The Paradox of Our Time in History is that
we spend more, but have less;
we buy more, but enjoy it less.
We have bigger houses and smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time;
more medicine, but less wellness.
We read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.
We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.
These are the times of tall men, and short character;
steep profits, and shallow relationships.
These are the days of two incomes, but more divorce;
of fancier houses, but broken homes.
We've learned how to make a living, but not a life;
we've added years to life, not life to years;
we've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul.

Excerpted from a 1999 Internet chain mailing, usually attributed to an unknown source.

The past four decades have produced dramatic cultural changes. Since 1960 we have been soaring economically and, until recently, sinking socially. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan's famous question,

"Are we better off than we were 40 years ago?"

Our honest answer would be: materially yes, morally no. Therein lies the American paradox.There is much to celebrate. We now have, as average Americans, doubled real incomes and doubled what money buys. We own twice as many cars per person, eat out two and a half times as often, and pay less than ever before (in real dollars and minutes worked) for our cars, air travel, and hamburgers. We have espresso coffee, the World Wide Web, sport utility vehicles, and caller ID. Democracy is thriving. Military budgets are shrinking. Joblessness and welfare rolls have subsided. Inflation is down. The annual national deficit has become a surplus. The rights of women and various minorities are better protected than ever before. New drugs are shrinking our tumors, lengthening our lives, and enlarging our sexual potency. These are the best of times. Yet by the early 1990s these had also become the worst of times. During most of the post-1960 years, America was sliding into a deepening social and moral recession that dwarfed the comparatively milder and briefer economic recessions. Had you fallen asleep in 1960 and awakened today (even after the recent uptick in several indicators of societal health) would you feel pleased at the cultural shift? You would be awakening to a:

  • Doubled divorce rate.
  • Tripled teen suicide rate.
  • Quadrupled rate of reported violent crime.
  • Quintupled prison population.
  • Sextupled (no pun intended) percent of babies born to unmarried parents.
  • Sevenfold increase in cohabitation (a predictor of future divorce).
Article continues below
  • Soaring rate of depression—to ten times the pre-World War II level by one estimate

The National Commission on Civic Renewal combined social trends such as these in creating its 1998 "Index of National Civic Health"--which plunged southward from 1960 until the early 1990s. Bertrand Russell once said that the mark of a civilized human is the capacity to read a column of numbers and weep. Can we weep for the social recession's casualties—for the crushed lives behind these numbers?


It is hard to argue with Al Gore: "The accumulation of material goods is at an all-time high, but so is the number of people who feel an emptiness in their lives." Moreover, he explained in declaring his presidential candidacy, "Most Americans are hungry for a deeper connection between politics and moral values; many would say 'spiritual values.' " There is indeed "a spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society," agreed the late Lee Atwater, George Bush's 1988 campaign manager. Having solved the question of how to make a living, having surrounded ourselves with once unthinkable luxuries—air-conditioned comfort, CD-quality sound, and fresh fruit year round—we are left to wonder why we live. Why run this rat race? What's the point? Why care about anything or anyone beyond myself?Ronald Inglehart, a University of Michigan social scientist who follows values surveys across the Western world, discerns the beginnings of a subsiding of materialist values. Not only in Eastern Europe, where materialist Marxism is licking its wounds, but in the West one sees signs of a new generation maturing with decreasing concern for economic growth and strong defense, and with increasing concern for personal relationships, the integrity of nature, and the meaning of life. At the peak of her fortune and fame, with 146 tennis championships behind her and married to John Lloyd, Chris Evert reflected, "We get into a rut. We play tennis, we go to a movie, we watch TV, but I keep saying, 'John, there has to be more.' "Materialism and individualism still ride strong. For America's entering collegians, "becoming very well off financially" is still the top-rated life goal among 19 goals on an annual UCLA/American Council on Education survey; it is said to be "very important or essential" by 74 percent in 1998—nearly double the 39 percent saying the same in 1970. Yet Inglehart discerns "a renewed concern for spiritual values."Pollster George Gallup Jr. detects the same: "One of two dominant trends in society today [along with a search for deeper, more meaningful relationships] is the search for spiritual moorings. … Surveys document the movement of people who are searching for meaning in life with a new intensity, and want their religious faith to grow." From 1994 to late 1998, reported Gallup, the percent of Americans feeling a need to "experience spiritual growth" rose from 54 to 82 percent. Although people in surveys exaggerate their church attendance, as they do voting, religious interests seem on an upswing. Since hitting its modern low in 1993, Gallup's "Religion in America" index has been heading upward.This spiritual hunger is manifest all about us: in a million people annually besieging Catholic retreat centers or seeking spiritual formation guided by spiritual directors; in the NFL, where once-rare chapel services have become universal and after-touchdown kneels are almost as common as struts; in the recent surge of movies with spiritual emphases (Dead Man Walking, The Prince of Egypt, Seven Years in Tibet) and in television's Touched By an Angel reaching ratings heaven; in New Age bookstore sections devoted to angels, near-death experiences, reincarnation, astrology, and other paranormal claims; in the surge of new publications, conferences, and magazine articles on religion and science and health; in the reopening of school curricula to religion's place in history and literature; and on the Internet, where AltaVista finds "God" on 3.6 million Web pages.

