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Clay Routledge joined the show today to talk about how our society has become increasingly individualistic, and how we are still learning the consequences of that.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Dr. Clay Routledge is a social psychologist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. His research focuses on the many ways that people gain and maintain perceptions of meaning in life and how these perceptions contribute to psychological and physical health. He has published over 90 scholarly papers, co‐​edited a book on the psychology of meaning, and authored the book Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource. He was also a contributing author for the books The Walking Dead Psychology: Psych of the Living Dead, Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind, and Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Dr. Routledge’s work has been featured by many media outlets such as the New York Times, CBS News, ABC News, BBC News, CNN, MSNBC, Men’s Health, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker. Dr. Routledge writes a popular online column for Psychology Today called More Than Mortal, has served as a guest blogger for Scientific American, and frequently serves as a guest expert for national and international radio programs.

Clay Routledge joined the show today to talk about how our society has become increasingly individualistic, and how we are still learning the consequences of that. It is human nature to look for some sort of meaning in life. We are social animals, but that isn’t what makes us particularly unique. What makes us unique is that we maintain cultures and practices that make us seem, at least in part, larger than ourselves.

Why do we search for meaning in our lives? How do we know if our life actually means something? Do people feel lonelier than the used to? Why is Western society becoming more secular?

Further Reading:

The Collapse of the Local Community (with Tim Carney), Free Thoughts Podcast

Do Socialists Mean Well?, written by Grant Babcock

No Man Is an Island (Not Even Libertarians), written by Aaron Ross Powell



00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Clay Routledge, he’s a behavioral scientist, writer, consultant and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. Welcome to the show.

00:18 Clay Routledge: Thanks for having me.

00:19 Aaron Ross Powell: A lot of your work is about meaning. What do you mean by meaning?

00:24 Clay Routledge: Okay, well, there is a technical definition of meaning that involves several sub‐​components such as, you know, longing for consistency, so all animals wanna make sense of their environment at some level. To navigate the world, it has to be predictable. So there’s that kind of what you might call a lower level meaning but humans are uniquely self‐​reflective so we can talk to each other right here and we can imagine each other’s thoughts and feelings as a way to sort of communicate. And so because we have that capacity for self‐​reflection, we don’t just wanna make sense of the world, we wanna make sense of our own lives, so we have kind of this internal effort to find meaning and that makes us more goal‐​directed, so our efforts to find meaning become very personal and very much oriented towards the future and living a life that feels like we have some sense of purpose. So that’s the other big component of meaning is some kind of purpose in life.

01:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Is this similar to, like, is there a narrative element to this? That it’s like, you wanna be able to tell a story about your life?

01:33 Clay Routledge: Yeah, definitely. We’re narrative creatures in a lot of ways like we’re storytellers, I mean, culture, some psychologists and sociologists have pointed out that humans are social animals but that doesn’t actually make us unique. There’s a lot of social animals. What makes us unique perhaps is that we’re cultural animals and part of culture is storytelling and making sense of our own personal stories, but also importantly, connecting our stories to larger stories. So we wanna feel some sense of connection to family and to our ancestors and we also think a lot about the future. We want our story to continue on. We want some kind of transcendence in some way.

02:14 Trevor Burrus: So if you’re trying to. So you’re not just a philosopher or you’re philosophical but you’re a psychologist, so there’s some empirical element to what you do.

02:22 Clay Routledge: Correct. Yeah. Yeah.

02:23 Trevor Burrus: So do you walk around and just say, “Does your life mean anything?” And then do that 10 times and then write a paper on it?


02:30 Clay Routledge: Luckily, I don’t walk around and do that. But you’re on to something in the sense that, yeah, what we’re trying to do, which is actually a relatively recent enterprise within the last couple of decades, you started to see some psychologist start to take these ideas from philosophy and say, “This is all great that we’re talking about this and we’re thinking about it and you know, there’s lots of insights to be found from that, but we wanna start quantifying this stuff.” And so, really it started in, there were some people doing some stuff before, but really it started in the late 1980s that empirical psychologists said, “Well, let’s start coming up with ways to test in the laboratory using more contemporary experimental methods how people approach existential questions.”

03:18 Trevor Burrus: So, for example, like what would be one of those tests, like, how it would work?

03:23 Clay Routledge: Well, when I first started grad school, which was interestingly within the weeks of the September 11th attacks which actually had a big influence on my work, what we were doing in the lab is focusing on the topic of death awareness. So humans are in this unique predicament of like other organisms, we want to survive, we’re oriented towards self‐​preservation and try to do things to stay alive, but unlike other organisms, we have this ability to reflect on the fact that we’re gonna die. So we know this goal for survival is ultimately gonna be unsuccessful, that at some point, we have to die.

