This is not the future we were promised. That simple sentence sums up the basic premise of Ross Douthat’s latest book, The Decadent Society. Ever since Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap,” the Western world has experienced nothing but small steps, and these often in a circle rather than boldly forward. According to Douthat, our society is better characterized by words like stagnation, sterility, and sclerosis, rather than by innovation, productivity, and health. The Western world, while powerful and prosperous, is also stuck—or, in a word, decadent.
Douthat does not use decadence in its common sense of luxurious self-indulgence, but to refer to “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” His opening chapters chronicle the ways our society fit this definition. He argues that economic and technological progress has dwindled over the past 40 years. While “we used to travel faster, build bigger, live longer; now we communicate faster, chatter more, snap more selfies.” Not only this, but our society is growing old and failing to reproduce, as birthrates plunge below replacement levels across the developed world. And it barely needs stating, but gridlock has become a defining feature of our political system. All of this leads Douthat to conclude that ours is a decadent society.
It is difficult to argue against the accuracy of this assessment. No doubt, the maladies Douthat has identified characterize our age. Although his portrait of our decadence is compelling in many ways, we should be careful not to overlook some of the impressive advances society has made in recent decades. In his review of Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness, Brian Mattson pointed out that the situation may not be as dire as it appears. When we are so focused on the bad news of the day—an easy feat in our 24-hour news cycle—it is easy to miss the spectacular changes that have happened before our eyes. For example, hunger, poverty, and disease (despite the onslaught of COVID-19) have decreased worldwide. As Christians, we should rejoice as we see signs of progress on many fronts, even as we avoid placing our hope in the things of earth. Douthat acknowledges some of these positive changes, but in the end, gives too little credit to the ways the world has dramatically improved in recent decades.
This minor critique leads to a more significant one, however. While Douthat rightly identifies many of the ways our society has descended into decadence, he does not emphasize the ways in which technological, economic, and cultural stagnation flow from a more fundamental moral and religious decadence. Over the past four decades, Western society has separated itself by greater and greater degrees from the Christian worldview, which gave birth to our modern world. Apart from that Christian worldview, the ideals of liberal society cannot be maintained, and they will ultimately degenerate into the kinds of decadence Douthat catalogs. The general aimlessness of our society is really a spiritual crisis—a loss of any sense of higher meaning or purpose. With no good answer to the question, “Why are we here?” aimlessness results. If the pleasures of this world are all you are aiming for, stagnation seems inevitable at some point. Once you are comfortable enough in this life—and, no doubt, the Western world is very comfortable by historical standards—what more is there to strive for? Our culture, having lost its religious and moral foundation, makes vice too easy to indulge in, and virtue even more difficult to cultivate, partly because it no longer acknowledges the difference between the two. It should be no surprise that decadence follows in other areas as well.
Though Douthat’s diagnosis may be inadequate, he grapples with a question that should be pressing to all of us: If the western liberal order has reached a point of decay, what comes next? Douthat spends the second part of his book contending that society may carry on in its decadence for the foreseeable future. He wants to avoid, on the one hand, an overly optimistic take that sees science carrying humanity forward into some kind of techno-utopia—a form of secular eschatology, if you will—and on the other, a pessimistic take that sees our society heading for imminent collapse brought about either by internal or external pressures (whether COVID-19 proves to be such a pressure remains to be seen). More likely, in Douthat’s view, we will continue as we are, “leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from [Western society’s] wild and crazy youth, all riled up in [our] own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb.” This conclusion is plausible since, as argued above, continued aimlessness and widespread malaise seems likely apart from the recovery of transcendent aims which only a religious revival can bring about.
Yet, reality has a way of pushing back against our attempts to suppress the truth it reveals. In departing from its Christian roots, Western culture has embraced an ultimate irrationalism which results in contradictions at every level of society. For example, gender is viewed as infinitely malleable even while sexual preference is understood as a fixed matter of birth. In the name of liberty, society actually finds itself enslaved. Contradictions of this nature are bound to create fractures in society as ideology crashes against the rocks of reality, a possibility Douthat underplays.
Granted, Douthat acknowledges that any path out of decadence will likely involve some kind of religious reawakening, mysteriously guided by God’s hand of providence. But he misses that our decadent age may create conditions that could spur religious revival. As the contradictions of secular society become more and more apparent, people will be left longing for something more. For Christians, this presents an opportunity to show where true life can be found. A biblical apologetic is ideally suited to point out the inconsistencies of our decadent world and show our neighbors a better way. By outlining the features of our decadent society and considering how we might move forward, Douthat provides a helpful framework for Christians to do as they have always done: be faithful witnesses to a heavenly kingdom where decadence will be forever banished.