The Unaffiliated: A Religious Rorschach | Daniel Cox

Rorchach test

Daniel Cox

No single trend has transformed the American religious landscape so rapidly and challenged traditional notions of American identity so completely as the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. Since the early 1990s, the religiously unaffiliated—people who do not identify with a particular religious tradition, often referred to as the “nones”—have grown from a mere six percent of the American population to one in four adults. At 25 percent of the adult population, this group now rivals America’s largest established religious traditions. Yet, despite the rising cultural and political influence this group has begun to exercise, there are still significant disagreements about who they are and what their arrival portends for religion in America.

In the U.S. today, few social groups of this size and significance have been subject to such strongly contested characterizations. Unaffiliated Americans have long served as a religious Rorschach in the battle between those who believe that America’s national character is fundamentally religious and those who look forward to a long-awaited secular future. The devout tend to view the unaffiliated as troubled seekers, searching for a more authentic religious experience; while the country’s growing minority of atheists—a group that is potentially much larger than originally thought—claim the unaffiliated for their camp, heralding the trend as a sign that America is finally shedding its religious commitments.

As it turns out, both characterizations miss the mark. Unaffiliated Americans are not necessarily nonbelievers. Self-identified atheists make up a only of minority unaffiliated people—most hold on to some type of belief in a higher power, even as they reject institutional religion. However, there is no uniform conception of God among the unaffiliated. Only 22 percent believe in an anthropomorphic God, while 37 percent imagine God to be some type of impersonal force in the universe. What’s more, unaffiliated Americans express considerable skepticism about the existence of God: a majority (53 percent) report that they sometimes doubt whether God exists.

The description of unaffiliated people proffered by religious leaders does not fare much better against the factual record. Unaffiliated Americans express little interest in religious pursuits, even broadly defined. Roughly three-quarters of unaffiliated Americans report that they seldom or never attend religious services, while more than six in ten say they rarely if ever pray. The secular orientation of the unaffiliated appears to be strengthening. A recent study shows that the unaffiliated are becoming less involved in religious activities and experiences.

Perhaps the most damning challenge to the argument that unaffiliated Americans are just momentarily unmoored from a religious community is that the vast majority do not believe religion or God are relevant to their life. Close to three-quarters of the unaffiliated agree with the statement: “In my day-to-day life I do not spend much time thinking about God or religion.” And few appear poised to return. The same survey also found that only seven percent of unaffiliated Americans report that they are currently looking for a religious community.

But what of spirituality? Perhaps the unaffiliated are latent spiritualists? Again, the evidence is lacking. Although measuring spirituality is inherently difficult, most research finds that unaffiliated Americans are less spiritually inclined than religious Americans. Much less. Moreover, spirituality and religiosity are highly correlated—the more you express interest in one, the more likely you are to demonstrate an inclination toward the other. According to the General Social Survey, only about one-third of unaffiliated Americans simultaneously identify as spiritual, but not religious.

In large part, the unaffiliated belie easy characterization because they encompass a range of religious experiences, identities, and beliefs. Recent research has shown that there is a considerable degree of diversity among the unaffiliated. The group includes a combination of people who are largely apathetic about religion, those who actively reject it, and those who retain some personal, cultural, or emotional connection to it.

Despite the lack of a shared theology and a healthy degree of diversity among their ranks, there is much that unites unaffiliated Americans. They are largely liberal on matters of personal morality—they are supportive of legal gambling, pre-marital sex, marijuana legalization, and homosexuality. They are less authoritarian in their outlook than religious Americans and more suspicious of hierarchical institutions, such as organized religion. Partly as a result they are less likely to join social, civic, and political groups. They vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, but also turn out at far lower rates than religious Americans. But more than anything else what defines the unaffiliated is what they are not—not religious, not attached, not practicing, and not particularly concerned about this perceived deficiency.

Daniel Cox is the Research Director at PRRI.

Majority of Religious Groups Accept Same-Sex Marriage | Jane Little

rainbow flagin Rome

What a difference a decade makes. In 2001 a clear majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) reserved federal recognition of marriage to one man, one woman, and there was barely a major religious group that supported anything other. Buddhists were the outliers.
In 2003 the election of a gay man as the bishop of New Hampshire ignited a theological firestorm in the Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglican Communion. Rancorous debates ensued about same sex blessings and unions.