04:00 Clay Routledge: What are the implications of that awareness of mortality? So we were bringing people into the lab and looking at this by randomly assigning people to different conditions and having some of them think about death. So sounds pretty, pretty, we were doing some pretty edgelord research. And then seeing the effects that has and what research has shown is that when people think about topics, heavy existential topics like death, not just death, but also the meaning in life and things like that, it orients them towards more wanting to defend or cling to the culture and social structures that give their life some sense of order and certainty and meaning. And so, when meaning is on the mind or when meaning‐​relevant topics like death are on their mind, people become more motivated and more driven to the sources that give their life some sort of existential structure.

04:56 Aaron Ross Powell: When we’re measuring this broadly though, so you write about the loss of meaning and you attribute a lot of the societal ills that we see today to a declining sense of meaning among a lot of Americans. But that sort of thing, how do you get to the point where you can say like, “There is a declining sense of meaning in broader population,” suppose like the specific of, you know, we can see how people act when they talk about death ’cause I mean, I can imagine that stuff like if you ask someone like, “How much meaning is in your life?” it’s similar to some of the critiques of say, happiness research, that the way people answer is highly culturally contingent or just, you know, so someone could be objectively happier, but it’s rude to say that you’re super happy, and so you kind of keep it a little mom or… So how do you get at it without getting stuck in those sorts of cultural concerns?

05:52 Clay Routledge: Yeah, no, that’s a real challenge because all of these issues in psychology do involve trying to get at answers that are mediated by the individual human mind, right? So you do have these challenges. There are all sorts of methodological ways you can get at it but it is an issue of… You hit on an issue of scaling up from the lab, which is an… Important to do that work because that’s really getting at the mechanisms like the psychological mechanisms and you can control for a bunch of confounds that it’s hard to do in other social scientific research. But then what you do when you’re scaling up is you can’t necessarily easily make an airtight case.

06:34 Clay Routledge: But you can prosecute a bunch of different alternative explanations, right? And you can see if there’s something unique about people’s perceptions of meaning, as biased as they may be, that predicts a bunch of behavioral or other types of social health outcomes. So for instance, we know that when people’s perceptions of their life are meaningful as a predictor of mortality. People who don’t feel like they have a purpose in life are just more likely to die. You can measure… There’s studies. I’ve looked at this. You can measure that and their perceptions of meaning, and then look like 15 years later and see who’s alive and who’s not. Of course, it’s a risk factor for very specific types of death like suicide and risky behaviors that make you more likely to die like drug and alcohol abuse and just risk‐​taking in general. But then the challenge, like you’re pointing out, the challenge is that life is really, really complicated.

07:34 Clay Routledge: So I wouldn’t go so far as to say, I think what you’re suggesting, I’m saying that most of our problems in society or most of the issues we’re facing are about meaning. But I do think meaning is an important part of the story because… And this is something I’m gonna talk about at the CATO event, but because meaning is a motivational and kind of self‐​regulatory force that, it’s not just that when people lack meaning, they’re vulnerable to depression and anxiety. When they have meaning they’re better able to take care of themselves and they’re more outward focused. They’re more willing to help their community, and they’re more optimistic. And so regardless of how people get meaning, it seems to be an important part of how societies regulate themselves.

08:19 Trevor Burrus: When we talk about these things on the big scale, as Aaron said, societal ills, there’s been a lot of discussion of that recently. Trump might both a cause and effect of that discussion. But in my life, it seems like at many different times we’ve had, we’ve always had these conversations that were very much like things were much better then and everything is really bad now. And I don’t think that you ever see the good times often when they’re in the good times. And there’s some biases, some institutional to point out what’s going wrong rather than what’s going right. I think in 1890s, they were probably like, “Man, things have never been as soulless and horrible as they are today. 1870s were really great.” And so can we really trust our perceptions of this? I mean, some people, they’re just reasoning anecdotally. Other people, we have a nostalgia mechanism. And we have, I think we now even have a nostalgia machine that is constantly churning like Stranger Things. Stranger Things is just what popped to my head. That’s a nostalgia machine. So they just wanna put us back there. I’m a child of the 80s. And be like, “Remember how cool it was.” And so maybe we should try and resist those biases by looking for the good things too that are happening and not just trying to say, “This is the most existential malaise time ever.”

