He writes this. “If you want to feel like Western society is convulsing, there’s an app for that, a convincing simulation waiting. But in the real world it’s possible that western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and re-playing and ideological greatest hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination, and yet in reality, comfortably numb.” Douthat does envision a possible renaissance for the west, an escape from our cultural malaise, and that’s part of what we’ll discuss in this episode of Gospelbound.
Ross Douthat: Thank you for having me.
Collin Hansen: When did the west grow bored with questions about the nature of the universe and destiny of man?
Ross Douthat: In my account of decadence, it basically starts in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Obviously you could tell a lot of different stories and I’m just sort of picking that convenient point because it’s the moment when we went to the moon, when we reached a particular peak of what a scientific technologically based society could accomplish, and did so in a way where there was an assumption that this was just the beginning. If you go back and look at not just science fiction TV shows like Star Trek, but even the things that were sort of confidently written about the future of space exploration in the 1960s, there was a sense that just as we had gone from the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 60 or 70 years, we would be able to go to moon bases and Mars colonies and glittering space stations, not the rusted international space station that we have, within another 50 or 100 years.
Ross Douthat: I think when that didn’t happen, the sense of implicit disappointment then converged with a lot of other trends that were starting up around then. You had a slowdown in economic growth, you had a slowing of technological innovation generally in just about every area outside the internet, you had an increasing creakiness and sclerosis in western institutions that has led to the gridlock and stalemates that define I think both American and European politics right now. Then you had demographic decline basically starting at almost exactly the moment when the first astronaut set foot on the moon’s surface, Americans and western people more generally, the baby boom ended and people stopped having babies and we entered into an era of below replacement fertility which basically means that society gets older and older and growth slows even further because older societies are less amenable to entrepreneurship and change. You have this convergence, I think, of economic, cultural, political, technological forces that all starts somewhere around the time that Neil Armstrong announced what seemed to be the next great frontier.
Collin Hansen: How much of what we seem to be experiencing, especially related to increased anxiety, can be traced back to that one great technological innovation that you’ve described there, the internet, which is bringing us together right here. You observe the illusion of forward movement that’s created by the internet. You write this. “The online age speeds up communication in ways that make events seem to happen faster than in the past, make social changes seem to be constantly cascading, and make the whole world seems like it exists next door to you so that current history feels like a multi car pileup every time you check your Facebook feed or fire up Twitter.” How much of this effect is really owing to that one innovation?
Ross Douthat: I think that innovation, it’s clearly changed the way people perceive the world, and that change in perception, basically I think the way I’ve described it is pretty accurate, that people feel the press of events in a way that they didn’t before you had 24/7 news cycles and constant streams of information coming through your social media accounts. This is not new thing. You go back to Henry David Thoreau and he was complaining about how the railroad was bringing people news faster than they could take it in. Clearly we’ve reached a point of, if not maximal acceleration, at least near maximal acceleration. That creates a lot of anxiety, a sort of sense that things must be speeding up because I’m getting the news faster than ever and I’m getting more news from more places faster than ever. Whenever things are going wrong, they seem to be going really wrong in this sort of cascading way.
Ross Douthat: At the same time, I think the internet is also pretty clearly a substitute for activity in the real world. This runs the gamut. Pornography is pretty obviously a substitute for real world sex, but even forms of political engagement online are often more political hobbyism and this sense that you’ve sent a tweet or you’ve written a Facebook post and so you’ve done politics in a way that is not how people who have organized or held town hall meetings or formed unions or what have you in the past would have understood doing politics. The internet is this curious thing because on the one hand it gives people the sense that the world is changing more than ever, and it seems in a way to be leading us out of decadence and stagnation into a much wilder and stranger world, but at the same time, in terms of how people actually live, staring at your smart phone all day isn’t really a radical act. It’s sort of an act of withdrawal into the virtual, I think.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Decadence promises us, you observe here, the right to pleasure, the right to consumption and the right to safety, but oddly enough, not the right to religion or to speech or to privacy. I’m wondering how did we decide that that trade off was going to be worth it?
