Alt-Right and the Political Crisis of Manhood

I’ve been thinking about this letter from a reader that Rod Dreher published on his blog yesterday. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll sum it up thusly: There may be a connection between the radicalized politics of the “alt-right” and the crisis of millennial American men. According to this reader, our culture’s lost boys aren’t just distracted–they’re being trained in the art of authoritarianism.

A huge swath of man-children who are hooked on hardcore porn and violent video games, feel aimless and emasculated by a society that tells them they are worthless, and have been “raised” in a post-Christian, post-family, absentee-father era, etc…are not a neutral force. Not for the Evil One, they aren’t. Their more base instincts of aggression and violence are merely being subdued and distracted in materialistic hedonism, and their higher instinctual desires for manliness and order can easily be hijacked for nefarious purposes by the some Leader…

I said this to my brother in conversation yesterday: we are a generation with no virtue, no humility, no respect for the sacred or for authority, enslaved to the passions, etc. Such a generation is ripe for being radicalized, were it not for our comfortable distraction in our materialistic hedonism. For the failsons, it’s easier to just keep looking at porn and playing video games. For others, all our SJW outrage is channeled mostly into social media rants and a few actual protests in order to feel morally superior—no one’s actually experiencing injustice, they just think someone else is. But take that all away? Say, with a huge economic meltdown? I’m afraid we will have an entire generation that will be in utter panic and rage, and they will have no residual virtue to fall back on because they were never raised with it to begin with. Hard times will strip a man down to what he’s made of.

I think this is exactly right, and it’s a point I’ve tried to make several times. The “failsons” (one journalist’s word to describe a gaming, pornography-hooked 20something male with an interest in radical politics) are not checking out of life. They’re checking out of civilized society, yes, in the sense that they are checking out of culture’s institutions and social bonds. But they’re not simply asleep. The 24/7 gaming and pornography are liturgical; they shape the consciences and moral imaginations of these men in ways that foster misogyny, authoritarianism, and ressentiment.

I think Rod’s reader makes this connection, but he doesn’t quite follow it far enough. He seems to think that “hedonistic materialism” is actually a barrier to political radicalization. I disagree; I believe it’s a conduit to it. When people are constantly reduced to pixels, whether in a violent shoot-’em-up game or in a pornographic video, the viewer’s ability to empathize at a basic emotional level is thwarted. The cognitive peril of watching, for example, abusive sex acts, is real and serious. Or consider Gamergate, a nauseatingly omnipresent social media uproar that featured communities of male gamers launching vicious sexual and personal insults at female gaming journalists. My point is certainly not that all video gamers become like this, or even that everyone who uses pornography eventually defends abusive ideas. My point is that for a startling number of American men, these two habits make up an enormous part of their waking lives. Why would we be surprised to see a moral imprint?

There is a reason that the overwhelming majority of “alt-right” activists seem to be millennial males. This isn’t a movement without roots. As Rod’s reader perceives, we are seeing the political restlessness of young men whose moral intuitions have been formed by technology intended to titillate and amuse. This isn’t foremost a political moment for white nationalism; it’s a cultural moment for Lost Boy-ism. And it’s a cultural moment that the church can, and absolutely must, speak into.

Millennial dudes (I speak from experience) tend to be protective of their time and their space. The church should invade both. What compulsive gamers and compulsive lusters have in common is that they usually do both alone. There is a strategic isolation that almost always precedes descent into “failson” territory. If you’re an elder of a local church, is there anyone in your congregation that seems to fit this description? Who is falling through the cracks? If your church has more than 3 men aged 17-30, I can almost guarantee at least 1 of them needs you to invade their space.

Intentional discipleship doesn’t happen via podcasts. It happens during coffees and lunches and hangouts. If we as Christians have any interest in speaking up against the racialized, demagogic rhetoric of what calls itself the “alt-right,” we have to go to the source. Not easy. But the stakes couldn’t be higher.

 

The Phone and His Boy

Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay in New York Magazine is one of the essential pieces of reading I’ve come across so far this year. Partly, I suppose, because it is the essay that I’ve been trying and failing to write for the past year. The title according to the URL slug of the article is “How Technology Almost Killed Me,” and the headline chosen by the magazine to appear in social media shares is “My Distraction Sickness–And Yours.” But the headline I personally love is the one that appears directly on the page:

“I Used To Be a Human Being.”

This is the essence of Sullivan’s essay. What if our endlessly connected lives, empowered by mobile technology and sustained by an ever-demanding social media age, are actually making us less like the people we are created to be?

