Two basic needs that we human beings have are the need for meaning and the need for morality. We need to feel that our lives are meaningful, that they have a purpose. And we need to have an authoritative moral code that tells us what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad. Absent the former of these two things, we will feel that our lives are pointless, which quite logically leads to depression and despair; absent the latter, we’ll be in a state that the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim called anomie, a state of moral permissiveness that allows us to be blown about by every wind of impulse or fashion.

Throughout history, these two needs have normally been satisfied by what may be called communities of meaning and morality (CMM). A church or religion is one such community, and for many centuries now Christian churches have been the principal CMMs in the Western world. But churches have not been the only ones: The city-state of ancient Greece and Italy were also CMMs. These city-states were secular communities in the sense that they dealt with secular affairs — farming, crafts, commerce, politics, war, etc. — but they were also communities with a sacred dimension, antedating the separation of church and state. If you were a good Athenian, you had political duties, military duties, and religious duties; all of these were part of a single package.

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The tribe is another such community: an apparently secular group with a sacred dimension. To belong to a tribe was to belong to a sacred community. In the modern world, Jews still comprise a community of this kind. To be a Jew is to belong to a sacred community, a community founded more on blood than on belief. If you are a Jew who doesn’t believe in God or the Jewish sacred texts, you are still a Jew; you are still a member of a sacred community. Only if you quite explicitly divorce yourself from the community (e.g., by becoming a Christian) can you cease to be a Jew.

In the heyday of nationalism — that is, in the 19th and early 20th centuries — nations like France and Germany took on a sacred dimension in the minds of their rulers and citizens. They gave meaning to life; they supplied their members with a moral code. That explains why millions and millions of nation-loving Europeans were willing to die in the two World Wars.

Nationalism is of course in sharp decline in Europe, mainly due to three factors. For one, the two World Wars convinced people that nationalism, when carried beyond a certain point, is a terribly dangerous thing. For another, the European Union is steadily eroding a sense of national identity and pride. Finally, the great Muslim immigration to Europe is causing Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and others to doubt their old understanding of what a nation is.

Nationalism is still relatively strong in the United States,
at least among those who are politically and culturally conservative. Among those who are more liberal, nationalism is relatively weak. They tend to have a cosmopolitan morality; that is, they think of themselves, in the quite literal sense of the word, as cosmopolitans: the word comes from the Greek words kosmos (world) and polis (city).

Among cultural liberals in the United States, not only is nationalism weak but attachment to the Christian churches is weak and growing weaker. This raises the question: In the absence of these traditional CMMs, what is a liberal to do? If you’re a cultural liberal, you probably have no more than a nominal membership (if even that) in a church, and you don’t have a strong attachment to the nation. Where will you get the sense that your life is meaningful? Where will you find your moral code?

Many liberals have the idea that we don’t need these communities any longer. We are morally and psychologically self-sufficient. We can provide our own meaning; we can create our own morality. This may be true for a small fraction of the human race; but for ordinary people, it is far from true.

And so, in the absence of religion, we see people turning to quasi-religions — organizations and movements that satisfy the psychological needs that used to be satisfied by religion. In Europe and elsewhere (including, to a certain extent, the United States), the Communist Party was such a quasi-religion during much of the 20th century. In the United States, the feminist movement became a quasi-religion for many women (and some men) beginning in the 1960s. Starting just a few years later, the gay-rights movement became another such quasi-religion.

The trouble with these quasi-religions, at least to date, is that they have small power of endurance. For a generation or two, they are embraced with great enthusiasm. But then they become less and less credible; they lose their mass appeal and wither away. Communism collapsed. Feminism in the United States is past its peak. We are of course all feminists now, in the sense that we all believe that men and women should have equality of opportunity. This much of feminism has become a commonsense principle of American life. But fewer and fewer people find that the feminist movement satisfies their religious needs.

The gay-rights movement is still going strong. As a quasi-religion, it still provides many people with a feeling that life is meaningful and gives them something of a moral code (e.g., “Thou shalt denounce as a hate-filled bigot anybody who disagrees with the gay agenda”). But it too will fizzle; it’s just a matter of time. (Knowing this should give hope and persistence to Christian opponents of same-sex marriage.)

When quasi-religions collapse, cultural liberals will have to ask themselves: How are we to avoid despair and anomie in a world in which we have embraced agnosticism and cosmopolitanism?


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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