Ross Douthat: I don’t know if we decided fully, and I want to say that that’s an extreme way of putting it for effect. It’s more that it’s not that people think there’s no right to freedom of religion or no right to freedom of speech and so on, but it’s just that in a world defined by this kind of technologies of simulation and pleasure seeking and consumerism, there’s a sense that religion, free speech, these things are a little dangerous. They’re a little dangerous to the social order, they’re dangerous to people’s feelings, they’re dangerous to people’s sense of their own well-being. If somebody can say whatever they want about you, that can hurt you in some way and you need to be protected from that. I think there is a sort of emergent order.
The politics of decadence is what this writer named James Poulos, who’s a Californian pundit philosopher is how I describe him. He refers to it as the pink police state, meaning basically that it’s a society that is regulating you in order to protect your ability to pursue pleasure. It’s not a fascist or communist police state that’s sending you to the gulag in order to build the workers’ utopia or forge the master race, it’s basically trying to mildly chastise people who get in the way of their fellow citizens’ pursuit of pleasure and a sort of simulated virtual reality experience. It’s closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, certainly, than to 1984 or other dystopias like that.
Collin Hansen: I remember, Ross, as we talked in 2016, back when we were so young, in our mid 30s, and still naïve.
Ross Douthat: Those were the days, man.
Collin Hansen: Carefree, when you told me you didn’t worry about trends in the church. This was before you wrote a book about the church, worry about trends in politics. This was before President Trump was elected. I don’t know if you disagree now with that, but here’s what stood out to me, and I’ve repeated this so many times to people over the years. What you did say you were concerned about was your children and screen technology. Is that still the case?
Ross Douthat: Yeah. I would say that it is. I mean my children then were probably four and two and now they’re nine, seven and then four, with another one on the way. So far we haven’t yet reached a point in their social lives when we feel an intense pressure to get them smartphones, the point at which they will feel like weirdos or pariahs if they’re not on the internet. Yeah, I think the internet has real virtues, and I’m as addicted to it as anyone else in our society, and there are problems that it solves and things that it deals with. You get more information about the world in bad ways, but also in good ways.
In general, I think that in its most intense forms, it’s a substitute for human flourishing, basically, and it sort of protects people from the dangers of reality in ways that maybe makes society safer. Teenagers who are on their phones all the time are less likely to drive drunk or get pregnant or behave in ways that conservatives have been worried about since conservatism existed, but they’re also more depressed and anxious and unhappy, and I think over the long run, less likely to both dare greatly and do great things, and also do basic things like form healthy relationships and happy families. I don’t have yet a tech-wise solution of my own because we haven’t yet encountered that fully in our household, but the day is almost upon us.
Collin Hansen: One of the things I appreciate, Ross, about this book and just about your writing in general, is that I think many times Christians focus on the smaller problems, maybe the more attainable problems or the ones that we’re familiar with in our decadent cycle that we’ve always been debating, and tend to miss the big problems. I suppose that’s true in many different cultures. You always have the cliché about the generals fighting the last war. It does seem like a couple of things that are emerging in your writing, in your book, as major concerns are male unemployment, or underemployment, and declining birth rates. Would those be two of the things that you would recommend we do focus some of that worrying and perhaps even activity in seeking solution?
Ross Douthat: Yeah, but I think especially the birth rate and the family issue. Male underemployment, I mean they’re connected. Male underemployment is one reason for declining birth rates, because men are less attractive as marital partners, as husbands, as providers and so on. I do think relative to five years ago, we have a certain amount of evidence that as the economy gets stronger, you do pull at least some of those men back into the work force, so the picture of male unemployment or male disemployment from 2012 or 2015 looks a lot bleaker than the picture today. That’s the good news. I’m trying to offer some good news.
The bad news is that people expected, in the improving economy, to bring the birth rate back around, and that has not happened. Instead, the American birth rate, it didn’t just fall with the great recession, it’s kept falling through the economic recovery to the point where we’re now in basically the same position as a lot of western European and east Asian countries, though not as bad a position as South Korea, which has a birth rate of half replacement level right now. There might be a link there where maybe the slow return of men to the work force will eventually have some positive effects on the birth rate and we just need to hope the recovery continues for a few more years to get to that point.
