National Review notices the kids aren’t conservative anymore

Millennials are breaking the oldest rule of politics, and the American right has noticed.

Historically speaking, it’s true that people tend to grow more conservative as they get older. Or at least, it was true for previous generations. As newer polls have shown, Millennials and Gen Z are breaking the pattern.

We’re not aging into church and conservatism – on the contrary. If anything, we’re getting less religious and more liberal as we get older.

And National Review, the conservative magazine, has noticed. They’ve published an article whose title betrays their scarcely contained panic: “The Link Between Age and Conservatism Is Breaking“.

I’m always interested to read articles by religious apologists noticing that young people are leaving religion in droves, and theorizing about the reasons for that. It’s a revealing glimpse into the way they see the world. This is another flavor of that lament.

There’s a rich harvest of schadenfreude to reap from this article, and I’ll get to that. But first, it wouldn’t be a conservative publication if it didn’t blame every problem on a lack of grit and moral fiber among the youth. NR doesn’t disappoint:

We find shocking levels of reported depression and suicidality among the young, although in some ways, younger people have been groomed to report themselves as depressed and mentally unstable.

NR implies that young people aren’t really depressed, they’re just being told (“groomed”) to believe that they are. Do they display this same skepticism toward self-reports when the conclusion is one they agree with? If a survey found that religious people report greater happiness, would they reject that conclusion because church members are “groomed” to say that believing in God makes them happy?

That’s not the bottom of the barrel, either. In an even grosser claim, NR asserts that not marrying makes women ill:

Unmarried women in middle age report huge rates of depression, or other mysterious illnesses that are diagnosed as fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, and are experienced as “constant pain” in all joints, poor sleep, and exhaustion.

Marriage is the cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Who knew?

However, once you get past the obligatory victim-blaming and insulting pseudoscience, NR proposes a different explanation. And what’s fascinating is that this one comes pretty close to the truth:

Conservatism is also associated with settling down. People who acquire property tend to become more conservative. And Millennials just aren’t doing that at the same rates as previous generations. By age 30, just 42 percent of Millennials own homes compared to 48 percent of Gen Xers and 51 percent of Baby Boomers. The gap persists into their early 40s.

…Are we surprised that a generation that feels least optimistic about living in a family and in their own home has little faith in the American dream? Should we really find it shocking that so many of them find something resonant in the 1619 Project’s understanding of this country, which theorizes that America is about exploiting labor unjustly without due rewards or respect?

To my own surprise, I agree.

NR doesn’t elucidate on why Millennials are less optimistic about the future, but I can fill in the gaps for them. Inequality has skyrocketed in America over the last few decades, mostly because of older generations building ladders to prosperity for themselves and then yanking them away from those who came after.

With enthusiastic support from older voters, Republicans have crippled unions, slashed tax rates at the top, frozen the minimum wage, tried to scrap social-welfare programs, done everything in their power to keep health care unaffordable, and presided over soaring prices for education and houses without any sign of concern. They want to raise the retirement age for those who come after them. They’ve fought tooth and nail against every effort to stop climate change, the single biggest crisis that makes younger people feel hopeless and pessimistic about the future.

At the same time, they’ve passed onerous voter-ID laws (while barring student IDs as valid forms of identification, of course), closed polling places on college campuses, fought against automatic voter registration, and taken other measures to discourage young people from voting. When even that hasn’t worked, they’ve resorted to aggressive gerrymandering to dilute young people’s votes into meaninglessness and enshrine permanent minority rule.

In short, conservatives have done everything possible to keep young people poor, oppressed and powerless. And now they’re upset and dismayed because those young people, as they transition into middle age, aren’t invested in the system anymore! It’s a true leopards-eating-my-face moment.

All the other social ills that NR recognizes, like high levels of depression and loneliness, civic fragmentation and chronic illness, are symptoms of this bigger problem. They’re the result of a crushingly stressful and precarious existence, where good jobs are dwindling and the ones that are left still don’t pay enough to afford health care, housing and other necessities.

Obviously, merely to recognize this is treading on dangerous territory for a conservative magazine. What NR doesn’t do is suggest what, if anything, they think conservatives should do about it.