09:38 Clay Routledge: No, I totally agree with that. And one of the… But what’s funny is these issues, these challenges are bi‐​directional because people are… It’s when people feel meaningful that they have a more optimistic world view, and that optimism feeds meaning. So you can get in these kind of vicious circles in which people feel like nothing’s going well, and then that mentality makes them feel like there’s no meaning and then that lack of meaning makes them feel like nothing’s going well. And so I totally agree. I think one of the things we need to do is focus not just, well, like people do here at CATO with the human progress. Focus, not just on all these other indicators of how things are getting better in terms of education and health and freedom but also focus on existential progress. You know, ways that people have more opportunities than they ever did to pursue what’s meaningful in their lives. And I would agree, we don’t do a very good job of that because there is some bias towards, as you’re pointing out, always, always kinda looking back and thinking things are better.

10:43 Trevor Burrus: But there are also some seemingly objective things, such as the suicide rate. I’m not sure how accurate the suicide rate was measured probably at different times in the past, but at least in the last 20 years it seems to have gone up. We have like a depression rate but that seems less accurate as maybe the suicide rate ’cause depression itself has remission creep, some creep, category creep to it. What other indications, do you think, are there there? Are there anything else that sort of shows that things are… Maybe there is some sort of bubbling up existential malaise going on.

11:16 Clay Routledge: Yeah, I think some of the strongest indicators to me are what I would call social health. And so there’s a number of unique indicators that people don’t just feel lonelier than maybe they used to, but report having fewer social connections and few people that they feel like they can turn to. And you can broaden than out a little bit to just look in general at social trust. I think the Pew Research Center said something… I can’t remember the exact percent now, 47% of millennials fall into the category of what they call low trusters, which is they just have a general cynical view of people like that people are out for themselves. They’re not out to help you. And so I think that’s an indicator of poor existential health, that people don’t feel like they need each other and that they can trust each other or that they have the moral duty to others.

12:13 Aaron Ross Powell: How do we get to there, though? Why is it that… So, I’m Gen X. And Gen X is like… Characteristically, our defining trait was ironic detachment, right, which is kind of a low social trust sort of thing. But now Millennials, I guess, are… And Gen Z are even worse, but so what’s the mechanism by which we get to this world of lower meaning? What’s happening that’s driving us in that direction?

12:41 Clay Routledge: Well, my argument is it’s largely individualism, that we have a culture that is extremely individualistic to the point of which… This started decades ago, but to the point of which we’ve built even within… So, I grew, I’m a child of the 80s. I’m also a Gen X’er. And it was in my lifetime that we really started to see the self‐​esteem movement come about where everything was about turning inwards and being who you wanna be and you don’t need other people’s approval. You can do anything you want.

13:23 Clay Routledge: The participation trophy idea that if we just boost everyone’s self‐​esteem, if we just make everyone more confident and self‐​assured, they’ll be able to just live the life of their dreams. And a lot of that is just not accurate in terms of how the human brain is wired for social connection and for interdependence. And so I think a lot of is we are overly confident in our ability to make our own meaning frameworks. And that’s not really how our species works.

13:53 Trevor Burrus: Some of these questions, I find this kind of psychology fascinating ’cause it almost inherently has a political element to it in some sense ’cause you’re describing the things that people are striving for and what they value that will tend to the political. So if a Marxist psychologist is… There’s a bias often there where they say, “Oh, I’m gonna diagnose societal ills and they’re gonna be like, ‘And I did all this stuff and, oh my God, it was capitalism.’ ” And like, “Yeah, what a coincidence.” And if your… And then on the other side where they say well everything… Here are the things I like as a psychologist and the reason people are unhappy is because they don’t like those things that they should like, kind of thing.

14:33 Aaron Ross Powell: The government is what’s causing people to get stuck.

14:36 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. So libertarians can flip that around and be like, “Oh, the problem, no, is there’s too much big government and not enough entrepreneurship and things like this.” So you made a… The phrase, individualism, which has a political component where people attack here at Cato. They’ll be like, “Oh, you’re just a bunch of individualists.” And atomistic is the word that’s used all the time for libertarians, that we want everyone to be separated from family and community and stuff, which is untrue. And we wanna have strong communities and stuff. So if we’re trying to analyze this when it starts to tend toward the political, do you see that in your field where people are filling in gaps with what are obviously their political beliefs about what’s causing societal problems and stuff, as opposed to focusing more on the empirics?