By 2010, according to Pew, a majority of religious groups still opposed same sex marriage but the gap was closing. Now it’s closed. The latest confirmation of that comes from PRRI. Its report shows that most major religious groups support same-sex marriage. They’re led by Buddhists (85% of whom support it) but mainline Christians are also for. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and white evangelical Protestants hold out against. Muslims and black Protestants are evenly split, for and against.
Meanwhile there is no religious group which favors allowing small businesses to withhold services from gay and lesbian people. None.

Check it out here: another inflection point in American culture.

It’s Election Day in the UK | James Crossley

Election Day in UK

Jun 8, 2017

“We won’t walk by on the other side.” Those were the words of British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in an allusion to the Parable of the Good Samaritan as he campaigned this week against the Conservatives on their Welfare policies.

While nods to the Bible or Christianity are nowhere near as prominent as they are in American politics, they continue to play an implicit authorizing role in English political discourse.

All mainstream British politicians claim to believe that the Bible and Christianity are at the heart of British (and particularly English) values, heritage, and democracy. Quite what “values, heritage, and democracy” mean depends on individual politicians, their respective parties, and their inherited interpretations.

To understand the role of Christianity in British politics in the context of the 2017 general election, we might go back to Margaret Thatcher. Out of the social and economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s, Thatcher foregrounded the Bible and her understanding of religion in her attacks on anything resembling socialism, Marxism, and the Soviet Union. For Thatcher, the Bible and religion were to be understood as promoting individualism, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation, which in turn would generate charitable giving and lessen the need for the welfare state. Probably her most famous use of the Bible was her claim that “no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” In other words, the Bible and religion became a (perhaps the) authoritative source for the shifts towards economic liberalism.

Tony Blair represents the next significant change in rethinking the Bible and Christian tradition in relation to politics, policy, and governance. Broadly embracing Thatcher’s neoliberal template, he added certain socially liberal qualifications (e.g., equality of gender and sexuality) that he believed were consistent with a full understanding of Christian teaching. By doing this Blair also represents a shift from socialist understandings of the Bible, which were a significant part of the history of the Labour Party. In his speeches to the Labour Party conference after 9/11 (part 1 and part 2) and his speech to Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, he employed the traditional “apocalyptic” language associated with radical social change in the present, as used in the famous 1945 Labour Party manifesto in promoting the building of the National Health Service and the development of the welfare state. But now, for Blair, radical social transformation was to come to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and North Africa. The readers can judge for themselves how well that turned out, but Blair effectively marked the transformation, and end, of socialist understandings of the Bible, or so it seemed.

By the time of David Cameron’s premiership, the Bible and religion were firmly in the Thatcher-Blair tradition (and, if anything, intensified). Under Cameron, the Bible could be used to justify military intervention in the Middle East, the use of foodbanks over government intervention, and same-sex marriage. But something else was happening. The 2008 crash was beginning to open up new political understandings of the Bible and religion. The Occupy movement and Russell Brand were pushing more leftist understandings of the Bible and religion closer to mainstream political discourse. One of the enduring images of Occupy London Stock Exchange was Jesus’s actions in the Temple rethought in light of the activities against bankers and financiers, whether visually or in print. But perhaps the most surprising development was the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in 2015. With Corbyn, the Good Samaritan was now implied to be an example of someone in favor of the welfare state (e.g. here and here) and one of his close allies, Cat Smith, even claimed that “Jesus was a radical socialist.” Indeed, the Corbyn movement has regularly been described in language of the old radical nonconformist tradition associated with the beginnings of the Labor Party.

But shifts were also taking place on the Right, as seen by Brexit. Brexit itself cut across Right and Left much more than is popularly presented, but it has certainly been relentlessly packaged in terms of issues relating to immigration. This is not without support, of course. Part of Brexit (though certainly not all) was a reaction from those who have not benefitted from neoliberalism developed from Thatcher or been helped by the “gig economy.” Such citizens have felt abandoned by the direction of the Labour Party from Blair onwards, with immigration (often with particular reference to ‘Muslims’) indeed blamed. This seemed to open the way for UKIP, but Theresa May took advantage of this development when she replaced Cameron after the referendum result. Her reading of Christianity, the Bible, and religion now invokes the idea of Christmas and Easter as something faintly ethno-nationalist and to be distinguished from “minority communities” and “their traditions” and “people of other faiths or none.” And in their 2017 manifesto, the Conservatives have also offered somewhat vague promises to workers in precarious circumstances by rhetorically distancing the Conservative Party from its traditional image and using the language of deviance from religious/political truth by rejecting ‘untrammeled free markets’ and the ‘cult of selfish individualism’. American readers will be familiar with this shift on the Right.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron – who is a committed Christian – has been trying to attract disgruntled Remain voters with pro-immigration rhetoric (as has Corbyn) but has been struggling with questions about his attitude to homosexuality and the Bible. After refusing to answer the question on becoming leader, he has now admitted to thinking it is not a sin. Such social liberalism, along with May’s protectionism and her flirtation with ethno-nationalism, and Corbyn’s socialism, represent the main competing understandings of politics in relation to the Bible and religion in English political discourse. It is not yet clear what will become the dominant template to replace the Thatcher-Blair settlement, and given the fluctuations in polling running up to the General Election it may take some time before the ideological dust settles.

