Then, too, the manifest failure of many churches to live up to their own commandments, the pulse of scandal in religious life, makes their claim to offer a higher, harder wisdom seem self-discrediting.
A second obstacle is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.
Thus when spiritual ideas creep back into elite culture, it’s often in the form of “wellness” or self-help disciplines, or in enthusiasms like astrology, where there’s always a certain deniability about whether you’re really invoking a spiritual reality, really committing to metaphysical belief.
My sense is that these two obstacles effectively work together to block people from religious faith. If someone has an experience that calls their unbelief into question, their association of traditional religion with sexual prohibitions or bigotry or scandal is often enough to keep them from being drawn by that experience to a church or synagogue.
Alternatively, if they feel drawn by a desire for community or moral formation to experiment with churchgoing — maybe in a community that’s liberal or “seeker-sensitive,” rather than reactionary or Republican — then their materialist bias makes it hard for them to persevere, to get up early to perform rituals or recite creeds whose claims they can’t actually believe.
I don’t know exactly how this blocking pattern might be broken. But I will say that the second obstacle seems by far the weaker one. That is, I think I understand pretty well why my secular neighbors doubt the godliness of churches that seem to treat gay people or women unfairly or that appear to be led by fools and hypocrites. But I am more puzzled by secular-minded people who think the rationality of religion has, under modern conditions, somehow been disproved.
Yes, science has undercut some religious ideas once held with certainty. But our supposedly “disenchanted” world remains the kind of world that inspired religious belief in the first place: a miraculously ordered and lawbound system that generates conscious beings who can mysteriously unlock its secrets, who display godlike powers in miniature and also a strong demonic streak, and whose lives are constantly buffeted by hard-to-explain encounters and intimations of transcendence. To be dropped into such a world and not be persistently open to religious possibilities seems much more like prejudice than rationality.