Religion

The Retreat from Religion in a Decadent Culture

Australians do not normally think of themselves as decadent; bawdy and vulgar perhaps, but vigorous, young and free (whatever the word change in the anthem). Not even New Zealand is regarded as decadent.

So a book describing the Western world as decadent, written by one of the best columnists, unusually a conservative, from the New York Times, the mouthpiece of classical secular liberalism, is a provocation in different ways to different groups of people.

My age is immediately evident from the fact that my first history classes were in 1949 in Grade Three, about the foundations of the Roman Empire. I remember hearing of the Via Appia and Via Aurelia, both still busy thoroughfares today, and of the cackling geese which woke up the Roman soldiers in the citadel on Capitol Hill (probably around 390 BC) to fight off the Gauls who were ransacking Rome. It was after this that the Roman city walls were first built.

For these reasons and Hollywood’s contributions, the concept of decadence conjures up for me Roman emperors like Caligula, or especially Nero, a terrible tyrant and a terrible fool, who was responsible for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD which destroyed or damaged eleven out of the city’s fourteen districts and who tried to lay the blame for it on a small, new, hated group of subversives called Christians after their founder.

Originally I linked decadence with military and economic decline, but Nero ruled briefly about 100 years before the zenith of Roman power with the Antonines, while the empire itself went on to last for another 400 years in the West of Europe and a further 1000 years again in the East from the new capital of Constantinople. Decadence often goes away after it comes and need not mean decline, much less defeat.

Naturally Ross Douthat discusses the concept of decadence at some length in The Decadent Society, acknowledging the existence of “lower” and “higher” forms. The low definition emphasises “inordinately pleasurable experiences with food and sex and fashion”. The high definition strives to link rampant hedonism with overripe aestheticism and a cowardly refusal to make the necessary sacrifices to protect civilisation. There is no simple connection with the rise and fall of nations, as a decadent society is not necessarily poised for any kind of collapse.

This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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Douthat developed his own definition from the work of the cultural critic Jacques Barzun, who wrote the massive survey of Western cultural history From Dawn to Decadence. For Douthat decadence is “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development”; an end product which is the direct consequence of previous development. The West is the victim of its own significant success.

The author aims to identify accurately where we are to avoid optimistic pretence and hysteria, to avoid societies lapsing into either chaos or authoritarianism. For him America and the West in the first decades of the twenty-first century have not been hurtling anywhere except perhaps in a circle, spurning both memory and ambition, comfortable and pessimistic, growing old unhappily.

Douthat aims to convince his readers that our society is indeed decadent, that his definition actually applies to the contemporary West over the last two generations and may apply to all the societies that are currently catching up to Europe and North America and East Asia. This is the fate he foresees especially for China.

The author draws heavily on the past to analyse the present but this book is also about the future, touching on a bewildering range of topics, sometimes outlining frightening possibilities and alternatives. He is never foolish and regularly thought-provoking. Let me give two examples. Will China rush ahead in the drive to produce more-than-human supermen, into the world of transhumanism unencumbered by Christian qualms and constraints from the almost vanished doctrine of human nature? What might be the principles in contention if there even was a war over such issues?

Christianity is spreading steadily in China despite persecution, mainly with Protestant converts as the Catholic population is smaller, now hindered further by a disastrous agreement between the Chinese government and the Vatican. Could there be a Chinese Constantine, the first Chinese Christian leader? How impossible is a religious landscape remade by African (with its immense population growth) and Chinese Christianities, so that a future eugenics war might pit the West with its secular genetic engineering against a Christianising China and its African allies?

If this is not provocative enough, Douthat teases us with the remote possibility that a moderate form of Islam might break the stalemate between belief and secularism, between conservative Christianity and its declining liberal components, with a new family-centred social order, which attracted some of the lost boys from the far Right and somehow tapped into “the puritanical late feminism of #MeToo”.

My own view of course is that this last scenario in particular remains only a remote possibility, but experience in our Australian jails demonstrates how attractive Islam is to disaffected males, especially those tempted to violence. It gives them something to hang on to strongly.