We can guess. Much like the religious apologists who react to the decline of religion by saying they need to double down and do more of what wasn’t working, we can imagine that NR‘s solution would entail more union-busting, more trickle-down economics, and more voter suppression. It’s the epitome of “the beatings will continue until morale improves” thinking, and it’s why the ground is going to keep crumbling under their feet.

No one gets what they deserve

Look around your house. How many of the things you own do you truly deserve?

If you’re a carpenter and built your own house, or a farmer and grew your own food, you could fairly say that you earned those things as the work of your own hands. However, I can’t make that claim for myself. The mug of coffee on my desk was brewed from beans grown halfway around the world, and I don’t know the people who harvested, shipped or roasted it. My clothes are made of cotton that was picked, spun, woven and sewed in farms and factories I’ve never seen. I didn’t cut down the trees to make my own furniture.

So how did I come to have these things? What makes me so sure I deserve them?

In the superficial, capitalist sense – the tiny Ayn Rand on one shoulder – I “deserve” them because I worked a job where I exchanged my labor for money, and that money is evidence of worth. Anything that I want and can afford, I deserve. If I didn’t have enough money for a roof over my head or food to eat, then in this worldview, that would be a sign that I don’t deserve them (and should, therefore, have the good manners to starve quietly, preferably out of sight of rich people).

There’s an appealing simplicity to this view. Like Eastern notions of karma, or medieval ideas of God-ordained hierarchy, it proclaims that we each occupy our right and proper station in life. Best of all, it proclaims that morality is built in. We don’t have to fret over injustice or put in the effort to demand change, because the market does that for us. It’s an infallible dispenser of rewards and punishments, giving each person what their actions merit.

Rigged games

However, even a passionate advocate of capitalism would have to admit this isn’t the whole picture. There’s such a thing as random chance, which sometimes benefits and sometimes harms us. You can work your hardest and fail through no fault of your own, or you can be lazy and irresponsible and yet have success rain down on you.

Most importantly, we all came into being through a birth lottery. I was born into a privileged position, in the richest nation in history – rather than, say, being born as a Siberian peasant or a Chinese factory worker. Did I deserve that?

Even in the wealthy nations, there are huge gradations of privilege. Does anyone “deserve” to be born into a segregated slum with crumbling schools and polluted air and water? How about into a rich family with a private summer cottage, a yacht and a trust fund?

Regardless of how smart you are or how hard you’re willing to work, these advantages of birth go a long way toward determining where you end up in life. A few extraordinary people succeed despite a disadvantaged background, and a few feckless rich people squander their wealth and end up poor. That doesn’t mean that the competition was fair. More often, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, regardless of choices they make.

Capitalism can’t be the arbiter of what we deserve. It’s a rigged game, where advantages we didn’t earn matter as much as, or more than, individual choices or abilities.

Some might say that if economics can’t be the judge of what people deserve, the law can. The legal system, unlike the market, is at least supposed to dispense justice. Yet it, too, falls short.

There’s no good-faith dispute that racial and class biases influence who gets arrested, who gets charged, and how harshly they’re punished. And even discounting those biases, the law can never be more than a rough approximation of deservingness. We punish wrongdoers with fines or prison, but those don’t undo the harm they committed. You can compensate victims with money, but that rarely if ever makes them truly whole.

Last but not least, there are those intangible connections of love and friendship that, more than money or possessions, make life truly worthwhile. But here, too, we fail to find any grounds for deservingness. Does anyone deserve a loving relationship, or a harmonious family, or a fulfilling social life?

None of these are rights or entitlements. At best, they’re blessings that some of us are fortunate enough to receive. Your choices influence how your personal relationships play out, but in no sense can you say that they’re fully under your control.

Two viewpoints on what we deserve

From one point of view – call it the technological view – no one deserves anything, because nothing is given to us. We’re large primates living on a ball of dirt and rock, whirling around an unremarkable yellow star, itself spinning through a vast and uncaring universe. Nature has no concern for our well-being; it kills us without a qualm.

