Karl Marx said famously that religion is the opium of the people, thereby inserting a fatal flaw into his own theory of dialectical materialism. If the march of history toward a communist society is inevitable, how can Christians or any religious people mess it up? But they do. G.K. Chesterton corrected Marx by saying that irreligion is the opium of the people. As one who believed in free will rather than in any determinist philosophies, Chesterton has proved to be the prophet who got it right.
He predicted the rise of the Nones.
As most of us know by now, it is a worrisome and certainly wearisome statistic that the preferred faith among the younger generation is “None.” By checking the box, the Nones, as they are called, have formed a large category that is as oddly empty as it sounds. And, of course, they are the fodder for unfortunate puns (as all puns are), since to the ear, their title compares them to religious women who are their extreme opposite. But paradoxically, both groups seem to be increasing their numbers.
But what of these Nones? How did they happen? Didn’t most of their parents affiliate themselves with some religion, some church, some faith? Presumably. But those parents – including millions of Catholic parents – sent their children to high schools, colleges, and universities that thoroughly undermined almost everything those parents thought they had taught their children, from faith and morals to common sense.
I would suggest that the growth of the Nones arises from three things: 1) the strange and unmerited respect for agnosticism among scholars and intellectuals, 2) the even stranger and unmerited association between science and agnosticism, and 3) ignorance.
Let’s talk about the last one first. Agnosticism means ignorance. It is the Greek version of the Latin word. Notice the same root syllable: “gno” which gives us the English word “know.” The opposite of “know” is “not know,” which is what ignorance and agnosticism both mean.
When you go to school, you are not supposed to come out ignorant. But if you come out agnostic, you have come out ignorant. The student hasn’t failed; the school has failed. Your parents should get their tax dollars back or their private tuition costs back. Or sue for damages.
But people are ignorant of what agnosticism is; they are ignorant about ignorance. In the course of the last two centuries, agnosticism has taken on some kind of noble connotation as those who think that by refusing to come to a conclusion about the most important things, they are intellectually superior to those who do. It is somehow more respectable to disbelieve than to believe. They calmly cast doubt on everything, which is the contrary of learning; it is destructive rather than instructive. You cannot build a philosophy based on doubt, and if you are not building a philosophy you are running in the opposite direction from wisdom. You are running away from reality.
Ironically, the Agnostic will claim to be the realist because he claims to base his ideas only on what he can see and prove. Chesterton says that the difference between the Agnostic and the Catholic “is that the Agnostic lives in two dimensions, and the Catholic lives in three.” The Agnostic is superficial, that is, “he can only go by the appearances of things; indeed there are no things except appearances – to all appearance. Our third dimension of depth, the idea of metaphysical or mystical ideas behind the images evoked by our senses is to him an unsupported speculation or an idle dream.”
The Catholic of course believes in material substance, but believes there is something behind it, something responsible for it other than itself. The Agnostic claims that since that thing cannot be proved, it does not concern us. He is content to describe his position, as the godfather of Agnosticism, Thomas Huxley, did: “Following reason as far as it will go.”
The Catholic would actually agree with that position. But as Chesterton points out, both the Catholic and the Agnostic tacitly agree that there is somewhere where reason will not go. The Catholic believes there is something that will go further than reason. We understand that reason alone is not enough to deal with “this business of the transcendental truths behind the veil of phenomena … This is what is meant by every mystic, by every minor poet, even by every half-consciously puzzling child, who is confronted with the question, ‘Why is a tree?’ or, ‘What are the stars for?’”
Investigating trees and stars has been the business of science. “Agnosticism,” says Chesterton, “is positively, literally and in so many words the exact contrary of Science. Science means Knowing, and Agnosticism means Not Knowing.”
Theology was once called the Divine Science. The study of God. All the other sciences are the study of secondary things:
It may or may not be possible to know; but it is necessary to know something in order to think about anything. And the Agnostic cannot really think about things in their real nature at all … His thought, even by his own account, stops at two dimensions … If he wants to think of the ultimate meaning of things he cannot. And, as a fact, he does want to. Hence arises something negative and unnatural in Agnosticism which all the greatest Agnostics have shown, even when trying to deny it.
He cannot think about ultimate things because he does not want to. Ignorance leads to apathy.
Chesterton says that even “if Agnosticism could impose silence about ultimate reality on all the scientists and sages, it could not impose it on the poets. Men of imagination would always be playing with the mystical second meaning of stone or star.”
Our age has seen the division between the arts and the sciences. This chasm is demonstrated not only in our schools, some of which have abandoned the arts all together (except for the “art schools” that have abandoned the sciences altogether), but in the ideas we value, the news we report, the unspoken and creedless philosophy by which we think, where “truth” has become a forbidden word.
“This weakness in civilization,” says Chesterton, “is best expressed by saying that it cares more for science than for truth. It prides itself on its ‘methods’ more than its results; it is satisfied with precision, discipline, good communications, rather than with the sense of reality.”
Meanwhile the Nones have stopped asking the child-like questions of “Why is a tree?” and “What are the stars for?” They have lost their sense of inquiry, their sense of wonder. They have stopped asking the big questions, and are content with no questions. Ignorance has led to apathy. They don’t know and they don’t care. They have drugged themselves on the opium of irreligion. Chesterton says, “We are not divided now into those who know and those who do not know. We are divided now into those who care and those who do not care.”
Underneath it, however, is a discontent, a dangerous discontent. Chesterton warns, “The ignorant mob, it is said, used to be dangerous by its turbulence; it is now rather dangerous by its apathy.”