As Sullivan reminds us, he spent more than a decade professional enmeshed in the online world. At its height, Andrew’s blog was updated at least a dozen times per day, often with nothing more than links and summaries of what he and his team found around the web. It was lucrative business, but it came at a cost. Sullivan’s physical, mental, and emotional health eventually spiraled downward, culminating in his announcement two years ago that he was leaving the blogosphere for good.

All that to say: When a man whose online presence has earned him money and reputation tells you that digital addiction is a major threat, you should probably listen.

Here’s an excerpt, but I cannot urge you enough to read the entire piece:

…as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

And what a constant diet of “shadows” does is spread our emotions and attention so thin over our lives that we lose the ability to connect deeply with the biggest moments, the most fundamental truths, and the most important relationships. Everything becomes digitized so that life itself is defined down. We are never fully here because we are never fully anywhere; our thoughts are continually spliced up between the earth and the ether.

I’ve seen this play out in my own life. My iPhone offers the security and comfort of never having a bored moment. Twitter means I’m never more than 140 characters away from letting peers know I still matter (virtue-signaling, anyone?). The constant, agonizing pull to grab my phone in any moment of stillness or quietude is a daily experience. The temptation to keep checking notifications or blog stats, sometimes doing nothing more than refreshing the page or switching between tabs for an hour, is a daily experience.

And I’ve felt the consequences: Reading is harder for me because I can only go a few pages without needing something newly stimulating, and writing is even worse. I’ve found it more difficult than ever to meditate on Scripture for more than a couple minutes, or to immerse in focused prayer. Several times over the past year I’ve come home and told Emily that, despite my “output,” I still feel like the day has been wasted–or rather, that the day has evaporated like steam, while my back was turned for a few minutes.

Should I dismiss this struggle as an unavoidable feature of life in the information economy? Should I chalk up my hitting the wall in prayer and meditation to a lack of spiritual delight? It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that while many evangelicals have been running around proclaiming that technology is morally neutral–“it’s just how you use it”–the “neutral” technology has been shaping me and many others in ways that make it harder to pursue faithfulness.

One last thought: I’ve been seeing many people respond to Sullivan’s essay with frustration that he doesn’t seem aware of how closely tied many people’s jobs are with online connectivity. Some have criticized the piece for idealizing a sort of seamless transition from online life to disconnected solitude, when an increasing number of people in Western culture pay their bills through jobs centered around the internet.

As someone who has one of those jobs, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this critique. It’s true that many people have careers that wouldn’t tolerate a total retreat to online monkishness. I haven’t the foggiest idea how that truth is somehow incompatible with Sullivan’s warning sign. For every person who is online 24/7 to support themselves or their families, there are at least 50 others who are online that much and have no idea why. If you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without endangering yourself or loved ones, God has grace for your situation. If, on the other hand, you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without exposing yourself to the frictions and foibles of flesh-and-blood reality, let me encourage you: I think it’s worth it.

Evangelicals and Toxic Masculinity

One of the worst trends in our culture today is the dominance of identity politics. Now by “identity politics” I am not trying to signal an oncoming conservative diatribe about social progressivism and liberal politicians. The identity politics I have in mind are everywhere–on the right, on the left, down the middle, and even in the margins. American discourse, whether political, religious, or otherwise, is riddled with tribalism and virtue signaling on the one hand, and cynicism and paranoia on the other. The result is that it’s becoming rare to see two opposite sides of an ideological spectrum actually learn something from one another.

The example I have in mind is something of a confession. When I began reading a few years ago complaints from a leftward branch in American evangelicalism about a “toxic masculinity” in our culture, I instinctively dismissed them. I knew that many of these voices abhorred ideas I cherish, such as the complementary roles of men and women in home and church. Several of them were beyond the borders of orthodoxy when it comes to sexuality and the definition of marriage. Many of the writers I saw most concerned with toxic masculinity held doctrinal views that would disqualify them from membership in my church. So, I chalked up their critiques to a wholly dysfunctional worldview, and reminded myself that going wrong on first principles inevitably leads down untrustworthy roads (which is true).

Trouble was, I began seeing inarguable evidence that they were right. Data emerged about men, pornography, and relationships that told a terrifying story. I started reading testimonies daily of women who had been harassed and degraded, very often in the male-dominated corners of the internet. Then came a relentless series of moral failings and shocking behavior from well-known Christian men, some of whom I had counted as exemplars; reading through a sad array of “official statements,”I noticed common themes of harsh, arrogant leadership and resistance to accountability.