The only comforts we have are things we’ve figured out how to create for ourselves. Through painstaking trial and error, we’ve learned to transmute the raw stuff of nature into objects that make our lives healthier, more comfortable or more pleasant. None of this is owed to us, and nothing about our technology inherently limits it to some people and not others. Why shouldn’t we all benefit from our collective cleverness?

From another point of view – call it the moral view – we’re all human beings, alike in dignity. Some people want to draw artificial lines dividing us, lines of class or race or nationality or gender, but those are nothing but superficial chalk marks. They reflect nothing fundamental, they don’t carve nature at any joint.

All humans are the same species, with the same abilities. We’re nearly identical in our DNA, save for a few variations that some people place inordinate importance on. We all feel the same pains, the same joys, the same wants, the same loves. In an otherwise indifferent universe, we’re meaning-makers and storytellers and hopers and dreamers.

From this standpoint, it’s all but impossible to argue that one human being deserves something which another doesn’t. If there’s anything that anyone deserves merely by virtue of existence, then we all deserve it. Our equal standing as sentient creatures demands this conclusion.

Either way, it’s not plausible to treat “deservingness” as a proxy for virtue. There’s no good argument to be made that some people deserve ease and comfort while others don’t, or that the amount of money you possess says anything about your value as a person. That’s solely a rationalization made by people who’ve benefited from the unfair nature of the world and want to reassure themselves that this is okay.

When you adopt this reasoning, it prevents you from developing an unhealthy attachment to the material goods you possess right now – or a belief that you stand above other human beings because you possess them.

I find this to be a welcome dose of humility. You don’t deserve the good things you have, because nobody does. At the same time, we all deserve a life of safety and comfort, within the bounds of our collective ability to create those things. It’s a reminder to be grateful for the privileges that we possess, despite not deserving them in any cosmic sense – and to be generous, as much as your circumstances permit, for those who haven’t had the same good fortune.

How to listen to women

Christian fundamentalism, like all fundamentalisms, is a high-control belief system. It smothers believers – especially women – with an oppressive web of rules that dictate every aspect of their lives. It tells them how to dress, how to act in public and private, what they’re allowed to read, who they’re allowed to interact with, what ideas they’re allowed to express – and even how to speak, when they’re permitted to.

Those of us who watched Katie Britt’s response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union heard a demonstration of that. It’s called “fundie baby voice”.

Fundie baby voice (a term coined by ex-evangelical Jess Piper) is the art of speaking in a breathy, high-pitched, intentionally childlike tone. It’s a performance that’s expected of women in fundamentalist sects, as a display of subservience and inferior status.

And it is a performance. The voice that Britt used for her SOTU response isn’t what she really sounds like. To hear the difference between fundie baby voice and Britt’s normal voice, watch this TikTok video from AL.com comparing the two. The difference is jarring, and once you know it for what it is, the fundie baby voice is inescapably creepy. It sounds like something out of a horror movie: the whispering of a ghost from beyond the veil.

As patriarchy escapee Tia Levings says:

It’s the denial of our voices, the suppression of our natural sound and range of emotion, and the terms used to train us are reflective of the agenda and abusive system we were in. They want us to sound like sexualized children.

This is a widespread phenomenon in Christian fundamentalism. Michelle Duggar is another high-profile example, as was shown in Amazon’s Shiny Happy People documentary series. Kelly Johnson, wife of Christian nationalist and House Speaker Mike Johnson, does it too.

Women in these cultish patriarchies are expected to be perpetually docile, accommodating and obedient to the men around them. They’re never permitted to be loud, assertive or overly emotional. Speaking in a register that’s typical of children reinforces that mindset.

When they go high, we go low

Fundie baby voice is a dramatic example of how women are expected to contort themselves to fit the demands of a sexist society. It works the other way, too.

You may remember Elizabeth Holmes, the convicted fraudster behind Theranos. Among her other affectations, she spoke in a deep baritone voice in public interviews. That’s not her normal voice, as she finally admitted once the jig was up:

That register is no more — and is now somewhat of a joke for Holmes, who seems to have embraced her natural pitch. She speaks in a “soft, slightly low, but totally unremarkable voice,” according to a recent New York Times profile of the founder, for which writer Amy Chozick spent time observing Holmes and her partner Billy Evans at home.