Article continues below


For Christians—people who experience spirituality in biblically-rooted faith communities—some aspects of contemporary do-it-yourself spirituality may seem gaseous, individualistic, and self-focused. Nevertheless, the essential facts are striking: while we have been surging materially and technologically we have paradoxically undergone a social and moral recession and experienced a deepening spiritual hunger. In many ways these are the best of times, yet in other ways these have been the worst of times. While enjoying the benefits of today's economic and social individualism, we are suffering the costs.To counter radical individualism, an inclusive social renewal movement is emerging—one that affirms liberals' indictment of the demoralizing effects of poverty and conservatives' indictment of toxic media models; one that welcomes liberals' support for family-friendly workplaces and conservatives' support for committed relationships; one that agrees with liberals' advocacy for children in all sorts of families and conservatives' support for marriage and coparenting.Do we not—whether self-described liberals or conservatives—share a vision of a better world? As the slumbering public consciousness awakens, something akin to the earlier civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements seems to be germinating. "Anyone who tunes in politics even for background music can tell you how the sound has changed," observes feminist columnist Ellen Goodman. Yesterday's shouting match over family values has become today's choir, she adds. When singing about children growing up without fathers, "Politicians on the right, left and center may not be hitting exactly the same notes, but like sopranos, tenors and baritones, they're pretty much in harmony." We are recognizing that liberals' risk factors (poverty, inequality, hopelessness) and conservatives' risk factors (early sexualization, unwed parenthood, family fragmentation) all come in the same package. Whatever our differences, most of us wish for a culture that:

Article continues below
  • Welcomes children into families with mothers and fathers who love them, and into an environment that nurtures families.
  • Rewards initiative and restrains exploitative greed, thus building a strong economy that shrinks the underclass.
  • Balances individual liberties with communal well-being.
  • Encourages close relationships within extended families and with supportive neighbors and caring friends, people who celebrate when you're born, care about you as you live, and miss you when you're gone.
  • Values our diversity while finding unity in shared ideals.
  • Develops children's capacities for empathy, self-discipline, and honesty.
  • Provides media that offer social scripts of kindness, civility, attachment, and fidelity.
  • Regards relationships as covenants and sexuality not as mere recreation but as life-uniting and love-renewing.
  • Takes care of the soul by developing a deeper spiritual awareness of a reality greater than self and of life's resulting meaning, purpose, and hope.

Thanks partly to the emerging renewal movement, several indicators of social pathology have recently shown encouraging turns. Although still at historically high levels, teen sex, pregnancy, and violence, for example, have all subsided somewhat from their peaks around 1993.Further progress toward the new American dream requires more than expanding our social ambulance services at the base of the social cliffs. It also requires that we identify the forces that are pushing people over the cliffs. And it requires our building new guard rails at the top—by making our business and economics more family-friendly, by reforming our media, by renewing character education in our schools, and by better balancing me-thinking with we-thinking.Are there credible grounds for adding spiritual renewal to this list? Are George W. Bush and Al Gore both right to trumpet the potential of "faith-based" reforms and social services? Or can skeptical Oxford professor Richard Dawkins more easily find evidence for seeing faith as "one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus, but harder to eradicate"? Sifting the evidence won't decide the bigger issue of the truth of Christian claims, but it should indicate whether faith more often uplifts or debilitates.We now have massive evidence that people active in faith communities are happier and healthier than their unchurched peers. (Recent epidemiological studies—tracking thousands of lives through years of time—reveal they even outlive their unchurched peers by several years.) Is an active faith similarly associated with social health?

