The famous German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) drew the connection between the growth of social science in the mid-nineteenth century and rise of secularism—what he termed the systematic “disenchantment” of the everyday life. He could foresee how the growing ability to scientifically understand human behavior would make it possible to divorce public education, government programs, social service organizations, the justice system, and other important institutions from a spiritual outlook.
As Weber predicted, today social science plays an even greater role in running the world, but this is not to say that its influence is trusted. Psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, and political science may dominate the training and credentialing of today’s teachers, therapists, government and corporate administrators, social workers, criminologists, financial analysts, urban planners, environmentalists, and other professionals, but public faith in the competence of the organizations they run has been sinking for decades.
In 1964, polls showed that three of every four Americans trusted their government to do the right thing. Today only third of respondents feel the same way. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which for 18 years has been asking people around the globe about their confidence in various institutions, has recently recorded some of the steepest drops ever among those living in the United States.
Especially striking is the declining status of what decades ago was one of America’s most admired institutions, public education. In the latest annual poll by Harvard’s Education Next magazine, 77 percent of respondents graded the performance of the nation’s schools with a C or less.
Corporations and other private economic bodies, while historically held in higher regard than either government or non-profits, are also struggling to retain the public’s confidence. They are being pressured by “a cumulative loss of trust on their part of [all] their constituencies,” says chief Allianz advisor Mohamed El-Erian.
Social scientists themselves have no shortage of explanations for the country’s growing mistrust of its secular management. Some argue that the polling is skewed by traditional religious believers who still resist the superior wisdom of modern science, “clinging to their guns and religion,” as a recent U.S. president famously put it.
Others readily concede that today’s secular institutions are imperfect, but only because the challenges they face are far more complex than in simpler, less technological times. Still others interpret the widespread mistrust of large organizations as the average person’s jealousy of the well-paid elites who run them.
But it was the late cultural philosopher Irving Kristol who proposed what has turned out to be the most persuasive explanation. Coining the phrase “New Class” to describe the ever-rising number of economists, environmentalists, health-care workers, policy analysts, university researchers, and other social science experts, he identified their collective interest in exaggerating the wisdom of academic credentials.
Kristol was not suggesting anything as darkly conspiratorial as a deliberate effort to hoodwink the public. He was simply acknowledging the modern manifestation of an eternal human weakness—namely, that whenever a self-serving belief begins to take hold in any circle, its members resist even the best reasons to doubt it.
This is why, as Dartmouth Medical School’s John E. Wennberg documented in the late 1980s, many medical procedures in the United States have no proven benefit other than to increase the pay of the doctors who perform them. It is also why academic presses are more likely to publish papers supporting a liberal political outlook—papers justifying the existence of government bureaucracies run by credentialed academics—than equally well-researched papers from conservatives.
Perhaps the clearest example of self-serving ideology masquerading as social science is the consistent finding, dating all the way back to 1936, that no form of psychotherapy is any more effective than any other or even than just talking to a friend. Yet today’s mental health workers continue to act as if they possessed some exceptional medical skill. Another is in the field of criminology, where billions of taxpayer dollars are annually spent on ambitious government programs to remedy poverty, racism, and other so-called “root causes” of crime without the slightest evidence that any have ever worked.
Indeed, so much of what social science claims to be true resists replication that Stanford University has established the Meta-Research Innovation Center to double-check the validity of so-called “widely accepted findings.” John Ioannidis, the center’s co-director, believes that as much as half the information published in peer-reviewed journals is probably wrong, an opinion he shares with The Lancet’s respected editor-in-chief, Richard Charles Horton. National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood has recently suggested that many of the regulations, law, and social programs routinely passed by the U.S. Congress are based on little more than research flukes and, in many cases, outright “statistical manipulation.”
Given that a lot of what passes for objective reality in our secular society turns out to be only slightly more accurate than astrology, palm reading, or deciphering tarot cards, it is hardly surprising that Americans have developed an intuitive mistrust of their social institutions. Average citizens may lack the training to make a persuasive intellectual case for what they feel, but this is not to say that their feelings are misguided.
Nor is it surprising that a small but growing number of social scientists are having second thoughts about the modern tendency to eliminate all religious and even broadly spiritual conversation from the public square. Many have even conducted studies showing that a belief in God is strongly connected to both physical and emotional health, resilience to business and personal setbacks, perceived trustworthiness, successful childrearing, and even general problem-solving skills.
Of course, it could be argued that contemporary religious institutions have their own credibility problems, especially with sexual abuse by Catholic priests and scandals like the downfall of Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels. Yet these controversies are less a problem of theological validity than a failure of weak leaders to resist the kinds of temptation that Scripture itself both warns against and sadly concedes some religious leaders will succumb to.
It is worth noting that ever since the first priest scandal in 2002, public support for using public education dollars at K-12 private schools—the overwhelming majority of which are religiously affiliated—has continued to grow, with a recent EdChoice poll showing a record 71 percent of respondents in favor. Indeed, between 2010 and 2017, legislatures in 15 states have enacted or expanded 27 such programs. This suggests Americans have little trouble separating a spiritual outlook from the failings of those who poorly represent it.
Despite the pessimism in many faith communities about the direction of modern culture, secularism’s institutional weakness and growing academic respect for the wisdom of traditional religion are two good reasons to be more optimistic. In combination, they may prove far more transformational than currently seems possible.