You can imagine why she did this. Politics, science and other prestigious and powerful fields are still male-dominated, and this creates a feedback loop of unconscious bias.

To people steeped in this legacy of sexism, a deeper – that is, more masculine – voice is unconsciously perceived as a sign of competence and intelligence. Feminine traits, on the other hand, are looked down upon and treated as evidence of ditziness and frivolity.

In an experiment demonstrating this, spoken recordings were shifted to be either higher or lower in pitch, and participants were asked to “vote” for one. People, both male and female, consistently chose the lower voice. Apparently, we have an unconscious bias that people with deeper voices make better leaders.

It’s a widespread assumption – so widespread that most people don’t realize they hold it, much less think to question it – that the more competent a woman is, the more she resembles a man. A con artist like Holmes, skilled at altering her self to match people’s expectations, cynically played along with this belief. She’s not the only one. Margaret Thatcher adopted a deeper voice as she rose in the ranks of British politics.

The fact that women feel pressure to shift their voices, whether higher or lower, to appeal to an audience is clear evidence that sexism isn’t a thing of the past. Some traditionalists, too steeped in their own assumptions to look past them, believe that women (but not men) wearing dresses or using makeup is somehow “natural”.

But there can’t be anything “natural” about women disguising their normal voices to fit what others expect. That’s literally unnatural, in the strictest sense of the word. Whether they’re exaggerating their voices to be higher or lower, either way it highlights the double standard that still reigns: femininity is associated with submission and inferiority, and masculinity with intelligence and dominance.

In an enlightened world, there’d be no reason for anyone to suppose that the pitch of a person’s voice had any correlation with the contents of their brain. Nor would we judge people’s ability by the attractiveness of their face, the shape of their body, the clothes they wear, or their makeup or jewelry or lack thereof. We’d look past all these things as the irrelevancies they are.

We’ve taken some small steps toward this ideal, but not nearly enough or fast enough. Religion, especially fundamentalist religion is one of the biggest forces fighting progress toward equality, spreading toxic stereotypes about gender and trying to keep women subservient. It has to go if the world is ever going to become a better place.

Welcome to Daylight Atheism (okay, let’s do this one more time)

Greetings to new friends, to old friends, and to strangers just stopping by. I’m Adam Lee, and I’m glad to be here.

I’ve been an atheist for over twenty years, and I’ve been writing about it on the internet for almost as long. I created my blog Daylight Atheism in 2006. Big Think, a New York media company, scooped it up in 2011, and I wrote for them until we parted ways in 2013. That’s when I joined Patheos, which became my writer’s residence until 2021. That was when they decided to prohibit criticism of belief systems different from one’s own, effectively neutering their atheist channel.

Around that same time, a new startup, OnlySky Media, reached out to me. OnlySky was founded with the mission of giving a voice to America’s rising nonreligious population, and that’s a mission I was happy to help advance.

OnlySky launched in January 2022, and it was my home for two good years. But the economic landscape for startups is harsh and unforgiving, and for media companies, that goes double. Early in 2024, OnlySky ran out of money and shut down.

I could have gone back to blogging on my own, but it just feels better to be part of a community than to be a solitary voice shouting in the wilderness. I reached out to Freethought Blogs, and they agreed to take me on. So, here I am!

I write about atheism and secular humanism, and I won’t shy away from no-holds-barred attacks on the vicious absurdities of religion and its abuses in the service of power. I’m glad to take on any religious person who’s willing to put their beliefs to the test.

But I don’t want Daylight Atheism to only be a place for aggression and argument. As the mood strikes me, I write about science and technology, nonreligious life philosophy, raising children as an atheist parent, ethics and morality, uplifting dreams and fictions, meaning and purpose, the awe and wonder of the cosmos, things that make the world better, and reasons to be hopeful.

I’ve also published some books about atheism and religion, including Daylight Atheism and Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City, a dialogue with a Christian, Andrew Murtagh.

My latest, Commonwealth, is a hopepunk novel of the near future, a utopian manifesto and a socialist deconstruction/reply to Atlas Shrugged. You can read it on my Patreon, where I also publish short stories and other miscellaneous fictions.