Each of these things, in isolation, might be chalked up to nothing more sinister than the same sinful human nature that drove Adam and Eve from the tree of life. You don’t need categories like “toxic masculinity” to understand David’s lust and Uriah’s murder. But the question that kept coming back to me was: What is the church saying about this? Specifically, what was the church saying to men, about men, for the sake of men?

I don’t believe that historic Christian doctrines about marriage or sexuality cause toxic masculinity. I do, however, believe that sin causes it, and the conclusion that I’ve come to is the conclusion that I heard years ago and ignored: The American evangelical church has a blind spot when it comes to the sinful way our culture thinks of manhood.

The point was reinforced for me as I read about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two boys responsible for the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. In a piece for The Washington Post, Michael Rosenwald observes that Harris, the mind behind the massacre, took to the internet in the months leading up to the shooting to vent his out of control, hyper-macho rage. Harris cursed everyone in his life, especially the “cool” kids at school before whom he felt weak and powerless.

“I am [expletive] armed. I feel confident, strong, more Godlike” with guns, Harris wrote.

Rosenwald cites psychologist and author Peter Langman, who observes that several mass shooters have spoken similarly about the effect of violence on their self-confidence.

Take Elliot Rodger, who called himself the “kissless virgin.”

In 2014, Rodger killed six near the University of California-Santa Barbara. Before the shooting, he wrote: “I compared myself to other teenagers and became very angry that they were able to experience all of the things I’ve desired, while I was left out of it. I never had the experience of going to a party with other teenagers, I never had my first kiss, I never held hands with a girl, I never lost my virginity.”

Then he bought a Glock.

“After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed,” he wrote. “Who’s the alpha male now, [expletive]?”

Of course, it’s easy to make mass shooters a cipher into which we pour our presuppositions about culture and human nature. But the conversation about these men and their violent quest to feel a renewed manhood is one that confessional, evangelical Christians need to be having, and one we seem to be avoiding. The fact is that when Eliot Rodger felt like a deficient man because of his singleness or unpopularity, he was thinking and feeling how the secular culture of manhood told him to. What’s at stake here for the Christian church is not just keeping men from killing. It’s countering a narrative and recalibrating moral imaginations to not see self-worth in terms of strength, desirability, or people skills. But before evangelical churches can say that authoritatively to the outside culture, they have to decide to believe it on Sunday morning.

That means that we who proclaim to believe in a calling on men to lead at home and in church have to take that belief seriously enough to make ourselves uncomfortable. Where might we find a toxic masculinity at work in evangelical culture? Could it be in the way we talk about “giftedness,” often a euphemism for particular kinds of intellectual and social talents? When we say that a man is “gifted” are we just meaning that he’s a theology geek and a voracious reader of blogs–thereby implying that what God values in a man is an academic personality?

There’s a need in evangelical culture to rethink what we mean when we talk about biblical manhood. Hear me: I am not saying we need to rethink our fidelity to biblical doctrines about eldership or husbands and wives. What I am saying is that we need to accept the possibility that even in thoroughly orthodox circles, American evangelicalism fails to explicitly combat toxic masculinity. This means seeing single men as gifts of ministry to the church, and not just “works in progress” on the way to matrimony. It means seeing blue-collar builders, factory workers, and security guards as equally capable of dividing the Scriptures as their Macbook-toting millennial brothers. And it means being unafraid to critique violent, misogynistic mindsets in our culture, even if in doing so we find ourselves agreeing with those outside our fellowship.

Manhood is much more than a girlfriend on your arm or a letter on a varsity jacket. But it’s also much more than how many Christian conferences one can attend, and how many bookshelves adorn your walls. Before confessional Christians can speak prophetically to toxic masculinity out there, we must first be honest about it in here.

Was C.S. Lewis an Evolutionist?

Was C.S. Lewis an evolutionist? I’ve heard this charge laid against him more than once, sometimes by admirers but more often by those who would prefer us to be reading and quoting someone else.

The best way to answer this question is to look not just at one-off comments, but at Lewis’s intellectual trajectory as a whole. That’s what Douglas Wilson did when he recently addressed the question of Lewis’s beliefs.

Here’s the relevant quote from Wilson:

But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult…in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.

Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.

“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”

Lewis’s intellectual trajectory here is important. Sometimes Lewis is dinged by modern, evangelical commentators for not approaching the Scripture in a more traditionally inerrantist way. There are some legitimate criticisms of Lewis there to be found, no doubt. But I think Wilson is exactly right that Lewis’s writing indicates movement towards a biblical worldview and anthropology, not away from it.