15:21 Clay Routledge: Yeah, I think so. For instance, one of the things that’s fascinating in academia is a lot of the people you see celebrating cultural diversity, the argument they’re making is, towards other cultures, is that culture is really important. It’s an important force. It’s people’s… We need to be mindful of people’s traditions and cultural practices. And oftentimes those same people are very eager to dismantle our culture. And so, it’s a weird… And I think, again, I think that’s an individualistic thing. Liberals tend to be more individualistic than conservatives and liberals are over‐​represented in academia. And so when I say individualistic, I don’t mean it… You’re right.

16:08 Clay Routledge: There is some correlation with political stuff. But when I say individualistic, I don’t mean it as in we shouldn’t champion individual rights and liberties. I mean it more as a cultural idea that in more collectivist societies they privilege group harmony over individual opinions. They’re more likely to be quiet and say, “Well, what matters is that we get along.” In more individualistic societies, we’re taught more to focus on ourselves. And you can even see this in clinical psychology. Our entire therapy apparatus is built on this idea of talk therapy, that you should be thinking about your feelings all the time and that we need to correct your cognitions about things, which doesn’t always translate well to other more interdependent cultures that think more about their social duties or their social roles. And I’m a champion of individualism.

17:03 Clay Routledge: And I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for… I was able to move away from family and pursue my own goals as a function of this. But I think it’s also important that we recognize both the strengths of any idea and the vulnerabilities that it might create because we need to manage those vulnerabilities. If we really believe in freedom, if we really believe in liberty, we need to understand the vulnerabilities that helps create in order to preserve freedom. ‘Cause my argument is, ultimately, what happens is if people are so disconnected and so alienated and feel so meaningless that they can’t really structure their lives in a productive way, they will become attracted to extreme ideologies? And then that’s a threat to freedom.

17:49 Aaron Ross Powell: How uniform… So what you’re basically saying that individualism, cultural individualism brings benefits and has costs, but the distribution of those benefits and costs, how uniform is it? So, we could imagine there might be certain extreme people who just absolutely thrive on whatever the highest level of possible individualism might be. And there might be people on the other end who deeply, the only way that they can really function, be happy, have meaning, is to be deeply embedded in an incredibly strict and culturally been like, socially bound society. But most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But how “bunchy” is that? Are we talking kind of all of us, or most of us have been hurt a little bit by individualism, but have gained or is it that there’s large chunks that have lost a lot and large chunks that have gained a lot?

18:41 Clay Routledge: Yeah, that’s a very good and important question and difficult [chuckle] one to answer. One I’ve thought about a lot. And when I talk to more libertarian groups, which I seem to do a lot, in part because I would consider myself fairly sympathetic or libertarian‐​minded, is that you have to be able to step outside yourself and realize that libertarians are kind of a weird group in a lot of ways. That’s not how most people think about the world. And that’s fine. There’s all sorts of different groups of people. But as a behavioral scientist, one of the things I need to be able to do is step outside of my way of thinking and say, “Well, just because I don’t need these structures, or just because I don’t care about this or that, doesn’t mean that’s how everyone else thinks.”

19:31 Clay Routledge: And so I think that’s a really good point. There are all sorts of individual differences we need to take into consideration, and these things are on a continuum. They’re not even categorical. Libertarians might be really, really high in comfort with uncertainty, perhaps, or really high in more deliberative, rational types of thought processes.

19:54 Clay Routledge: But there are other people that are really low, but a lot of people are just kind of in the middle, or a combination of different things. And also, there might be some social and structural forces that people benefit from, and this gets back to the problems with the self‐​report type of psychology. There might be things that people benefit from that they don’t appreciate. It’s easy… I’ll give one example that I think connects to religion. It’s easy for a non‐​religious person to say, “I don’t need religion. It doesn’t do anything for me. In fact, it’d be better if the whole enterprise just disappeared, because I’m not religious.” Well, you don’t know how much benefit you’re receiving indirectly from religion, perhaps. And if that doesn’t… It sounds hard to comprehend, there’s another example to think about. The police. I could live in a really nice neighborhood, and have a nice security system in my house, and think, “I hate the police. They cause nothing but problems.” And I think… And you actually see some of this, like abolish prisons kind of movement, right? But what I might not realize is I’m able to enjoy that life in part because the police are doing their job out of sight. I don’t see it happen. I don’t see it. So I think there are cultural structures that operate like that, which it’s easy for us to dismiss or say aren’t important, because we can’t directly ourselves see the benefit that they have to society.