James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University, London.


How BLM Can Get Religion | Vincent Lloyd

Black Lives Matter

Here is the story that is told about religion and racial justice today: The US civil rights movement was led by black male ministers harnessing the socially transformative power of the Christian tradition. The movement for black lives today is led by black youths, particularly female, particularly queer, who are largely detached from Christianity. This story is false.

As many have recognized, there is a good deal of religiosity circulating in US racial justice movements today. It is not institutionalized religion but the more amorphous spirituality characteristic of our age. There is a concern for the self, the soul, and the community expressed in terms of religious provenance and resonance, there are religiously inspired rituals, and there is a mix of New Age and Afrocentric sensibilities. Most of all, there is an affirmation of black love.

In the Facebook post credited with coining the phrase Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with a “love letter to black people”, saying “I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.” Until recently, Garza used the Twitter handle Love God Herself.

The Black Lives Matter website includes as guiding principles a commitment to “intentionally build and nurture a beloved community” and to “loving engagement.” Assata Shakur’s words are frequently repeated at movement events: “We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” One participant in the first major gathering of organizers, in July 2015, describes the meeting as “grounding the movement in black-on-black love.”

How did love become so central to black politics? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s embrace of race-transcending neighbor-love is, of course, part of the reason, but there are other explanations. Stokely Carmichael called for blacks to “have an undying love for our people” and Huey P. Newton wrote of “revolutionary love.” In the 1990s, bell hooks wrote in praise of black love, which she understood as a synthesis of civil rights era love-of-neighbor with black power era black self-assertion. Rather than focusing love outward, she argued, blacks must learn to love themselves individually and collectively.

While hooks brought black love talk to a wider audience, through the 1970s and 1980s black feminists were invoking love as a political tool. The Combahee River Collective asserted, in 1977, “Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle.” Six years later, Alice Walker’s definition of “Womanist” culminates with a staccato invocation of love and the assertion that black feminists are defined by loving love.

This is the view of black love that circulates among movement organizers today. It is a language that would find itself at home in a New Age retreat center: love yourself, love your people, love your world, with “All You Need Is Love” playing softly in the background. God is love – and that is all that can be said about God, an aphorism supposedly distilling the wisdom of every religious tradition, the mountain peak to which every path leads. Even the corporate world today embraces this vaguely spiritual ethos as they offer workers yoga mats and meditation breaks.

It is certainly true that we black Americans, having been stigmatized and exposed to violence, need affirmation. Without it, any political action will suffer from the individual pathologies and distorted judgment that result from life lived precariously. But vague love talk is not the answer. To reduce rich and complex affective bonds to the anodyne language of love is misleading at best. At worst, it leads away from racial justice, aligning activists with the status quo.

Additionally, those using the language of love, and black love especially, often forget just how Christian this language is. James Baldwin can write about the universal acceptance and difficult work associated with love without invoking Jesus, but of course he began as a Christian preacher. At a recent talk, Michelle Alexander, newly appointed to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, opined about the importance of “revolutionary love,” prompting a cry of exclusion and alienation from frustrated non-Christian audience members.

Rather than dismiss talk about love as Christian triumphalism, why not recognize just how much a part of secular American culture Christian love language has become – and how secular American culture persists in its commitment to (repressed) Christianity? Love language distills the American liberal mythology of universal acceptance, or acceptance of all those who are willing to love back. As the Clinton campaign slogan aptly put it, “Love Trumps Hate,” reflecting the same sentiment as the gay marriage meme, “Love Wins.” This is not just mythology, but romance: It is a means of projecting onto the national project the feelings elicited by a Hollywood love story.

