The new religion: why trying to be perfect is doomed to fail

It’s always entertaining to wind up followers of the “new atheism” by suggesting they’ve turned atheism itself into a religion. (Consider yourself owned, Richard Dawkins!) But the reason this is unfair, I realised after reading David Zahl’s remarkable new book Seculosity, is not that it’s false. It’s because almost everyone, these days, treats something or other as a religion. Nobody goes to church any more, but the religious urge remains – the hunger for what Zahl calls a feeling of “enoughness” or, more archaically, “righteousness”: the sense that your existence has been validated. It’s just that now we seek it elsewhere: in work, politics, technology, romance.

As the editor of the Christian website Mockingbird, you might expect Zahl to bemoan those empty pews; but the real crisis of religion, he argues, is that “we are almost never not in church”. Our problem is that we’re not simply trying to do good work, build good families or get good politicians elected. Deep down, we’re using these things to try to achieve salvation.

At the heart of this secular religiosity, or seculosity for short, is “performancism”: the idea that who we are is defined by what we do. It follows that enoughness, if we are to achieve it, must come from reaching some level of accomplishment, and Zahl’s book is a compelling tour of all the ways we try. We work long hours, not just to make enough money, but to justify our existence. We scour parenting books for the “correct” approach to childrearing, as if raising the perfect adult might redeem us. We invest existential value in eating right (or “clean”, a strikingly moralistic word).

And we pursue politics, and culture wars, with a blatantly religious zeal. I’m not the first, or even the thousandth, to observe that Trumpism, Corbynism, Brexitism and parts of the social justice movement all bear the hallmarks of religion – or “cults”, as people say to be rude. The challenge posed by Zahl’s book is to wonder where I might be doing the same.

The problem is that seculosity doesn’t work. Enoughness never comes. It’s one thing to seek salvation in God, or to stop seeking salvation; but the attempt to engineer your own salvation is doomed to fail. We’re flawed and finite, so we lack the capacity to work, parent or romance our way to perfection. Try to do so and you’ll only end up struggling to exert ever more control over your life – whereas deep relationships, and other meaningful experiences, require giving up control. Oh, and then there’s our old pal, capitalism, which constantly promises fulfilment while moving it further out of reach.

Churchy types are as prone to seculosity as anyone else, Zahl points out. But “capital-R religion”, at its best, is suffused by forgiveness and what Christians call grace: the sense that enoughness is bestowed, not achieved, and that you needn’t reach any particular standard of performance or virtue in order to qualify. For those of us who aren’t already religious, it’s tricky to know what to do about this, since you surely can’t will yourself to become a believer. Then again, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, it must be a good start to give up searching in the wrong places.