21:23 Trevor Burrus: With religion, you’ve mentioned, and it is true, libertarians can be somewhat antagonistic to religion sometimes, but understanding it’s a cultural force, but also, it’s going down in Western world, at least. Or I don’t know about… Maybe developing world, but at least in the western world, it’s going down a lot. And do we kind of see a one‐​to‐​one correlation of the less religious a society becomes, the more we see depression and suicide and things like this go up? Or it’s a little bit more messy than that?

21:54 Clay Routledge: There is that relationship. It is messy, because when you’re doing those large level analysis, it’s hard to get cause and effect, right? But it is true that the more developed and affluent countries are more secular and score lower on meaning in life. For instance, the Harvard University Human Flourishing project recently published a paper comparing the United States to other countries such as China and Mexico and Cambodia and some others. And they found out that the US scored highest on economic and material security, is scored lowest on other indicators of human flourishing such as social connection and meaning in life. That pattern is generally true.

22:42 Clay Routledge: But what some of my recent research has found is I think a challenge to the idea that Western society is becoming more secular, which is at the same time as religion is decreasing, we find that all sorts of other kind of magical and supernatural beliefs are increasing. The less religious a country is, the more people are likely to believe in witchcraft and clairvoyance and aliens monitoring human behavior.

23:11 Trevor Burrus: The horoscopes. Would you consider it, too?

23:13 Clay Routledge: Horoscopes. Yeah, there’s a whole… And this happens in the most secular parts with… You can compare countries, and you can look within countries, and in the most secular areas of the country, you see the greatest consumption of new age‐​related products.

23:28 Trevor Burrus: Once… Yeah, that’s not that big of news, but I guess…

23:30 Clay Routledge: No, it’s not.

23:31 Trevor Burrus: Yes. San Francisco has always been the place to go find the best horoscope readers and probably harder to find a church, I would imagine.

23:37 Clay Routledge: Right, and also within individuals. People who go to church less frequency are more likely to believe in ghosts and that people can communicate with the dead. I think spirituality, like these other traits we’ve talked about, is also distributed, and not something people necessarily choose. Some people are just more spiritual than others, just like some people are just more extroverted than others. And when in our more individualistic society, when people move away from shared religious spaces that channel that kind of spirituality, give people a space to do that in kind of community ways, you get more individualistic approaches to “Well, I’m into horoscopes.” And this other person is into healing crystals. And this other person is into UFOs, or whatever. But what’s interesting about that is unlike traditional religion, those things, even though they’re predicted by the need for meaning, don’t appear to do a good job of providing meaning, because they don’t shepherd people towards each other. They don’t promote the type of interdependent community life that seems to help people really feel like they matter.

24:49 Trevor Burrus: You don’t have mass tarot readings. You tarot read one‐​on‐​one. You don’t put a whole congregation to read the tarot.

24:56 Aaron Ross Powell: Is that because… One thing that seems to me to be different about… We think about kind of traditional religions, and the sort of beliefs that encompass those, and then the things that you just described, belief in ghosts, beliefs in aliens, healing crystals, and whatever. Is the beliefs… Both sets of beliefs are in making, call them like empirical or metaphysical claims about stuff in reality, right? There is a thing that’s God or there are crystals that actually have these properties, but the difference is that the traditional religions, the beliefs are also about, I guess, directly meaning stuff, like I exist for a purpose, I was created, we share this, I get direction from this. I get… There’s a moral structure and a way of life, whereas the healing crystals either heal me or they don’t, but they don’t really tell me how I should treat my kids.

25:56 Clay Routledge: That’s right, yeah. You used the right word, structure, I think, because the more successful beliefs seem to have a moral structure, right? They give you dictates for what’s good and bad behavior, and they give you some sense of duty to others. And so what I think happens in these kind of new age spiritual beliefs and practices, is it’s people trying to fill some kind of spiritual void. There’s something pulling them towards ideas that are beyond the empirical understanding of their world, that they have a curiosity towards. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re hardcore believers. ‘Cause we tend to think black and white, that people just believe or they don’t believe.

26:39 Clay Routledge: Well, our research suggests it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. People vary in how open they are to believe. There’s a lot of people that are skeptical about certain religious ideas, but still have a side of them, a creative, spiritual, explorative side of them that’s like, “Hey, I like to take a little leap of faith and think about these things even though there’s not concrete evidence for them.” And so it seems like people are going in these types of directions because they feel that pull, but if that isn’t coupled with these other moral structures, it’s not clear that they get a lot of meaning from them.