There’s more evidence. Much of Lewis’s argument in Miracles, for example, is very welcoming to the idea that God directly interferes in natural laws. It’s always seemed to me that one of the appeals of evolution is that it relieves its patron from the awkward doctrine of an omnipotent Creator actually running around in his creation doing things. This feels like an undignified and too personal view of God, as opposed to one in which God simply implements his natural principles of cause and effect in such a way that human emergence is guaranteed. I’m not sure that Lewis would have approached the topic of Miracles the way he did if he desired to preserve the philosophical foundations of theistic evolution.

There’s also a fascinating passage in The Weight of Glory in which Lewis critiques “universal evolutionism.” (evolutionary naturalism) It seems fairly clear from this passage that Lewis believed that a) the genetic history of the world is not an infinite cycle and 2) that history and cosmic teleology was not heading, as Darwinists claim, towards greater evolutionary emergence:

…universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the [chicken’s] emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. We love to notice that the express engine of to-day is the descendant of the ‘Rocket’; we do not equally remember that the ‘Rocket’ springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius. The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination. (The Weight of Glory, 104-105)

None of this demonstrates that Lewis was not a theistic evolutionist. However, it does suggest that Lewis came to believe that the evolutionary view of natural history was, at best, a royal mess, and at worst, pure nonsense. It would absolutely make sense if, by the end of his life, Lewis rejected, for all practical purposes, any sort of evolutionary explanation for human beings. Again, there’s no smoking gun for that, but it would certainly fit the pattern of his later intellectual trajectory.

The Future of Football

At the New York Review of Books, David Maraniss surveys the ongoing debate over football’s merits (or lack thereof). He evaluates the dialogue between two books, one by Steve Almond titled Against Football, and a response by Gregg Easterbrook called The Game’s Not Over. Continue reading The Future of Football

4 (Simple) Responses to Science-Based Atheism

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism. Many college students discover atheism through science classes; students who enter university as Christians have their faith fiercely tested by their studies, and too many give up the fight merely because they assume that a biology professor must be correct about whether God exists. When a little bit of childlike faith meets a lot of studied atheism, fear can take control.

That’s unnecessary. You don’t have to have a degree in science to have something to say to those with scientific objections to faith. Here are four simple responses to those who say that science has either disproved God or has made belief in God unnecessary:

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge. 

There are two possibilities when it comes to human knowledge through science. The first possibility is that everything that is real is actually reducible to scientific principles. Everything–from the universe, to human emotion, to spiritual experiences–is explainable through scientific research. The other option is simple: Not all existence can be explained through science.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is utlimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion. The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible. Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority. 

The progressive nature of scientific inquiry is essential to its value. Done rightly, science can correct its own errors. But this presupposes that science can make errors in the first place. And if that’s true, then the question is: How do we know what could be a current error in scientific consensus, and what do we know is absolutely true?

This is a very important question to ask religious skeptics who appeal to science. A likely response is that science may be wrong on almost everything it says, but it almost certainly isn’t wrong about what it doesn’t say; ie, if science hasn’t revealed God by now, it’s not rational to think it will. But this objection misses the point. One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge. If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work. 

The wording of this point is very important. If we left out the word “rational,” then the statement would actually be false and quite easy to shoot down. You don’t need supernatural theism to be curious, or to want to explore the natural world. But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science. What does the word rational mean there? It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars. All of these facts are pursued by scientists as being intrinsically valuable, yet they offer very little information that can help guarantee a species’ continued existence on the planet.

The real explanation is that scientists pursue these facts because there is intrinsic value in knowing what is true about the world, regardless of how much help it gives us. Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles. Science itself offers no self-evident account for why it should be pursued. You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all. To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study. It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth. Theism offers an explanation for why knowing truth is valuable. Scientific atheism does not.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is famous for articulating what he calls the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.”

The argument is complicated in detail but simple in premise. Plantinga begins by putting two facts alongside each other that nearly all atheists agree on. First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. Secondly, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures. Plantinga then points our attention towards a tension between these two facts. If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties.

But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all? What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions? How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

This astute observation was echoed by Thomas Nagel in his recent book Mind and Cosmos. Nagel, an agnostic philosopher from New York University, argues that human comprehension of the universe cannot be explained merely by atheistic evolutionary processes. It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to. Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

Scientific knowledge is only possible if things unprovable by science are actually true. If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark. If, however, human beings are the products of an infinitely greater Mind, then we have justification for believing that true and false are realities and not merely the shadow puppets of our ancestors.