I think the fact that the birth rate has kept falling even as the economy has improved tells you that something in culture, technology, the way men and women relate to one another, is fundamentally amiss in ways that are, I think, more dangerous maybe than issues like teen birth rates and out of wedlock birthrates that social conservatives like myself have been concerned about for a long time. If you hadn’t asked me to choose right now, would I rather have a society with more babies born out of wedlock or no babies born at all, I’d probably choose the society with more babies born out of wedlock. I’m hopeful that that’s not actually the choice we face, but I think it’s worth social conservatives recognizing that America is no longer an outlier with a higher birth rate than the Western norm. We’re right where Finland and France and East Germany have been for a long time.
Collin Hansen: Declining birth rates are one of those issues that gets locked into that decadent cycle that we can’t seem to break. Is it about the economy, is it about economic policy or public policy, or is it about religion? I would think the answer is both.
Ross Douthat: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: The challenge is it just keeps being bandied back, right, left, right, left, along those two lines, when you just want to say there is more than … it can be both, but how do you begin to untangle that? I’ve read a lot of your writing, and it’s a little bit pessimistic about the ability of public policy to be able to affect this change. It doesn’t seem to be entirely clear that there is some sort of law that we could pass that could change this. We’ve already seen the economy improving has not seemed to change it. That inclines towards the religion answer there. I’m not sure. How do you look at that?
Ross Douthat: I think the reality is that you can’t disentangle it, right? One reason that birth rates have been falling is that institutional religion is in decline, and there’s a pretty clear correlation between some form of religious practice, at least in having larger families for, I think, reasons that will be obvious to most of your listeners. In that sense, there is no magic policy that the government can announce tomorrow that will arrest the decline of Christian affiliation in the U.S., or at least I don’t think there is. By the same token, there are lots of policies that I support, pro-family economic policies, supports for families with kids, child tax credits, attempts to restore a family wage that exist in European countries to some extent and have not prevented European birth rates from falling. There isn’t a simple economic solution.
Ross Douthat: That said, I think there are two places that I look at. First, I think you can see the economic policy, the pro family policy idea as worth pursuing not on the assumption that it’s going to magically create a baby boom, but on the assumption that there are real economic costs to having kids that are sort of novel in our society. We don’t have an agrarian society anymore where kids were useful around the farm. We have a society where kids are expected to get many, many years of schooling that costs lots of money, and meanwhile the cost of caring for kids has not been reduced, as you well know, by any magical technology. There aren’t robot nannies yet. All of that is a case for doing more to help parents raise their kids than we would have done 40 or 50 years ago. Again, even if it doesn’t start a baby boom, it at least builds a foundation for cultural or religious change to work on so that if you do get that religious revival, there’s a good policy structure there to make it easier for families.
The second thing is I think there are places where social conservatives have given up on battles that they shouldn’t have given up on. I think there’s a lot of evidence that online pornography has some kind of numbing effect on men especially, and their capacity to form healthy relationships with women. That isn’t something you can solve tomorrow with censorship, but a little more censorship wouldn’t hurt, and a little more censorship is possible and a little more stigma is possible. Again, is that going to lead to a religious revival tomorrow? No, but putting those kind of issues on the table I think is a reasonable response.
Collin Hansen: Let’s turn explicitly to theology here. You notice a pattern of recurrence that you associate with boredom. What appears to be new is actually just from 1972. Audience and movies, we’ve written at the Gospel Coalition a number of different reflections on that streak that you’ve also written about, but you also see this boredom in Christian theology. Where do you see that? We’ve probably already covered some of that at least.
Ross Douthat: Yeah. I think you see just as there was this last leap towards the stars in the 1960s, there was this really big debate that broke out in just about every Christian church and denomination in the ’60s over how far the church could go to adapt and respond to the sexual revolution, what teachings could be reformed, what teachings couldn’t, how the church should be a church in a modern, secularized age, and those were really interesting and important and dramatic debates. They created the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, and my own Catholic church, they gave us endless internal conflicts within Protestantism and evangelicalism ultimately gave us the decline of the mainline and the rise of what we now think of as the religious right.