Article continues below


Asked by Gallup, "Can a person be a good and ethical person if he or she does not believe in God?," three in four Americans answered yes. Indeed, examples of honorable secularists and greedy, lustful, or bigoted believers come readily to mind. "God's will" has been used—often by those for whom religion is more a mark of group identity than of genuine piety—as justification for apartheid, for limiting women's rights, for ethnic cleansing, for gay bashing, and for war. As Madeleine L'Engle lamented, "Christians have given Christianity a bad name."But anecdotes aside--"I can counter Jim Bakker's gold-plated bathroom fixtures with Mother Teresa, and Bible-thumping KKK members with Desmond Tutu," responds the believer—how might faith feed character? It might do so by providing a source of values. It might give us a convincing reason to behave morally when no one is looking. Lacking the ground of faith beneath our morality, cultural inertia may enable a lingering selflessness, but eventually the soil that feeds morality becomes depleted. "If there is no God, is not everything permissible?" Ivan asked in The Brothers Karamazov."The terrible danger of our time consists in the fact that ours is a cut-flower civilization," philosopher Elton Trueblood prophesied a half-century ago. "Beautiful as cut flowers may be, and much as we may use our ingenuity to keep them looking fresh for a while, they will eventually die, and they die because they are severed from their sustaining roots. We are trying to maintain the dignity of the individual apart from the deep faith that every man is made in God's image and is therefore precious in God's eyes."Even the eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire found the influence of faith useful among the masses, even though he thought Christianity was an "infamy" that deserved crushing. "I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God," he wrote, because "then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often." He once silenced a discussion about atheism until he had dismissed the servants, lest in losing their faith they might lose their morality. Although similarly skeptical of religion, biologist E. O. Wilson likewise acknowledges that "religious conviction is largely beneficent. Religion … nourishes love, devotion, and, above all, hope."

Article continues below


Are Voltaire and Wilson right to presume that godliness tethers self-interest and feeds character? Seeking answers, researchers have studied not just what causes crime, but what predicts virtue. Having two committed parents, a stable neighborhood, prosocial media, and schools that teach character—all of these help. So, too, does a spiritual sense, contends Stanford psychologist William Damon. Children are "openly receptive to spiritual ideas and long for transcendent truth that can nourish their sense of purpose and provide them with a moral mission in life," he believes. "Children will not thrive … unless they acquire a living sense of what some religious traditions have called transcendence: a faith in and devotion to concerns that are considered larger than the self." Faith, he reports, "has clear benefits for children … enabling some children to adapt to stressful and burdensome life events."The bipartisan National Commission on Children has concurred that religious faith strengthens children. "Through participation in a religious community—in communal worship, religious education, and social-action programs—children learn and assimilate the values of their faith. For many children, religion is a major force in their moral development; for some it is the chief determinant of moral behavior." Studies confirm that religious adolescents (those who say their faith is important or who attend church) differ from those who are irreligious. They are much less likely to become delinquent, to engage in promiscuous sex, and to abuse drugs and alcohol.After analyzing data from several national studies, Vanderbilt University criminologist Byron Johnson reported that "Most delinquent acts were committed by juveniles who had low levels of religious commitment. Those juveniles whose religiosity levels were in the middle to high levels committed very few delinquent acts." Even when controlling for other factors, such as socioeconomic level, neighborhood, and peer influences, churchgoing kids rarely were delinquent.The faith-morality relationship extends to adulthood. In their studies of Jews in Israel, Catholics in Spain, Calvinists in the Netherlands, the Orthodox in Greece, and Lutherans and Catholics in West Germany, sociologists Shalom Schwartz and Sipke Huismans consistently found that people of faith tended to be less hedonistic and self-oriented. Consistent with this observation, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset notes that charitable giving and voluntarism are higher in America than in less religious countries.In a 1981 U.S. Values Survey, frequent worship attendance predicted lower scores on a dishonesty scale that assessed, for example, self-serving lies, tax cheating, and failing to report damaging a parked car. Moreover, cities with high churchgoing rates tend to be cities with low crime rates. In Provo, Utah, where more than nine in ten people are church members, you can more readily leave your car unlocked than in Seattle, where fewer than a third are. Voltaire, it seems, was on to something.Many people sense this faith-morality correlation. If your car broke down in a crime-ridden area and some strapping teenage boys approached you, asks Los Angeles Rabbi Dennis Prager, wouldn't "you feel better to know they had just come from a Bible study?"