These two examples are indicative of the range of topics which are usefully examined, far beyond the limited concerns of this review. While the book was published before the Covid pandemic had got into its stride, I won’t be mentioning the mighty challenges from automation and artificial intelligence on the one hand and Douthat’s belief that we are close to the limits of major technological advances. There is a tension here.

Nor will I be talking of the financial constraints of the future, the huge tides of debt, exacerbated by Covid, the squeezing and reduction of the middle class, the phenomenal salaries of the super-rich and the consequently increased gap with those who have only temporary or part-time work, or who are unemployed. Young people can no longer be confident that they will be wealthier than their parents, so that many of this young cohort, without the consolations of religion or any type of spirituality, will also be frustrated and disappointed economically and therefore in their lifestyle.

Let me look at a couple of topics before I return to China.

 

Ageing

For Douthat the first major structural force inhibiting a return to pre-1970s financial growth is the ageing of Western societies. I accept this, as a good number of babies contributes to financial growth, just as surely as a big migrant intake. This ageing is also significant spiritually and sociologically.

Douthat cites two powerful novels which take up this theme in different ways. P.D. James’s Children of Men, which did not sell as well as her other “optimistic novels”, tells of a dystopia where the male half of the human race turns sterile overnight and of the consequent mayhem and despair.

The Canadian Margaret Atwood’s novel and television series The Handmaid’s Tale outlines the radical consequences of a massive fertility crisis which makes child-bearing a rare gift that must be controlled politically and provokes the rise of a ruthless theocratic movement which reduces women to servility as child-bearers for the ruling class with no right to property, free movement, literacy, or even a Christian name; an apocalyptic scenario even worse than women’s role in the ancient Roman Empire, where women were emancipated by Christian teaching. Rome then, like China today, did not want baby girls, and women were akin to the property of their fathers and husbands.

Douthat believes that below replacement fertility is now the fundamental fact of privileged life in the early twenty-first century. Japan and probably Russia already have population decline, while India, Italy and China with its disastrous imbalance of the sexes will soon follow. All Western countries are below replacement level, with the European rate at 1.6 children per woman in 2016 (Italy’s is now around 1.2) and Australia a bit better at 1.77.

Mary Eberstadt’s book Adam and Eve after the Pill (2012) is a wonderful study of the revolutionary social consequences from the invention of the pill, of the “cultural renunciation of procreative sex that followed the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s”. Douthat writes that “some kind of large-scale fertility decline looks like an inevitable corollary of liberal capitalist modernity”. On this issue Christians should be counter-cultural, with larger families, although Douthat shows that religious conservatism does not guarantee this. Swedes have more children than Poles, as Britain and much of Scandinavia have a higher birth rate than Spain, Italy and Greece. Rich, highly educated Israel is exceptional with a rate of 3.1, where even secular Jews have a high birth rate.

Empty cradles contribute to inequality, as fewer children mean less of a spread of wealth through inheritance. Grandchildren bring reasons for optimism and purpose to grandparents and are effective deterrents to addiction, deaths of despair and suicides among elderly men, especially when divorced. The number of suicides in the US among white, non-university-educated males, unemployed after the disappearance of their manufacturing jobs, usually from taking opioids, runs into some hundreds of thousands, and their fellow workers provided a core impetus and continuing support for Donald Trump.

Is Trump decadent; or an exponent of crude, abrasive democratic vitality; or an incompetent forerunner of worse to come? He certainly does not lack energy or confidence, and his reluctance to leave office, to accept the verdict of the voters, is disturbing. But leave office he did, and his reluctance parallels that of many in the Remain constituency after the Brexit vote, although there was almost no physical violence in this latter case.

 

Asexuality

During my time at the Melbourne Assessment Prison in solitary confinement we could buy a copy of the Herald Sun, separately ordered each day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The price was taken from our monthly allowance of $140. On one occasion I noticed a short report in a side column of the fact that up to a third of some populations were not interested in sexual activity.

Douthat deals with this, pointing out that the fertility collapse dating from the 1960s and 1970s ran in parallel with the fact that men and women were having more trouble “successfully and permanently pairing off” and that in the last couple of decades they were also having less sex, “as the virtual alternatives to old fashioned copulation” increased.