Ross Douthat: Then we sort of got stuck, and I think no one has quite figured out a way to transcend those debates, so we’re still having them. We still have progressive evangelicalism that first says we need to change our teaching on same sex marriage, and by the end is following Rob Bell out the door of historic Christianity itself. That’s something that could have happened in the ’70s, and it happens again today. In Catholicism, my last book was a book about how Pope Francis was basically reviving a more liberal form of Catholicism and trying to see how much the church could change.
I think one of the striking things since that book came out is that he’s sort of run into the limits of what the liberal program can accomplish or how far he can push. Catholic debates have shifted under Francis, but they’ve hardly been transformed. Instead, we have sort of returned again to 1975. This is where he’s a Paul VI figure, a pope who is seen as a liberal, but then lets the liberals down. Then you have this sort of stalemate. Even outside Christianity, the return of astrology. When I was a kid, astrology was this thing from the ’70s that everyone had been into. My parents were in their 20s, and by the time I got to college, nobody would have been into astrology. Yet here we are back again in 2020 and astrology is the hip new thing, except it’s just, again, 1975 come anew. That’s, I think, what stalemate and repetition looks like across the religious landscape, and not only for Christian churches.
Collin Hansen: It seems that in some ways we continue to try to break out of decadence by perhaps escalating our rhetoric, and you hear some talk occasionally about another civil war that’s on its way, this heightened, unprecedented polarization, but I thought it was really interesting what you wrote. You just don’t see us motivated enough to take up arms against each other.
Ross Douthat: Right, and look, this is … all predictions are dangerous and it’s entirely possible that we are due for a spasm of 1960s style domestic terrorism or violence, and there obviously is some stuff around the edges that resembles that. You have had a surge of white nationalist terror attacks and you obviously have the plague of school shootings and things like that. Overall when I look at our politics, I see, yeah, on the one hand there’s a desire not to be decadent. I think both support for Donald Trump and support for Bernie Sanders reflects a desire on the right and the left to get back to the future that was promised. Make America great again is basically a conservative futurism. It says we were on our way to something great, we got derailed, let’s get back to it. Sanders, in the same way, is saying to the left, why shouldn’t we become Scandinavia? Why did we have to lose that glorious dream?
That’s real, but in terms of it leading to civil war, people are on their phones, they’re really angry on Twitter, but crime rates are low, cities are safer, there isn’t some huge age of campus protests and urban riots. I think I said this in the book, but the most fervent members of the resistance are college educated suburban white women, and the most fervent Trumpists are retirees in the villages in Florida. These are not groups that I see taking to the streets to fight each other. It’s part of what happens with aging. We are an older society, and older societies, and this is not a bad thing, are less likely to convulse and engage in eruptions of violence over political disagreements and they’re much more likely to get really mad at each other on the internet.
Collin Hansen: I would need to check my historical notes here, but wouldn’t I assume that most revolutions and civil wars have been provoked by young people, or at least they’re fought by young people, but the two groups you’ve just identified there are both old people.
Ross Douthat: Right, or middle aged. Yeah. A big part of the convulsions of the ’60s were just the reality that you had this huge, young generation who were dynamic and creative and also reckless and dangerous as young people tend to be. The millennials are a big generation numerically, but they aren’t as big as the baby boomers in the context of the overall population. The next generation after them is going to be much smaller. One of the points I try and make in the book is that there are worse things than decadence. We should not just romanticize a more violent and dramatic moment in history because those periods can be pretty terrible to live through and can end up in some pretty dark places at times. Decadence is preferable to some of the disasters that energy and idealism and revolutionary zeal can lead people into, but it doesn’t bring out the best. It sort of resists the absolute worst in human nature, but it doesn’t bring out the best is how I would put it.