Article continues below


So, people of faith (mostly Christians in studies to date) are, for whatever reasons, somewhat more traditionally moral—more honest and law-abiding and less hedonistic. But are they more actively compassionate? Do they really walk the love talk? Or are they mostly self-righteous hypocrites?People often wonder about Christianity, which has a curious history of links with both love and hate. On one side are Bible-thumping slave owners, Ku Klux Klanners, and apartheid defenders. On the other are the religious roots of the antislavery movement, the clergy's leadership of the American and South African civil-rights movements, and the church's establishment of universities and Third World medical care. A mid-century profusion of studies of religion and prejudice revealed a similarly mixed picture. On the one hand, American church members expressed more racial prejudice than nonmembers, and those with conservative Christian beliefs expressed more than those who were less conservative. For many, religion seemed a cultural habit, a part of their community tradition, which also happened to include racial segregation.Yet the most faithful church attenders expressed less prejudice than occasional attenders. Clergy expressed more tolerance and civil-rights support than lay people. And those for whom religion was an end ("My religious beliefs are what really lie behind my whole approach to life") were less prejudiced than those for whom religion was a means ("A primary reason for my interest in religion is that my church is a congenial social activity"). Thus among church members, the devout expressed less prejudice than those who gave religion lip service. "We have just enough religion to make us hate," said the English satirist Jonathan Swift, "but not enough to make us love one another.""Faith-based" compassion becomes even clearer when we look at who gives most generously of time and money. Fortune reports that America's top 25 philanthropists share several characteristics. They are mostly self-made, they have been givers all their lives, and "they're religious: Jewish, Mormon, Protestant, and Catholic. And most attribute their philanthropic urges, at least in part, to their religious backgrounds."The same appears true of the rest of us. In a 1987 Gallup survey, Americans who said they never attended church or synagogue reported giving away 1.1 percent of their incomes. Weekly attenders were two and a half times as generous. This 24 percent of the population gave 48 percent of all charitable contributions. The other three-quarters of Americans give the remaining half. Followup Gallup surveys in 1990, 1992, 1994, and 1999 replicated this pattern. An estate-planning attorney at one of western Michigan's largest law firms told me that people in her highly churched area of the state are much more likely to assign part of their estate to charity than are people on the state's less religious eastern side. Much of this annual and legacy giving is not to churches. Two thirds of money given to secular charities comes from contributors who also give to religious organizations. And of the billions given to congregations, nearly half gets donated to other organizations or allocated to nonreligious programming (and that doesn't count donations of food, clothing, and shelter by most congregations). The faith-generosity effect extends to the giving of time:

Article continues below
Article continues below
  • Among the 12 percent of Americans whom Gallup classified as "highly spiritually committed," 46 percent said they were presently working among the poor, the infirm, or the elderly—many more than the 22 percent among those "highly uncommitted."
  • In a followup Gallup survey, charitable and social service volunteering was reported by 28 percent of those who rated religion "not very important" in their lives and by 50 percent of those who rated it "very important."
  • In the 1992 Gallup survey, those not attending church volunteered 1.4 hours a week while those attending weekly volunteered 3.2 hours. The follow-up survey in 1994 found the same pattern, as have university-based studies.
  • In yet another Gallup survey, 37 percent of those rarely if ever attending church, and 76 percent of those attending weekly, reported thinking at least a "fair amount" about "your responsibility to the poor."
  • Among one notable self-giving population—adoptive parents—religious commitment is commonplace. Among a national sample, 63 percent reported attending a worship service often.