He quotes a recent study from Japan, probably the pathfinder for much of the Western world, not a weird exception, that 45 per cent of women and a quarter of men aged sixteen to twenty-four were “not interested in or desired sexual contact”. Masturbation first substituted for intercourse and then asexuality for both.

Sixty-five or seventy years ago the struggle for purity in my school was taken seriously and all of us in Year Eight class were members of the Maria Goretti league for purity. I don’t know what the success rate was, but life was more simple then with fewer options for evil. I can remember chuckling about the schoolboy gossip that too much masturbation would make you mad. In Chicago about the same time, according to a priest friend I asked, the consequences were not as grave as only warts were threatened. But the folklore acknowledged the downside, the prison generated by habit, by repeated weakness.

More explicit and degrading pornography started to become available in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 1980s some feminists and a number of Christians like myself believed that a strong link would be revealed between watching pornography and violent sadistic crimes, cruel rapes and dark masochism. This has not happened.

Constant porn has made arousal more challenging and normal sex less immediately attractive. In the US, surveys show drops in teen sex, teen pregnancy, teen smoking, teen binge drinking and teen drink-driving. The work participation rate has also dropped, perhaps for different reasons. In 1990, 10 per cent of adolescents had lost their virginity before the age of thirteen, whereas only 4 per cent enjoyed that dubious distinction in 2016. The fantasy world has become a substitute for flesh-and-blood behaviour.

Pornography is not new, but the flood of readily available porn on the internet is new and the specially designed traps to lure watchers further into the mire are also new. By any criteria an end result like Japan’s represents a special problem and not just for traditional Christians, who do not see sexual activity as an unfocused recreational right for all adults, but as driven by love and reserved for exclusive and permanent heterosexual unions.

Addiction to porn is quintessentially narcissistic, not conducive to human flourishing and certainly a source of weakness, one manifestation of decadence. It is already breaking up families, worsening a situation where 33 per cent of Australian marriages end in divorce and many children grow up in a household without their father. It will be interesting to see in the future how our sexually liberated society will view this phenomenon, if and when it emerges from the media silence. Will any Australian consensus in the near future agree that Japanese asexuality patterns do represent a problem? Would censorship be any part of a solution?

 

China

Douthat does not set out to describe and analyse the economic and military rise of China, and he does not see China as an existential or cultural threat or a genuine alternative to Western decadence. He is inclined to the frightening possibility “that our society could coast on forever as it is—like a Rome without an Attila to sack its palaces”—although he makes a fleeting, unexplained reference to a fractured neo-medieval future of Eurabic and Euroafrican microstates where Australia is a client state of the Chinese empire.

I hope Douthat is wrong about Australia’s future, although we will have to pay economically for our independence and for our continuing alliance with the United States, and I do see China as a long-term threat to Western leadership and Western values which will last for decades and perhaps centuries; an ancient totalitarian civilisation which is immensely more powerful than Attila the Hun ever was.

I think Douthat also underestimates the ways in which the struggle with China will influence our social mores especially in the United States and Australia, less so in Europe, and therefore our decadence; perhaps even provoke a partial escape.

One possibility Douthat envisages, his preferred option, is that there will be “a convergence-in-decadence between the world’s rising great powers and its existing empires” and that China too with its one-party meritocracy and its spectacular growth will come to a prosperous void with patterns of ageing distorted by the imbalance of the sexes, and an ennui and torpor like that of the rich Western economies since the 1970s.

China however is different, like a Roman Empire which has not been broken up, with a history at least as old as Rome’s, and an historical self-awareness and arrogance, exacerbated by the humiliations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which makes the patriotism and pride of even the English and the French seem to pale in comparison.

Douthat also lists some of the items on the dark side of the Chinese ledger. The population is ageing, the size of the workforce is about to decline, the birth rate is low, and as a result of the one-child policy China has 32 million surplus males. The economic growth statistics are unreliable, the debts in the banking system and especially the shadow banking system are formidable, the Chinese population is growing old before most of them are rich and without much social security at all. The army are involved with the police in dealing with tens of thousands of local protests every year, so that the internal tensions and the degree of public surveillance and censorship are far beyond Western norms.