Collin Hansen: In decadence, Ross, it seems like some of the crises that we discuss are something of a game. It’s almost like there’s not a full realism or a confrontation with reality in it. Let me illustrate what I’m talking about here. You seem to show that the victims of decadence are those folks who aren’t smart enough to realize that everything’s kind of just an inside joke. They take things too literally. You talk about the school shooters, you talk about the white nationalist terrorists in there. You write this. “Who needs churches and two parent families and the old American puritanism, in other words, when you can have a culture that preaches if it feels good, do it, and then puts people who take that message too literally in prison?” There just seems to be some sort of a disconnect between the things that we talk about and the things that we actually practice there, especially at least among the upper middle class and the upper class.
Ross Douthat: Yeah. Again, that’s not the worst thing in the world, right? If you look at the 1970s, the 1970s were a much more dramatic, dynamic, revolutionary and in many ways interesting period. They were also a period when terrible, terrible things happened. Something like just the abortion rate after Roe versus Wade went up much, much higher than it’s been in the last 15 or 20 years. The crime wave soared, and things like Roman Polanski raping a 13 year old girl, the culture of what was deemed sexual adventurism in the ’70s, often led to truly horrible places. It’s better in a way to have this world that’s sort of officially committed to a safe pleasure-seeking where people play act online but don’t actually set off 25,000 bombs around the country the way extremist terrorists did in 1971 and ’72.
Similarly, the way we fight wars now. The U.S. is at war in 172 countries at the moment. I’m exaggerating for effect, but we’re in warring countries. One of our special forces will die in a country in Africa and people will say, I didn’t even know we had any soldiers there. But we aren’t at war in the way we were in Vietnam. We’re in a high tech light footprint war that tries to kill bad guys and terrorists and doesn’t attempt something as sweeping as what George W. Bush attempted in Iraq. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s part of a culture that then stagnates and doesn’t plunge off a cliff, but can slide slowly toward dystopia in a different way than a revolutionary society would.
Collin Hansen: I’m going to botch this because I’m making this up on the fly, but I wonder if we’re transitioning in almost an avatar-like default where we talk about real life as our tangible life and online life is our … that’s a separate thing. It’s almost like in some ways people who are growing up, these younger millennials, people a little bit younger than us at least, and down, it’s almost like the online life is where they live or they project something there, but then they don’t necessarily expect a connection back to their real life in some way, or back to their tangible life. I’m just trying to imagine how we got into this situation where we project all these ideas that we just don’t really seem to practice, or we toy around with ideas online that we don’t seem to really take seriously at some level.
Ross Douthat: Yeah. One of the questions in this book, but also just in my everyday job as someone who writes about American politics, I struggle with, is how real is the internet? The arguments that happen on Twitter, the political debates that go on online, how much does that translate into real world election outcomes, real world use of power in Washington, D.C., and similarly you can ask this question with a lot of things. What are the effects of pornography? How does that bleed back into enfleshed reality? I definitely think it’s the case that in many cases, and this happens in my own life too, talking about things on the internet as a substitute for doing them. To put it in religious context, it’s easier to talk about a Benedict option or founding a monastic community or any of these sort of radical Christian ideas. It’s easier to talk about them on the internet than actually try and do them, and that’s true outside. That has always been true. It’s always been easier to talk about things than do them, but the internet creates this sort of weird new space where it’s a little realer than just talk. It is a sort of ecosystem. It has some kind of reality, but people can then just sort of get lost in that and lose their energy and ambition in online versions of reality.
Collin Hansen: I don’t think it’s just me getting older. I talked with an observer about this who said there does seem to be an impression among younger people that when they have said something, they have done it.
Ross Douthat: This is like journalism, right? You can’t get too mad at young people when this is literally what I do for a living.
Collin Hansen: Me too, but let me point out something. The switch that we’ve seen in our generation and younger to social media and to blogging and things like that, podcasting, means that almost everybody’s a journalist now. They’re all columnists, they all have access to commentary, so it’s almost like, oh my gosh, this is our worst nightmare come true. We’re all journalists now.