We need to tell more complex stories about the relationship between Christianity and US racial justice struggles. The secularist story, that Christianity has been used only instrumentally, and the secularization story, that Christianity was once catalytic and now has vanished, ignore the ongoing importance of Christian ideas. Rather than ignore those ideas, why not seriously engage with them and harness them to advance racial justice?

The post-racial, spiritual-but-not-religious Martin Luther King who is remembered today is not the Christian organic intellectual who catalyzed a social movement sixty years ago. Leftist attempts to recover the radical King persist in his secularization and de-racialization by arguing that it was late in his life, after he has lost his youthful Christian and black provincialism, that King realized the importance of economic justice and anti-colonial struggles and acknowledged the links between both and the racial justice struggle in the United States. In fact, it was the early King, speaking in a thickly black Christian idiom, who made these linkages as part of a broad challenge to the ideas of the wealthy and powerful.

What is striking about King’s early writings, sermons, and speeches is how the language of social sin, and particularly violation of God’s law, is just as if not more prevalent than the language of love. He is not moralizing: he argues that specific social practices and laws conflict with a deeper vision of justice. He also argues that pragmatism distracts us by focusing our attention on tweaking the system to fix the most immediate wrongs rather than considering injustice on a systemic level. In other words, King does not advocate a Christian political order; he uses the Christian idea of world-transcending law to motivate sober critical analysis.

Dignity was another crucial part of the civil rights movement’s religious-ethical vocabulary. It was part of the black vernacular, but it was also part of Christian faith. The image of God in each human being requires that we all must be treated with dignity. This applied to black Americans, but it also applied to workers – as King made clear in his final speech in Memphis, supporting a strike by city sanitation workers.

In contrast to hollow invocations of love, the Christian tradition emphasizes the need for love to be rightly ordered. This means that some objects are worthy of love and others are not. King spoke of the wrong objects of love as things we treat as “little gods.” Love is always connected with justice – not because loving indiscriminately leads to justice, but because there are right ways and wrong ways to love. We learn how our loves can be rightly ordered in community, through tradition, and subject to authority. These are prerequisites to political engagement.

When elites embrace an empty language of love, new ideas are necessary for those who desire to shake up the status quo. We live not in a secular age but a spiritual age. We cannot return to a world where religious commitments were felt and lived differently. But religion, and especially Christianity, still matters in the United States today. It holds untapped resources for those struggling to advance racial justice.

Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.


Contempt For Creation | Willis Jenkins


Why are so many American Christians seemingly unbothered by the gutting of the institutions and policies dedicated to protecting our environment? Does the blame lie in Christianity itself?

There have been those who thought so. Indeed, in the 1960s a certain line of cultural criticism began to hold western Christianity culpable for industrial society’s chronic ecological ills. Usually indexed to a 1967 article by the historian Lynn White, the critique holds that, long before the industrial revolution, European Christianity opened cultural space for systematic ecological plunder by developing a worldview in which earth was made for humans to use in pursuit of their own otherworldly destiny. Christianity’s salvation story taught European cultures the anthropocentric instrumentalism that came to shape global capitalism’s basic beliefs about humanity and nature. By cultivating spiritual disdain for this world, the faith’s contemptus mundi became the industrial economy’s contempt for earth.

There are many reasons to doubt the critique: historically dubious, causally simplistic, and based on a religious caricature, it doesn’t even represent White’s own view. Yet the basic suspicion has shaped U.S. environmental politics. Since the 1960s, Christian leaders in the United States have had to defend themselves against the suspicion that their tradition is inherently anti-ecological. Many have therefore endeavored to demonstrate how their tradition in fact supports care for God’s creation, or eco-justice, or some other formulation. Hardly ever have Christian leaders defended contempt for creation as a credible Christian belief.

When Richard Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the action attracted bipartisan support. A basic argument for constraining pollution had moral approval from U.S. evangelicals. In a time of smog-choked cities, flammable rivers, pervasive lead exposure, dying Great Lakes, when even the Bald Eagle was disappearing, environmental protection appeared as commonsense politics. If not their most important issue, Christian churches still largely supported stewardship values. So when Newt Gingrich’s congress threatened to repeal the Endangered Species Act in the mid-1990s, evangelicals were outspoken in protest, calling it “the Noah’s Ark of our day.”