Douthat makes the fascinating claim that Westerners are more optimistic about China than many in the Chinese elite. He quotes a 2015 analysis which he concedes “might be an overstatement” that China is “the most definitely pessimistic place in the world today”, citing the continuing and rising capital flight from the country and the fact that a “near majority of wealthy Chinese would like to migrate”. He also quotes a property developer, Chen Tianyong, who migrated from China to Malta in 2019, claiming that China’s economy is a “giant ship heading to the precipice”.

These problems certainly don’t help the Chinese people and don’t bring us any consolation either, as many a government leader in history has been tempted to foreign adventures as a distraction from troubles at home.

 

Conclusion

I began following Douthat for his religious commentaries, which are regularly among the best. While he devotes considerable space to this theme, it’s less than I had anticipated, because religious decline in the West is the other side of the decadence coin.

His limited treatment is best explained by his conviction that “political utopianism and religious idealism have lost their grip on the contemporary imagination” and that people generally don’t believe God or politics can save them. This would be closer to the truth in Australia than in the United States, but not entirely true in either country with their immense networks of Christian institutions.

In the Middle Ages learning and civility were maintained through the monasteries and the bishops, but Douthat sees that role in a broken future as being performed by the international tech companies, especially from the US and China, by Silicon Valley and the military. He might be right, but I suspect that this is a New York perspective, and most of the Western world is not in New York.

Everywhere Christianity, too, is under threat from decadence, tempted regularly to believe that a modernised, sanitised set of liberalised Christian teachings will be more marketable. The religious market has proved this is not true.

I don’t believe that either the elites or the masses will be enticed out of decadence by the prospect of a manned space flight to Mars, nor by looking to the stars. Elites, especially when they are without religion, are particularly susceptible to folly; to imagine that they can quickly secularise millions of Islamic migrants; that they can change long-term climate patterns. No computer model has predicted these accurately. Raising the alarm about global warming is no substitute for repentance and faith, although climate change wars are often waged with religious zeal and intolerance.

The Catholic Church and all Gospel Christians in the denominations will be part of the future, no matter how it works out, in most countries. In the West, Christians will have important foundational tasks such as explaining the concept of truth, one basis of our freedom of speech, when we discuss and debate our way towards the Truth of things, beyond the relativism of “my truth” and “your truth” asserted and imposed by violence. Christians will be explaining the importance of just laws, impartial judges, due process and universal human rights, based on the belief that everyone is created in the image of God and is entitled to a “fair go”.

Once again, as in the Manichaean crisis in the fourth and fifth centuries, and against both the Albigensians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and radical puritans who rejected matter and the flesh as evil, it will be the Church’s task to explain and defend the beauty of the human body and the beauty and goodness of loving sexual activity between a man and a woman.

This is a prize, an attainment, like any other human good, reached only through delayed gratification, slowly acquired self-control. We study for thirteen years to enter into a profession and for nearly as long to begin a trade. Think of the years of work needed to become a competent artist or a first-class athlete. It also takes time to learn to love well. Midas got his wish and everything he touched turned to gold, so that he could neither eat nor drink nor copulate, and Midas is the symbol for the super-abundant porn available easily in many ways and especially on the internet. Our technology is enticing many more at an early stage to start moving towards servitude, becoming bound by habit.

Douthat has written a remarkable book as he sets out to explain why so many in our successful society are bored, tired and frustrated. This is not good for any of us because God, too, is allergic to decadence.

