People need an overall explanation of things that offers them certainty and hope of salvation, and if they don’t find it in religion they’ll find it in secular causes.Finding a stable counter-narrative in a time of countless, confusing stories – Catholic World Report
Military historians talk about the “fog of war,” the impossibility of knowing what’s going on during the confusion of battle. The idea can be extended to the struggles of daily life—that’s why we talk about “20-20 hindsight.”
So the world can’t be managed. We do our best, though, and try to find order by simplifying, categorizing, and looking for patterns. When we think we find them we try to point them out to others so we can work together on something helpful.
But persuasion means more simplification. It is also likely to mean, if you want to be really effective, images, catchphrases, and story lines to sum everything up so people will understand and remember the basic thought. But the packaging brings confusion back into the picture. The images and stories harden into myths that hide the realities that were the original concern.
Modern life makes matters worse. It puts the whole world on our smartphones, dissolved into pictures, video clips, and soundbites. They all seem interchangeable, and they’re all on the same small screen, so they seem to merge into one big story.
But what kind of story? As the world becomes more interconnected and technological, and people’s lives get absorbed into virtual reality, truth—correspondence to actual reality—has less and less to do with it. Any story can be supported by stringing together incidents and images that support it. With such an embarrassment of riches, people believe the stories they like and find easy to believe, and that well-placed and well-funded people want to propagate.
These stories are far from random. The Internet seems to put us in the middle of one big situation facing a single set of problems, so it seems we need one big solution. Politicians make promises, government has power that looks limitless, and experts claim they know what must be done. It seems that government—preferably a universal government, or at least a global order in which governments and other actors work together with a single plan—should be able to set everything to rights.
That’s an encouraging story, and officials, experts, the story-tellers in the media, and other well-placed people who stand to gain have every reason to favor it—after all, it means they will control everything. And it seems to provide an authoritative way to solve all problems, with specially qualified people taking care of everything. So people, at the urging of those said to know better, mostly go along with it. Many have doubts, but without institutional support it’s hard to put together and propagate a stable counter-narrative.
Government is therefore expected to look after all things. Those in power believe they are up to the task—they wouldn’t have aspired to their positions if they didn’t overestimate themselves. And they have experts, who are also the sort of people who climb to the top of organizations, to tell them what to do.
Their solutions to problems have some things in common. As people say, if what you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Governments have money, physical force, regulatory power, the ability to propagandize, and an ideal of rational bureaucratic organization. Whatever the issue, those things are always understood to be what is needed to make things better.
Even so, they rarely work as planned. Our nation-building efforts in Afghanistan provide an example. After 9/11 it made sense to pursue Osama bin Laden. The Afghans were sheltering him, so we invaded Afghanistan. But once we were there we didn’t think it was enough to chase him out of the country and punish the Afghans for protecting him. Instead, we decided that the Afghans had to be integrated into the world order we were trying to create.
They had never been integrated into anybody’s system, so caution would have been prudent. But our predecessors in empire-building didn’t have as much money, as many experts, such immense military power, or such correct political and social views, so their example seemed irrelevant.
We tried, with a combination of force, persuasion, and money, to remodel Afghanistan to fit our vision of the world. To that end, we supported radical social and institutional change not chosen by the Afghans, with the aid of training programs, propaganda, forcible suppression of opposition, and large expenditures. Our efforts included, for example, spending almost $800 million trying to turn the Pashtuns into feminists, not counting efforts that were part of other programs and those carried on by agencies like the UN.
Not surprisingly, none of it worked. Attitudes toward women are still very different from those favored by American NGOs, and attempts to turn the Afghan army into a dedicated professional multi-gendered and multi-ethnic force failed miserably. The government and institutions that we had spent decades, thousands of American lives, and trillions of dollars trying to remake in accordance with current Western ideals turned out to be incapable of inspiring loyalty.
There are of course many other examples, such as the response to the current pandemic. COVID-19 has been confusing since it first appeared. If you look at what’s happened you can find some patterns: for example, it’s seasonal, and affects some parts of the world more and sooner than others. Unfortunately, these patterns don’t tell us what to do about it apart from protecting old people and letting children be children—lessons that were largely ignored.
But people wanted a comprehensive response. So government experts decided to separate everybody from everybody else so they wouldn’t affect each other. The entire society would then become, in line with the modern ideal of comprehensive rational management, a sort of industrial environment in which all events and relationships could be planned and controlled.
The specific measures—masking, lockdowns, social distancing—sounded like they ought to be helpful. But they were adopted on the spur of the moment without much thought or investigation, even though health organizations had been discussing pandemic responses for years and rejected them.
It’s not surprising they don’t seem to have worked, especially when made compulsory: it turns out that the world can’t really be made into a controlled industrial environment. But that was what our rulers had to offer, and nobody in authority wants to admit he doesn’t know what to do in the midst of crisis. So they have continued to insist on the strategy even when it is obvious its benefits are elusive and side-effects severe. Their other solution, apart from quasi-vaccines that had notable benefits for some people but also side-effects, and whose effectiveness predictably declined, was to find someone to hate and blame—specifically, those who lacked faith in official policy.
What conclusion should we draw from all this?
People need an overall explanation of things that offers them certainty and hope of salvation, and if they don’t find it in religion they’ll find it in secular causes. As the history of the 20th century shows, that tendency can lead to catastrophe. One of the greatest social contributions transcendent faith can offer, even if we ignore intrinsic validity, is that it gives a perspective from which we can consider worldly affairs from the standpoint of ultimate concerns and good practical sense rather than fake secular religion.
The Church provides a reality principle that dissolves today’s myths just as it dissolved the myths of classical antiquity. But the conduct of Church authorities during the pandemic—for example, acceptance of denial of the sacraments to the faithful and even the dying when safety measures were available—confirms that many in the modern Church have lost that independent perspective. Their idea of human well-being seems very much that of the modern welfare state. But if so, why bother with them or the Church for which they claim to speak? A great many people have quietly given the obvious answer to that question.