27:18 Aaron Ross Powell: Does this then entail… If the problems that come along with the declining religious affiliation or attendance or participation in these structured things, the loss of meaning, would seem then to have less to do with the nature of holding supernatural beliefs, because otherwise, the switch to crystals or ghosts or whatever would seem to replace it, and more to do with what you described, the structure and the shared values and the moral precepts and so on. Does this mean then that we could, as we increasingly secularize in the sense of maybe not seeing the supernatural beliefs as true, that we might mitigate some of that, less by switching to healing crystals, and more like I’m thinking of the rise of stoicism is really hip right now.

28:15 Clay Routledge: Meditation in general.

28:16 Aaron Ross Powell: And meditation or secular rough Buddhism or whatever, where you’re pulling that sort of structure and shared values but jettisoning… Or is it that when people give up their religious structure and they’re shifting over to the supernatural, it’s that what we’re wired for is belief in supernatural stuff, and it just happens that some of the supernatural stuff happened to have these other structures that were helpful?

28:39 Clay Routledge: Yeah. It’s difficult to know for sure. I had a book come out last year called Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World, where I really spent a lot of time trying to get at this, and we did a bunch of research on it. But one thing that developed out of that, that was kind of interesting, is I ended up getting invited to go give talks at a number of secular humanist atheist groups.

29:06 Trevor Burrus: Think of Michael Shermer kind of crowd, and they open up a show. Yeah, that kind of…

29:10 Clay Routledge: Yeah. And I was on Shermer’s podcast. But yeah, so I ended up going and giving these talks, and one of the interesting experiences that I had is on multiple times, somebody in the… During the question and answer period, there would be somebody in the audience, usually a woman, which is noteworthy, because most of these audiences [chuckle are male. It seems like males are more into that kind of stuff. But would ask, “Why can’t we pull it off? We’ve tried all these efforts to have a secular replacement for church. There’s been all these humanist groups and atheist groups that have essentially said, ‘Hey, we wanna have the community function of church where we get together and have potlucks and do things.’ ”

29:56 Trevor Burrus: Unitarianism.

29:57 Clay Routledge: Right? And she’s like, “But it doesn’t really seem to… ” From her experience. And like I said, this happened at… It wasn’t just her. This same scenario played out in slightly different ways in multiple talks. “But why can’t we seem to pull it off in quite the way that works for church?” And I don’t know the answer to that. And it could be part of it is these individual differences. It could be that the types of people who are more oriented towards more traditional religious structures are just more reliable people [chuckle] in a lot of ways. They just plug in more and they do what they’re told to do, they follow their moral duties, and they’re like, “This is what I’m supposed to do, everyone’s supposed to show up and bring food,” and all that. Whereas the people who are a little bit more fringe are less reliable. I don’t know. But there does seem to be something that it’s hard to… We haven’t really figured out, it seems, how to replace these ideas that are supernatural, these associations that have supernatural components, with purely secular versions of them, if that makes sense.

31:04 Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s interesting ’cause that goes well into what my next question is, which is that this observation has been made, and I think it’s over‐​played sometimes, especially by opponents, saying that… Well, first of all, certain types of Marxism or extreme socialism can operate almost on a religious level. And of course, the Soviet Union was trying to get rid of religion and replace it with a completely secular…

31:26 Aaron Ross Powell: Environmentalism. And it’s gonna take this one, too.

31:28 Trevor Burrus: And the next one’s environmentalism. And you don’t wanna say, “Oh environmentalism is a religion,” but there are ways you could be environmentalist that at least seem to have many elements. For example, pieties and sort of kind of heresy, there’s definitely a cleanliness or non‐​cleanliness, whether or not you recycle your drinking water or whatever, plastic straws, all these things, and finding extreme meaning. And if you watch protests, for example, in front of these places where a bunch of young people are getting together and cavorting. And some of them, it actually looks like they’re dancing in the streets, and it looks almost like you’d see… You could put a bonfire in the middle and they could be dancing around it. That doesn’t seem to have an overt spiritual, supernatural component, but it’s bringing people together in some sense. And maybe that’s one reason why, other than… Different than other political policy subjects, that one seems to be the one where people get really, really, really upset, almost in a religious fervor.

32:27 Clay Routledge: No, I think that’s true, and I… Two things. One, I don’t know, but I’m not entirely sure there’s not a supernatural component. And it’s a…

32:35 Trevor Burrus: There’s a Gaia thing. There’s a Gaia thing that’s going on.