So, tell me about the generosity of someone's spirit, and you will also give me a clue to the centrality of their faith. Tell me whether their faith is peripheral or pivotal, and I will estimate their generosity.Religious consciousness, it appears, shapes a larger agenda than advancing one's own private world. It cultivates the idea that my wealth and talents are gifts of which I am the steward. Spirituality promotes a "bond of care for others," notes Boston College sociologist Paul Schervish. Such altruism, research psychologists Dennis Krebs and Frank Van Hesteren contend, is "selfless, stemming from agape, an ethic of responsible universal love, service, and sacrifice that is extended to others without regard for merit." The religious idea of a reality and purpose beyond self would seem foundational to such "universal self-sacrificial love."Faith-based altruism is at work here in Holland, Michigan, where the Head Start Day Care program was envisioned by a prayer group at the church where it still operates. The thriving Boys and Girls Club was spawned by the Interparish Council. Habitat for Humanity construction is mostly done by church volunteers. Our community's two main nongovernmental agencies for supporting the poor—the Community Action House and the Good Samaritan Center—were begun by churches, which continue to contribute operating funds. The local theological seminary houses the community soup kitchen. Churches fund the community's homeless shelter. Annually, more than 2,000 townspeople, sponsored by thousands more—nearly all from churches—gather for a world hunger relief walk.If the churches of my community (and likely yours) shut down, along with all the charitable action they foster, we would see a sharp drop in beds for the homeless, food for the hungry, and services to children. Partners for Sacred Places, a nondenominational group dedicated to preserving old religious buildings, reports that nine of ten city congregations with pre-1940 buildings provide space for community programming such as food pantries, clothing closets, soup kitchens, childcare centers, recreation programs, AA meetings, and afterschool activities.Thus, mountains of data and anecdotes make it hard to dispute Frank Emerson Andrews' conclusion that "religion is the mother of philanthropy."To be sure, religion is a mixed bag. It has been used to support the Crusades and enslavement. But it was also Christians who built hospitals, helped the mentally ill, staffed orphanages, brought hope to prisoners, established universities, and spread literacy. It was Christians who abolished the slave trade, led civil-rights marches, and challenged totalitarianism. It was 5,000 Christians who in Le Chambon, France, sheltered Jews while French collaborators elsewhere were delivering Jews to the Nazis. The villagers, mostly descendants of a persecuted Protestant group, had been taught by their pastors to "resist whenever our adversaries will demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel." Ordered to reveal the sheltered Jews, the pastor refused, saying, "I don't know of Jews, I only know of human beings."As the debate over government support of faith-based social services emerges—fueled by success stories such as the Rev. Eugene Rivers III's work with Boston teens, Prison Fellowship's work with inmates, and Michigan's program of connecting social-service clients with church-support groups—the church will also need to retain its prophetic voice. In Britain, which is entering a parallel national debate over "the moral and spiritual decline of the nation," the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, opened "an unprecedented debate on morality" in the House of Lords in 1996 by decrying the decline of moral order and spiritual purpose and the tendency to view moral judgments as mere private taste. Jonathan Sacks, England's Chief Rabbi, supported his compatriot:

Article continues below
Article continues below
The power of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that it charts a moral reality larger than private inclination. …It suggests that not all choices are equal: some lead on to blessing, others to lives of quiet despair.It may be that religious leaders can no longer endorse, but instead must challenge the prevailing consensus—the role of the prophet through the ages. In which case the scene is set for a genuine debate between two conflicting visions—between those who see the individual as a bundle of impulses to be gratified and those who see humanity in the image of God; between those who see society as a series of private gardens of desire and those who make space for public parts which we do not own but which we joint ly maintain for the sake of others and the future. No debate could be more fundamental, and its outcome will shape the social contours of the twenty-first century.

David G. Myers is professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. The article is adapted from The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty by David G. Myers, published this month by Yale University Press. © 2000 by the David and Carol Myers Foundation. Reprinted by permission.Illustration by John S. Dykes

Related Elsewhere

The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, from which this article is excerpted, can be ordered or other book retailers. David Myers's Web site offers more resources for his book, including interviews, links to social renewal organizations, and more excerpts. He also has pages on psychology and religion, biographical information, and his other books.Yesterday's Washington Times ran an article on Myers and his book.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.