The Trump administration now seeks debilitating cuts to the EPA and the department of Agriculture, and it wants to repeal climate programs. It does so without offering even a fig leaf of moralization, without bothering to spin the moves as somehow better for environmental stewardship. The proposals, and the men chosen to lead them, are openly contemptuous of the idea that ecological issues matter. How did contempt for environmental protection become populist?

It is not because protection over the last half century was ineffective: the nation’s air and water are much cleaner, lead exposure much lower, the Great Lakes returning to health, and the Bald Eagle is no longer critically endangered. Think it is because they prefer market-based approaches to environmental problems? The populists have pilloried a recent conservative proposal for a carbon dividend. Think it is because of conservative skepticism toward over-reaching federal power? Among the programs targeted are regional restoration programs for the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, agricultural incentives for private landowner conservation, and even the publication of information that individuals and local communities would need to make decisions on their own.

There are serious conservative reasons to think that stewardship should happen at different scales and by different means. Those reasons clearly do not explain what is happening here.

Somehow contempt for environmental concern became part of the identity of Trump’s electorate. Why? In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild describes the views of a number of white Christian conservatives in Louisiana. Many have deep attachments to the bayou and lament cherished places lost to chemical pollution – yet they despise the idea of regulations. Hochschild tries to explain that contradiction by rolling it into her “deep story” about working class white people who are frustrated because it seems to them that “others” are cutting in line in front of them, delaying their pursuit of the American dream. Perception of line-cutting might well explain a spike in white ethnonationalism, but it doesn’t seem to explain how they can mutely endure the sickening of beloved waters and, for some, the sickening of their own bodies. Rationalization of suffering, of the sort that helps one endure pain and swallow loss, works at the level of theodicy. It needs a religious story about good and evil.

Over the last decade, Christians who care about environmental issues have been targeted by a (well-oiled?) campaign that has sought particularly to sow a rift among evangelicals. It has largely succeeded. Whereas in 2006 more than three hundred senior evangelical leaders signed a statement affirming that faith in Jesus Christ requires action on climate change, they are now silent as the Trump administration guts climate programs. Why the change? The campaign has mythologized environmentalism as an evil rival to Christianity, thereby casting suspicion of apostasy on those who support even basic forms of action. The accompanying Green Dragon video series instills spiritual fear of any show of care for earth, making the point clear: maintaining evangelical identity now requires contempt for earth.

So a stunning transformation has happened: a certain strand of U.S. evangelicalism now identifies itself with a 1960s caricature of Christianity. Contempt for earth has become a mark of faith.

I should be clear that it is white U.S. evangelicals about whom we are talking. When the American Academy of Religion commissioned a survey about US religion and climate change, it found that black Protestants were much more concerned about climate change than their white counterparts. And Evangelical Protestants in other countries do not seem to share the same antipathy toward environmental concern nor the same affection for fossil fuel energy.

Why would white Christian Protestants in North America be especially tempted to identify with environmental contempt? The answer may partly lie in their affiliation with the rise of an American variety of ethnonationalism, which includes valorization of extractive mastery over nature. This seems different from far-right populisms in Europe, in which ethnicity seems more connected to a particular homeland. Perhaps it expresses the “New World” rootlessness of a settler culture. The first sentence of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America: “One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.” So opens his blistering account of American agricultural practices as colonialist plunder. The homeland of American ethnonationalism is neither “home” nor “land” for these people; it is real estate from which to extract wealth.

The future of white nationalist politics in the United States remains uncertain. It is clear, however, that the future of white evangelicalism in the United States is already being transformed by its alliance with fossil fuel culture. Scott Pruitt, the climate-science denier picked to dismantle the EPA, is on the board of trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And they are apparently proud of him. One evangelical organization invited Christians to support him by praying “for streamlined EPA regulations and a more business-friendly agency.” Such piety is difficult to place in Christian liturgical history.

Whatever this strange spiritual alliance of white nationalism and fossil fuel energy becomes, scholars of religion may need to acknowledge its innovation by calling it something other than “Christianity.” We might have to begin teaching it under some other rubric. Anthropocene folk religion? Petro-Manichaeism?

I do not mean to suggest that all white evangelical christians necessarily believe this way. On the contrary, many serious evangelical theologians recognize how profound a danger to Christian doctrine is contempt for creation, not to mention ethnonationalism. Yet serious evangelical theology no longer represents the formations of belief now swirling through the most powerful white evangelical networks.