32:37 Clay Routledge: Yeah, there is a… And again, it’s on a continuum because no one’s up there saying something explicitly supernatural. But there is a proclivity towards seeing nature as having agency, or having feelings, or feeling pain. You do see this bubble up. But in addition to that, what you just… The scene you just described does seem very spiritual in the same way there’s a lot of secular things that are spiritual. If you go to a concert and you just let the music move you… You’re not thinking rational about things, you’re just letting the music move you. You’re letting your intuitive side out. And these types of spiritual experiences, in general, involve that type of intuitive cognition. Just like love does, right? You don’t… Most people don’t, I don’t know, I can’t speak for you at all. Most people, when they say they love their wife or their girlfriend or their husband or… They don’t have a list in front of ‘em with the pros and cons. They haven’t rationally gone through and said, “Here’s the five things I like about you, and here’s the three things I don’t. So I guess in total, I have positive feelings towards you.” [chuckle]

33:53 Trevor Burrus: Objectivists might do that, but most people, you’re right.

33:56 Clay Routledge: But it’s an intuitive feeling. And so… But that’s one of the problems I think with these environmentalist movements is what you need, which of course, other people have made this point, is you need a rational analysis of how to solve pressing issues. And when people let the spirit, for lack of a better word, let the spirit overwhelm them, and just follow their intuition and their feelings and get caught up in these types of… Some of these things are borderline cult like. They’re not able to make, I think, rational decisions and think and move in a direction that’s actually gonna help us solve these problems.

34:33 Aaron Ross Powell: Just to clarify, what do you mean by spiritual and how is it different if it is different from religious?

34:43 Clay Routledge: Yeah, yeah. Religion is more of the actual dogma and association. If you say that you’re a Catholic or a Baptist or a Buddhist or a… It’s a specific set of tradition. There are certain kind of formal parameters, alright. What’s spiritual to me, is the more psychological, the inter‐​psychic component of that. And that can be measured at the end of the… Religiosity can be measured at the individually level and does highly correlate with spirituality. But I think of spirituality as more within the individual and then how they connect that, how they express that is often through these more formal religious channels, not always, but that’s the type of thing that seems to connect people into interdependent communities, is we all have this kind of spiritual band… Or most people have this kind of spiritual bandwidth, in how do we connect that in a shared narrative, which again, I think might be important for meaning because a big predictor of meaning, if not the biggest predictor, is feeling that you matter to others, that you have a… That people rely on you and you rely on them.

36:08 Trevor Burrus: So if we look at the trend lines, as we pointed out, I don’t see, at least in the immediate future, say in Finland, which I think it might be the highest in Europe, of atheism, I don’t see that that’s gonna be reversing in the coming years. And so if we… If there’s some people… I know some of my friends are this way, too, that if we see this increasing drop in organized religion, some of it being replaced by spiritualism, but without the community and sort of togetherness that comes with religion, does that something we should be kind of worried about overall, that we have sort of traditional forces that have established institutions and they’ve evolved to maybe be better. Like the Catholic Church or something, you know is… The horrible but it’s evolved to be a little bit more predictable and better than it was.

36:54 Trevor Burrus: Or we could have something like Marianne Williamson coming up and… With a not evolved, to replace some of the Catholic Church life, with some weird beliefs and having people grab onto that. And overall, if we see this sort of diversification of spiritualism and these different types of things taking the place of religion, do you see that having sort of negative effects for freedom and lack of anxiousness and living good, meaningful lives?

37:25 Clay Routledge: Yeah, so it’s always easier, of course, to pick a part of the past than…

37:29 Trevor Burrus: Yes, of course. Yeah, yeah of course.

37:30 Clay Routledge: Predict the future. But yeah, I do think it’s a concern because there does seem to be reason to believe that for many people, if they don’t have all the things you just described in a well‐​organized community structure that helps them regulate their lives in predictable ways in some space, that they will often turn to some other version of it, even if it’s not a supernatural version. They want more government in their lives, right? So I think libertarians in particular, should be worried about this meaning challenge. Because most people want some kind of external structure that helps make their lives make sense. And there is some evidence that the less people believe in God, the more they believe in the government. [chuckle] And so, when people feel alienated or lonely or that life is chaotic or unpredictable for various reasons, not just existential stuff, that could be economic reasons, environmental fears, whatever the case may be, they will often sacrifice freedom in the service of security.