The first volume of Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal was reviewed by Anne Henderson in the March issue

17 comments
  • Harry Lee

    Couple points, not equally important:
    1. What malign purpose would underlie the suggestion that Trump would not leave office if defeated in the 2020 election? It’s as silly and as non-factual as the assertion that the 6 Jan ingress of protestors into the Capitol Building was an “insurrection”. Both of these are idiotic ideas if not simply leftist evil-talk.
    2. Barzun spoke of decadence as a time marked by extreme expression of energy -with no clear line of advance. People consume their freedoms, and stuff themselves with material goodies, and have no sense of the work involved in living a flourishing Life-on-Earth.
    How could that happen -the lack of sense of how to flourish as a human, or even the curiosity that such is possible?
    3. Answers:
    -mass education has not been effective. Why? Because the education systems are now dominated by the marxist insistence that the ordinary people must be clients of the state and not seek to make their own way in life.
    -the church has not provided reliable ways for ordinary people to Walk with God.
    -only a small number of people are educable or trainable beyond the rudiments, and some cannot even grasp the very basics.
    4. Douthat is wrong about some important things, leaves out some important points, and elevates some ideas that are irrelevant and some that divert attention from key facts -as he must not say things that will get him canceled, and because he is yet to acquire the requisite knowledge-base and the wisdom that Barzun achieved.
    5. Yes, Islam is a massive threat to the West. And is being successful in its assault on the West. And as with the CCP, this threat/assault is in the infiltration of its agents into all the nooks and crannies of Western governance and legal systems, wealth-creation systems, education systems, and info/opinion media.

  • STD

    What an eminently great read . No / know, more than that ,it was a welcome comfort, an afternoon delight for the flagging spirit. A Great Australian piece at that.

  • Patrick McCauley

    What a magnificent essay and excellent grasp of western history. I feel I have been let in to listen to the elders and the wise men. The powerful gentleness of the writer – fatherly like I have not felt for years, showing hidden borders and pockets of hope. This prisoner’s jail cell has made an even better writer of him … and he is willing to share without the intellectual vanity of a Jesuit priest. All power to you my Cardinal for now – a Cardinal you are. Brilliant … more please …

  • DUBBY

    “..and his (Trump) reluctance to leave office to accept the verdict of the voters, is disturbing.” I can’t believe you wrote that. Are you so unaware of the greatest electoral fraud in US history? You, of all people, the victim of calculated lies, now find yourself promoting lies. With his open and public pro-life stance, Trump has clearly done much more for the pro-life cause that you have. I stopped reading when I got to that. I publicly supported you in your time of trouble, but you’ve lost me now.

  • Searcher

    I too am inclined to guess that Trump won on legitimate votes, though not in certified ones. I think the fakery was done with vote “counting” machines. It will be hard or even unfeasible to be sure about this, with the Dems trying to prevent an accurate audit.

  • DUBBY

    Have you viewed Mike Lindell’s program called :Absolute Proof?” It is a comprehensive rundown on the fraud and just how widespread it was. The MSM wouldn’t show it but you should be able to find it on Mike’s site, Searcher. When it first came out, I believe one outlet played it constantly for about 24 hours. Hope you can watch it.

  • Lapun Paul

    Dubby – I think you may have jumped the gun in assuming that the cardinal was cynically pushing the ‘approved’ version of the US. election outcome. The fact is that the majority of Australians who only had a passing interest in the the U.S. election have accepted the sanitised version pumped out by the Australian media – namely that Trump genuinely lost the election and that Biden received the most votes in U.S. history – even more than Obama.

    Complicating this further, many Australians have just accepted as truth the non-stop media denigration of Trump for the last five years which constantly framed him as a sort of half-wit – often by actually lying about what he had been alleged to have said or done. I admit that his constant tweeting didn’t help. Many people who had their opinions formed in this way therefore regarded Trump as a danger to us in Australia – partly because they believed what they had been fed by the media pundits, namely that he was in the process of dismantling defence agreements. On that basis, people such as this with a superficial understanding of the reality were only too happy to see Trump dumped – and were not particularly fussed as to how this might have been done. I personally witnessed this with friends.

    To obtain a clearer understanding of the confused situation of the U.S. election and the probable rigging of the results, one would have to have intensively followed events – almost exclusively from multiple non-MSM sources. This would have taken a lot of time and effort to do and most Australians would not fall into this category – and I assume neither was Cardinal Pell. This would explain his assumption that everything was fair and above board.

    As for Mike Lindell’s two hour gob-smacking exposition of how the election results were tampered with, I watched this on his website on the same day it became available and was impressed – but there were still some loose ends in the explanations. There was a huge effort in the U.S. to suppress Lindell’s presentation and block the sharing of the information, but he had arranged so many backup modes of transmission that the suppression attempts largely failed.