Ross Douthat: This goes back to what I was saying before about the problem of politics as hobbyism, the sense that, and I’m stealing this … it’s a guy named Eitan Hersh, who’s a liberal writer who wrote a book recently called Politics is for Power, How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism. His argument is basically this isn’t just an issue for millennials or zoomers or young people, that it’s overtaken the way older Americans interact with politics. People are like, well, I’m in a resistance Facebook group so I’m striking a blow against Donald Trump, or I’ve watched every debate and tweeted about it, so I’m really engaged in politics. In truth, the way you engage in politics historically is by building organizations that get out the vote and wield power, ultimately. We don’t have as many of them in this society as we used to. We have very centralized forms of power. We have a breakdown in churches and unions and voluntary organizations that used to bring power up from below, and that interacts with the internet, I think, in ways that make people approach politics as entertainment while thinking that they’re approaching it as activists.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I completely agree with you. I don’t think that’s unique to younger people. I see plenty of that, and perhaps especially among retirees who seem to have both the means to be able to do it and then of course also the time to be able to practice that hobby. One last question here. We’re talking with Ross Douthat, author of The Decadent Society, How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. You do posit some ways of escape from decadence, and on this Gospel Bound podcast we talk about how we’re searching for firm faith in an anxious age. One of the ways of escape you posit there is we aim for the stars, or at least Mars, literally speaking here. I want to talk about the other option that you give, the one a little bit more relevant to our audience here, the religious one. You say this. “Or, as in American revivals past, it could just be the influence of some particularly charismatic and determined group of religious leaders, preachers, church planters, on a society that turns out to be a more fertile mission field, more spiritually hungry, and desperate for community than it seems to be right now.” I would agree with that. I would love to be able to see more of that. I see some of that. I would love to imagine that there’s more of it out there. What evidence do you see, Ross, of that kind of religious revival?
Ross Douthat: The U.S. is a country of 300 million people, so at any given moment there is a religious revival happening somewhere. That’s the good news. If you go around the country, and I’ve done it promoting books and giving talks. I speak to a lot of religious audiences and you’re always finding unexpected places, schools and groups and churches that are growing and thriving and doing an incredible job. I was just at an event in Austin for the Veritas forum which is a mostly Protestant but ecumenical group dedicated to increasing Christian presence and Christian dialogue and influence in universities. It was basically a meeting for all of these Christian magazines, journals that were founded on elite college campuses that were under this larger umbrella called the Augustine Collective. Nothing like that existed when I went to Harvard. I went to an elite of the elite school, and I think the Harvard Christian magazine was founded a few years after I graduated, but it would have been unimaginable to me as a Christian at Harvard to have this kind of huge community building exercise for intellectually serious Christians from what are thought of as secular schools around the country.
That’s just an example of how, at any given moment, even amid decadence, something interesting is happening. There’s a little evidence in the last year or two that the rise of the nones, the decline of religious affiliation has finally slowed and that there is a resilient core of Christian institutions that still exists and can be built off of. Those would be points of optimism, but generally you may just also have to reach a point in the culture where people get tired enough of the virtual that they hunger for the real.
Then the last point I’ll make, and I’ll leave you with this, is that you mentioned that I talked about space, which is the quirky, weird sci fi part of the end of my book, but I actually think the religious and the space sci fi dimensions are linked in the sense that part of what’s striking about our moment is that we have fulfilled the Biblical admonition. We have filled the earth and subdued it, for better or worse. We’ll find out with climate change how the earth reacts. We have done that. We’ve created a world empire that is kind of like the Roman empire except bigger and genuinely global. I think it really is the case that you should expect at that moment that either there has to be a way for us to go beyond this earth and expand into the stars, or there has to be some maybe dramatic moment of divine intervention now that we’ve fulfilled that admonition and we don’t really know where else to go. I don’t think the idea of exploration and the idea of religious revival or something even more dramatic than that are incompatible. I think they’re both responses to this striking situation we find ourselves in where we got as far as we can go and aren’t sure what comes next.
Collin Hansen: As you said a number of times in this interview, decadence is not the worst thing. It could get better, it could get worse, but it won’t be cycling repetitively forever, most likely. My guest on Gospelbound has been Ross Douthat, author of The Decadent Society, How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. Ross, thank you again.
Ross Douthat: Thank you so much, Collin, for having me. It was a pleasure, as always.