The Will to Disbelieve

Responding to the critics of my recent article on the Shroud of Turin and the Resurrection.

The exceptional number of comments on my recent article on the Shroud of Turin indicated something important. I argued that the Shroud suggested that the Resurrection might have happened. In 1897, William James published an essay called “ The Will to Believe.” What I found in these comments was a will to disbelieve. I say a will, because so many of the comments offered such improbable reasons in attempting to discredit the evidence of the Shroud, and, derivatively, the Resurrection.

I think the will to disbelieve reflects a widespread resistance to the recent efforts of the religious right to use alleged religious imperatives to reshape American culture through political power.

A great deal of evidence supports this hypothesis.

Historians say that we have been in the third “awakening” of evangelical Protestantism:

First Awakening: mid-18th century (Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley).

Second Awakening: mid-19th century; after Civil War evangelicalism flows westward (William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska).

Third Awakening: (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, James Dobson, George W. Bush, and Bush’s Catholic adviser, the late Rev. Richard Neuhaus. We also have had PCT, Protestants and Catholics Together, Charles Colson).

But as the term Third Awakening suggests, these awakenings tend to snooze off.

The Pew Research Center Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes 1987-2007 (March 22, 2007) finds “less religious intensity,” “younger cohorts more secular,” “less social conservatism,” and “Democrats open wide advantage.”

Note: The shift away from religious fervor may actually have begun during the 1990s. Two Berkeley sociologists, Michael Hout and Clause S. Fischer have published a paper titled “Why Americans Have No Religious Preference” (American Sociological Review, 2002) arguing that this phenomenon was not an indication of growing atheism but that more Americans were rejecting organized religion as a “symbolic statement” against the religious right.

Voila! That’s it. People are rejecting what Andrew Sullivan has called “Christianism,” or politicized Christianity, Sullivan’s analogue being “Islamism.”

Of course, the Catholic Church has been battling modernity since the early Renaissance. Popes have tried to ban earning interest on loans (early capitalism), ban smallpox vaccination, ban streetlights in Rome (1848) as symbols of republicanism and revolution, ban contraception and abortion (in effect turning women into baby machines), ban embryonic stem-cell research (going on worldwide and also in U.S., though Bush blocked federal funds). Not surprisingly modernity keeps winning.

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Two recent items:

The Telegraph, April 10: “America’s religious right has conceded that the election of U.S. president Barack Obama has sealed its defeat in the culture war with permissiveness and secularism... James Dobson, 72... head of Focus on the Family, one of the largest Christian groups in the country... acknowledged the dramatic reverse for the religious right in a farewell speech to staff…”

The Telegraph, April 10: “Radio carbon dating carried out in 1988 was performed on an area of the relic that was repaired in the 16th century, according to Ray Rogers, who helped lead the Shroud of Turin Research project. At the time, he argued firmly that the Shroud, which bears a Christlike image, was a clever forgery.” Conclusion: The Shroud is genuine, not a medieval forgery.

I myself conclude that the Will to Disbelieve reflected in the comments on my article reflected a justified rejection of the politicized religious right.


Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus of English at Dartmouth College. He wrote for The National Review for more than three decades and was senior editor. He wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan while he was governor of California, and for Richard Nixon.