    However, what shocked me was that the long arm of the suppression mechanism even reached outside of the U.S. into the internet networks of other countries. I attempted to send the link to the video to five friends by separate emails, and each of the emails was rejected as ‘spam’. In other words they had been intercepted, not doubt by automated systems that were able to detect the verboten Lindell link in the body text of the emails. I was a little frightened at this and decided not to persist. I assume that it means that an unknown third party of ill-intent is able to filter the email traffic of Australian internet providers.

  • DUBBY

    Thank you for those balanced comments Lapun Paul. It was naive of me to expect Cardinal Pell to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt rather than presume against him and judge it as ‘disturbing’. That level of pomposity is unbecoming, even of a Cardinal. The Cardinal would know what it is like not to be given the benefit of the doubt. The Cardinal might take the time to thoroughly research the US election and then decide how ‘disturbing’ it was. He might even find himself in the position of having to offer an apology. To this point, President Trump has not been given a hearing in his own defense. Sound familiar.

  • Harry Lee

    The Church would help things along, in a good way, if it now re-focused some of its resources on providing the Ordinary people with guidance on how to Walk With God.
    Church People do extraordinarily useful work by way of its charities and in helping individuals and families deal with loss.
    But, in my view, it would now be well-advised to focus more effort on helping the folk reliably Be With God.
    And to help those whose personal productivity and impact on others would best be lived off the booze.
    Father Thomas Keating was a monk, among other Church People, who worked hard and long on these tasks.

  • Michael Waugh

    Dubby,
    You can’t expect the citizen to be satisfied that there was fraud when it cannot be proved in court. That’s the raison d’etre of the courts. The courts are an integral part of the democractic process. It is obviously beyond the resources of each individual to determine conclusively if there were fraud or fraud to the extent that changed the outcome. Surely once the courts have spoken, the process is at an end and the outcome must be accepted .

  • DUBBY

    SCOTUS refused to hear any of the electoral issues based on jurisdictional grounds. ‘Once the courts have spoken the process is at an end.’ Cardinal Pell would be happy his supporters did not take that view when the Full court of the Vic Supreme court gave its decision. – he’d be still there.

  • pgang

    Lapun Paul, it sounds like you need to get yourself a secure email account, such as Proton. Fully encrypted, nobody knows what’s in it except sender and receiver.

  • Peter Marriott

    An excellent piece Cardinal, thank you, with quite a bit in it that I was not aware of. On President Trump’s term in office and his defeat in the polls I’m afraid I do not agree with you. The whole thing smacked of fraud and if the US Supreme Court had done it’s job and studied the evidence this could have been settled properly, but with a Democrat appointed Chief Justice, who was very aggressive in refusing to hear it I believe, it was not done, which on it’s own should make one smell a rat…I know it did that to me. The decadence had been steaming ahead during the 8 long years of the Obama administration and Trump was putting a halt to it, in his unique rough and ready way, which seemed to be the only way he could get past the entrenched Washington and MSM establishment machine, but sadly I think the decadence ship is now getting steam back up, and back on course under the Biden administration. All in my opinion of course.

  • STD

    DUBBY, who is Cardinal Pell’s boss? What would his boss expect him to do?. What did his boss do when they (wronged) elected to crucify him?
    In the Angelic order of hierarchy who actually administers the moral Justice. Is there a pecking order of responsibilities and what part does deference play.
    Sure Trump was wronged ,and so was Cardinal Pell ,is there such a thing as graciously wronged?
    Was the Cardinal acting in accordance with his role as the priestly hand of God?
    Then Pompous ??????- how so?????
    The prayer of St Francis – Lord make me an instrument of Your Peace…………………ect

  • STD

    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone- plenary indulgence, anyone!

  • DUBBY

    It is not clear to me what you are saying, STD. I suspect you are attempting to enlighten me but, for me, what you have written is far too deep. Perhaps I will give it more thought.

  • STD

    There always a next time DUBBY.

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