38:46 Clay Routledge: And this is before empirical psychologists, this is a long history of existential thinkers thinking about this tension between freedom and security and that balancing act where it seems to be where meaning can be sustained at some level, is when you have enough freedom where people have self‐​determination. People don’t like to be oppressed or controlled or dominated in any society. It’s not just a Western idea. But when people have so… When there’s so much freedom and then the other structures that help, the natural organic cultural scaffolding that helps people manage that freedom in organized and predictable ways, when that starts to erode, then you start to see more chaos. And that’s when you might get this backlash of people wanting more. Or I think you guys might know the numbers more than I do, but there’s a lot of young people that don’t think democracy is that important and…

39:44 Trevor Burrus: I think it’s over… Well, they think… Socialism, of course, polls really high with young people. Democracy, I’m not so sure…

39:51 Aaron Ross Powell: It’s declining, I think.

39:52 Trevor Burrus: It’s declining.

39:53 Clay Routledge: Yeah, I have actually the…

39:56 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. It’s…

39:57 Clay Routledge: It’s…

39:58 Trevor Burrus: But still, it’s definitely going up. Yeah.

40:00 Clay Routledge: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so I think that is a legitimate concern.

40:05 Aaron Ross Powell: Then, how do we thread that needle because so we don’t… Like us sitting here at the Cato Institute, we don’t want to radically increase the size of government and especially in the ways that it seems like people want when they’re feeling destabilized and meanings are not, they’re not… They’re asking for more good government…

40:26 Trevor Burrus: Agricultural programs or something else.

40:28 Aaron Ross Powell: But on the other hand, if part of the declining, say religiosity is because people increasingly just don’t find this particular set of metaphysical claims true, you don’t wanna be… We don’t necessarily want to be in the position of saying, “Well, we should just convince them that they are in order to instill meaning.” Plus, that seems like that would be awfully difficult to do. These trends seem quite strong. So how do you… What can you do without going to either of those extremes?

40:57 Trevor Burrus: We invite everyone to Burning Man. [chuckle] I have so many friends who go to Burning Man for that kind of spiritual relief. I’m being a little bit facetious, but not totally.

41:07 Clay Routledge: Yeah. No. Yeah, I think one of the challenges is in your example of a religion is, I think you could imagine in the past, that there’s a certain amount of… If we think spirituality, for instance, varies between people somewhat naturally. Well, then that’s probably always been the case. And so in the past, you might have where there are people going to church who don’t… Have varying levels of belief.

41:36 Trevor Burrus: But they have to go to church, probably under legal penalty. Yes.

41:38 Clay Routledge: Yeah, or at least certainly professional. Who’s going to hire you or visit your place of business or whatever if you’re an apostate? So there is that. And I think we would agree that that’s not necessarily good, but there is some level, I think, of people submitting to a shared narrative, even if they don’t necessarily believe it, that where it’s… Well, this isn’t necessarily… I’m not necessarily all in on this, but I respect this community practice. And I think one of the things that happens in our extremely individualistic societies, we have more and more people that are not only saying this isn’t for me, but they wanna police other people. They wanna say, “Well, you shouldn’t do this or you shouldn’t do that, and I’m not gonna participate. And I don’t want it recognized.”

42:32 Clay Routledge: And I just saw a story the other day about, I think it was in Chicago or somewhere in Illinois, where some school was cancelling the Halloween celebrations out of concern for religious minorities. And then it was actually some immigrants, some Muslim immigrants who were featured in this article. They were mad. They were like, “This is the one of the things that makes us feel like we’re American, that we like being part of this.” And I experienced this when I lived in the UK for a little while. I worked in a research center over there and our kids went to a very international school. Most of the kids there, English wasn’t their primary language. There were a lot of kids from Pakistan.

43:13 Clay Routledge: And my wife is friends with a lot of these Muslim moms and around Christmas time, like a good American woman, she was very sensitive about being politically correct. And so she didn’t wanna say Merry Christmas or how do you approach this and so she just asked one of her friends. She says, “Well, what do I say?” And the lady laughed, and she said… This was a Muslim woman. She laughed, she said, “You Americans are so sensitive. If you came to Pakistan, you’re just gonna have to… You’re gonna have to work around our traditions.” And she’s like, “This is England, it’s a Christian… ” She was like, “It’s a Christian country.” Of course, now, it’s really not. But our kids went to a Church of England school and they had a Christmas play that they did at the church, and there were kids from all backgrounds and all religions. You didn’t have to participate in it, and a couple of Muslim kids didn’t. But a lot did. And so I think in this culture, we’re just so sensitive about everyone has to believe everything that they do or challenge everything that they don’t and as opposed to going in and participating with things that might not be our personal preference.


44:32 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook or on Reddit at r/​freethoughtspodcast. You can follow us on Twitter @FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.