The point here is not simply that some segment of white evangelicalism has begun mutating into another religious form. It is that, for all of us searching for ways to confront these new formations of contemptuous power, our mumbling dissent at the gutting of environmental protection reveals to us how thin is our public lexicon for affirming the alternative: that our humanity depends on care for our common home.

Willis Jenkins is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia

Photo credit:Nevit Dilmen – Own Photograph, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Joyful Uselessness of Ivan Illich: Reply to Scialabba | Simon Ravenscroft

Glasses Guy

Mar 31, 2017

In his essay for The Baffler, George Scialabba does a fine job summarizing Ivan Illich’s most famous period of writing, from 1971 to 1982. He foregrounds the Roman Catholic priest and philosopher’s peculiarity as a leftist intellectual who was resolutely opposed to most “progressive” political solutions, on the grounds that they amounted simply to adjustments in the distribution of goods and services, lacking a deeper analysis of the social construction of needs. Illich has always been difficult to categorize, and therefore easy to miscategorize, and Scialabba deftly evades the most common miscategorizations. This response ought to be read as an addendum to his essay rather than anything more severe.

That said, it is unfortunate that Scialabba cuts his analysis off at Illich’s 1982 work Gender. Illich lived for an another twenty years after Gender and produced several more (less famous) books, alongside other essays, lectures, and interviews. Most important, in this later period Illich was openly ambivalent about the 1970s works that are the focus of Scialabba’s essay. They were, he argued, written for a very specific historical moment and their constructive proposals (and the ‘revolution in perception’ necessary to bring them about) had soon become unachievable.

Illich’s criticism evolved in the 1980s and 90s to incorporate what he saw as a fundamental shift in the “root metaphor” of the age, from the “age of tools” to the “age of systems.” Instrumental reason – the image of humans standing over against their institutions manipulating them – was out, and systems-thinking was in, with the computer and its calculating power at its heart. Individuals were now conceived as sub-systems within more complex social systems, programmed to respond to signals they receive (a targeted “nudge”, perhaps). Self and society had come to be represented via complex algorithms, with the political consequence that seem to require expert management in order to generate optimal outcomes. There are both continuities and discontinuities here.

If Illich’s work retains relevance today, however, it must be principally on the basis of this later critique, which chimes with contemporary analyses of managerial neoliberalism. The ‘algorithmization’ of the self, for example, has been explored recently in William Davies’ excellent The Happiness Industry. In a way that echoes Illich, Davies uncovers the reductive, utilitarian economic ideology that underlies attempts to quantify, measure, and optimize “happiness”.

Discontinuities aside, the later Illich retained some basic concerns, which, thanks to posthumously published work, we can now see were more theological than he let on. In the end, for all its sharp edges, Illich’s work is about love, understood in the traditional Catholic sense as social bond. His problem with modernity is that its institutions, oriented toward increased production, tend to rip up the social fabric in order to construct societies that are ever more impersonal and managerial. For Illich, modernization threatens the spark of gratuity that lies at the heart of ordinary existence, understood as created gift. The latter is encountered pre-eminently in the richness of shared experience, and is linked to an existential attitude defined by openness to surprise – the opposite of managed life.

Scialabba’s essay raises the question of the usefulness of Illich’s radical criticism, and indeed a common complaint is that his work is not useful or constructive enough. In later writings, Illich openly refused to offer political ‘answers’, preferring simply to leave the future open, and promote the practice of friendship. Is this an unfortunate quietism? I would argue not. Rather, Illich’s refusal to be “useful” in this way was itself a kind of politics, his way of resisting the dominant utilitarian ethic (for ‘what is the use of use?’, as Lessing and Arendt both asked) in order to create space for that all-important spark of gratuity. Interestingly, this coheres with some of his earliest published remarks from the 1960s, in which he called us to “the joyful acceptance of our uselessness”, and defended “the autonomy of the ludicrous in the face of the useful, of the gratuitous as opposed to the purposeful, of the spontaneous as opposed to the rationalized and planned”.

Olivier Clément has written that the first task of any renewal in the West would be to promouvoir le gratuit, l’inassimilable, ce qui ne sert à rien mais éclaire tout – “to bring to prominence the gratuitous, the unassimilable, that which serves no use but illuminates all.” For all that Illich seems to have been ‘against everything’, it was for the sake of just this kind of joyful, illuminating uselessness.

Simon Ravenscroft is Murphy Research Fellow at the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge.