The grey bleakness of living with loners in a post-community, post-Christian society

We live in an increasingly atomised world, and Ireland is following in America’s footsteps in suffering from the consequences of this.

In his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Harvard’s Robert Putnam brought the disintegration of community life to light by outlining how participation in group activities had declined significantly over several decades.

Americans had become less likely to vote, less likely to attend meetings on local issues and less likely to join civic organisations.

Parents were attending parent teacher association meetings more infrequently and families were eating meals together less often. People were still bowling, but Americans were now bowling alone.

Professor Putnam has expanded upon his work significantly since then, and in his latest book titled The Upswing, he cites analysis which has been done on the use of personal pronouns in literature which showed that the use of the pronoun ‘I’ in American books doubled between 1965 and 2008.

Social atomisation and narcissism in Ireland

The growing social atomisation and narcissism - and the broader social dysfunction which naturally accompanies it - which can be seen in today’s America can be seen in Ireland and across the West.

What is the evidence of the disintegration of community in Ireland?

The first example is the most obvious: the collapse in religious practice.

Ireland was until recently not just a Catholic society; it was a parochial society. The creation of that parish structure through the efforts of an impoverished people against the backdrop of a hostile Protestant colonial power represents the supreme organisational accomplishment of the Irish Church.

For all of the cheering about the end of a “parochial” Ireland, very few people have stopped to consider the social implications of the former communal focal point of each community essentially becoming a disused museum. Politicians of an anti-clerical mindset have little to celebrate.

In Ireland, the precise statistics about declining party membership can be hard to obtain, but it is clear that the established parties are far from what they were: in 2019, it was reported that Fine Gael had lost a fifth of its membership in just six years, for example.

A similar trend can be seen when it comes to unions. Around 60 percent of Irish workers were union members in the early 1980s; this has fallen to a figure of around 25 percent today.

Media consumption is also not the unifying practice it once was. Print readership is down, and the circulation of local newspapers has fallen sharply.

Social alienation among Irish people can be measured in broader terms too. The European Commission’s study on “Loneliness prevalence in the EU” published last year showed that of all the 27 countries in the EU, the highest rate of recorded loneliness exists in Ireland, where more than 20 percent of people report feeling lonely.

Make no mistakes about it: Ireland is vastly better off financially than it was several decades ago. The country has become an economic powerhouse in key areas like tech and pharmaceuticals. A rural populace has become an urban one, and many foreign workers are continuing to migrate here each year.

In spite of all of these positive achievements, however, it is clear that Irish society is in real trouble and its people are arguably less united than ever before.

A new conception of the individual

It is difficult to understand these trends towards excessive individualism without considering the conception of the individual which is contained within the liberal political ideology which today’s Ireland subscribes to.

A particularly insightful description of how modern Western liberals perceive their own creed comes from a Notre Dame professor, Patrick Deneen.

Writing in his 2023 bestseller, Regime Change, Deneen stated that the architects of what we now know as liberalism “proposed a vision of freedom as liberation from limitations imposed by birthright.

As Deneen explains:

“What had previously been considered as ‘guardrails’ came instead to be regarded as oppressions and unjust limitations upon individual liberty. As a result, the advance of liberal liberty had meant the gradual, and then accelerating, weakening, redefining, or overthrowing of many formative institutions and practices of human life, whether family, the community, a vast array of associations, schools and universities, architecture, the arts, and even the churches.”

Anyone familiar with the tone of media and political discourse when it comes to Ireland’s secularisation will recognise Deneen’s description of the “heroic story of progress” and the leaving behind of “the unjust constraints of a dark age.” 

Conservative-minded Irishmen and women have become inured to this rhetoric.

That is not even to mention the way in which the Deneen’s “wide-open spaces of liberal freedom” in Unholy Modern Ireland are ultimately used and what they lead people to in a country where more than 40 percent of Irish adults now have a mental health disorder, and where Irish people now rank fourth in the world when it comes to cocaine consumption.

Small-mindedness does not on its own account for the inability of Irish liberals to take a nuanced view of what this country has gained and lost.

The broader problem is that Western liberalism does not seek to pursue any shared good for the community.

Alasdair MacIntyre put it best when he wrote in After Virtue that “[l]iberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception,” while further adding that this liberal model is “inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life.”

Meaningful, durable communities do not arise out of nothing. Instead, they come into existence and are kept alive by the shared commitment of their  members to some ultimate goal.

As the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset pointed out, “people do not come together to be together, they come together to do something.”

For the longest period and across many different contexts, the work of many different types of community, both religious and secular, was “directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.”

If you strip away the common goods or deny their very existence, it is harder to find compelling reasons for people to work together aside from a vague desire for companionship, particularly nowadays when a more accessible type of companionship can be found online.

Thus, it appears clear that a society imbued with moral relativism will likely be a society where the communal instinct is lacking. 


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What happened to shared community life?

As well as considering the limitations of liberalism, we should also examine an important philosophical divide when it comes to the role of institutions.

That most influential thinker Rousseau is remembered for his proclamation: “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.”

The chains in Rousseau’s viewpoint are not merely the political repression which was the norm in the 18th century, but the social institutions which constrained people by denying them their complete freedom: the constraint of community, the constraint of family, and the constraint of the Christian religion.

It was Rousseau’s goal to create a world in which every individual would “be perfectly independent of all the rest, and at the same time very dependent on the city.”

What this viewpoint means for community is brought to light in the writings of perhaps the most insightful political philosopher today: Yuval Levin.

In his 2020 book about the importance of institutions, titled A Time to Build, Levin outlines how America’s individualistic culture has created a polarised, isolated and distrustful society.

People are born free in the way that Rousseau would have wanted, and social allegiances derive very much from individual choice.

As Putnam has shown, Americans have increasingly been choosing not to commit to engaging with the world and social institutions around them. This does not just weaken the institutions themselves, it also deprives people of the vital self-development that a previous generation took for granted.

Levin explains that:

“[I]nstitutions are by their nature formative. They structure our perceptions and our interactions, and as a result they structure us. They form our habits, our expectations and ultimately our character…They are at once constraining and enabling. They are the means by which we are socialised, and so they are crucial intermediaries between our inner lives and our social lives.”

In an earlier work, Levin argued that the modern left/right divide has its roots in the tumultuous period around the time of the French Revolution. In it, he described how Edmund Burke had defended the importance of social institutions which had developed organically over time while insisting on the importance of their societal role in passing on a cultural and social inheritance to the next generation.

For a great many people in the advanced democracies of today, that inheritance is not being passed on. The best means of transmission is in a communal setting; as a result of choosing to cut themselves off from many institutions, a maimed and immature populace has been left isolated not just from those around them, but from the past as well.

The consequences of this societal shift are potentially disastrous. Indeed, the events of the 20th century already give us pause for consideration.

While the mid-20th century is cited by Robert Putnam and others as being the high water mark of community life in America, one sociologist of particular renown was greatly disturbed by the landscape he saw around him.

Professor Robert Nisbet believed that the “manufactured symbols of togetherness” which could be seen across 1950s suburbia did not disguise the “fact that for millions of persons such institutions as state, political party, business, church, labour union, and even family have become remote and increasingly difficult to give any part of one's self to.”

The reasons for this were manifold, including the tendency for the State to absorb an ever-growing amount of the functional roles of institutions such as the family.

The need for civil society

Casting his eye over the rise of totalitarian ideologies in Europe and elsewhere, Nisbet argued that the natural social impulse of humans was not being met in modern societies.

People were still seeking a form of social connectivity, but they were often looking for it in the form of extreme political movements as the early to mid-20th century was a time when the “the image of community contained in the promise of the absolute, communal State that [seemed] to have the greatest evocative power.”

To counteract this tendency, Nisbet proposed a different strategy to that being pursued by most of the American right.

He did not merely call for a reduction in the size and scope of the central government. Instead, he could see the false dichotomy between individualism and centralism, and therefore he called for the creation of a new “laissez faire in which the basic unit will be the social group.”

In raising concerns about the growth of the State, the collapse of the community and the problems which both of these interconnected trends caused, this overlooked prophet was in good company.

Twenty years earlier, Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno against the backdrop of the rise of a variant of socialism which left ever diminishing space for civil society, including the Church, to function.

Just as Nisbet would later do, the pontiff shrewdly observed that excessive individualism tended to lead to more collectivism in the end:

“[B]ecause things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed ‘individualism’ that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.”

While doctrinaire socialism as a governing philosophy is at a low ebb internationally, one indication of the continuing crisis in community is the fact that the State is continuing to grow: spending more, doing more (often badly) and intervening in ever more areas of social and economic life.

We see this with the development of the “Nanny State” and the ever-growing list of rules and regulations we are required to follow - indeed, the great Irish writer Desmond Fennell observed in the 1990s that the construction of the “Nanny State” occurred right after politicians had “pushed the Church aside and delegitimised local social control.”

Given its terrible track record, we may wonder why the rise of the powerful centralised political authority and the downgrading of the community had not already resulted in more public opposition.

The answer to this question surely lies in the essential relationship between community and authority.

One of the other books which inspired the increased interest in community in America was Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, which came out in 1995.

In it, Ehrenhalt examined three close-knit communities which had thrived in mid-20th century Chicago, including a Catholic parish which was effectively ruled over by a much-loved and gentle old Irish Monsignor and an authoritarian Irish-American curate who had seen fire as a Marine Corps chaplain in World War Two and who had no reservations about governing the behaveiour of his flock at all hours of the day and night.

Visiting the same - but much more sparsely attended - parish church in the 1990s and surveying the urban landscape around it, Ehrenhalt knew that most older parishioners mourned for what had been lost.

The decline of community life

He also made clear that those on both the political left and right in America regretted the decline of community. At the same time, it would be no simple task to revive it, as a choice had to be made. People would readily bring back that sense of community, but as they would not consent to living under the same authority, such an outcome would not be achieved.

“To worship choice and community together is to misunderstand what community is all about,” Ehrenhalt explains. “Community means not subjecting every action in life to the burden of choice, but rather accepting the familiar and reaping the psychological benefits of having one less calculation to make in the course of the day.”

We can all identify with this on some level. Virtually everyone accepts the need for community.

What presents challenges is reconciling this yearning with the limitations which participation in any community imposes upon us: the cost in our time, the things we cannot do and above all, the necessity to accept the authority which is an intrinsic part of any community, be it within the Church or elsewhere.

We wish for community in the abstract, but only on our terms. And thus do our institutions decline and wither. Looking around the world we can see the consequences.

Both the left-of-centre Robert Putnam and the right-of-centre Charles Murray have written brilliantly about the effects of America’s increased individualism on the least economically fortunate.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis is not about the decline of community. Instead, Putnam explores the “opportunity gap” which exists between the children of affluent Americans and the children of the poor.

The importance of communal ties - and the glaring disparity between the opportunities which exist depending on parental income - is shown in the range of anecdotes gathered during field research of children whose parents’ social connections saved them from crisis situations, and those who could not draw upon such support.

Religion and community go hand-in-hand in America, as roughly half of group memberships are religious in nature.

As a result, the decline in religious practice naturally corresponds with a decline in community participation.

This is of particular interest given that Putnam cites statistics showing that church attendance “has fallen twice as fast among kids from the lower third of the socioeconomic hierarchy as among kids from the upper third.”

A divide has opened up in America (and elsewhere) when it comes to how different classes live.

Across broad swathes of the country, people have been left behind economically; they have been isolated culturally; and they have also been radicalised politically.

The tendency of many commentators to dismiss the views of a substantial portion of electorates - the Americans who voted for Trump or the British who voted for Brexit - is unfortunate for many reasons.

One of them is the fact that a closer examination of the actions of voters helps to understand the degree to which the breakdown of community has contributed to social discontent.

In America, the journalist Tim Carney has highlighted how Donald Trump’s voters in the 2016 primaries were abnormally irreligious by Republican standards.

It is also the case that Trump did very poorly in Republican primaries in areas where community engagement is strongest: the upmarket communities, Mormon Utah and in certain other small closely-knit religious communities.

Conversely, Trump did very well (and will continue to do well) in areas blighted by long-term unemployment, drug use and other social problems, including the decline of church and community.

We do not talk about class much in Ireland. But there is a class divide which is more and more noticeable and which - like in America - extends far beyond differences in income.

The most disadvantaged urban communities in Ireland are abnormally secular, and also often disengaged from politics and community life.

The former Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin warned some years ago that there “is a real danger today that we will become a middle class church.”

History and how we think about it is also a major consideration. 

Robert Nisbet wrote that alienation from the past was one of the most serious forms of alienation: “Man, it is said, is a time-binding creature; past and future are as important to his natural sense of identity as the present. Destroy his sense of the past, and you cut his spiritual roots, leaving momentary febrility but no viable prospect of the future.”

What has occurred in Ireland in recent decades is not just a conscious effort to expunge Christianity from all aspects of public life. That effort has coincided with the campaign to blacken the historical record of Irish Catholicism.

This is above all intended to prevent any return to religious practice by the Irish people, particularly those too young to actually remember that past.

Post-Catholic Ireland is especially vulnerable to being taken in by any form of half-baked ideology which is imported from abroad with the intention of giving directionless people something to believe in and some community to feel a part of.

The Covid lockdown years presented us all with a dramatic vision of what today’s political and social elite consider to be acceptable: a country where every facet of community life was destroyed and where the intermediate bodies between the citizen and the State were swept away.

Rates of church attendance have not recovered from the forced closure of churches, and we will come to learn in time if community life has taken the same body blow. It likely has.

The Benedict option?

What then should be the Church’s approach for responding to all of this?

It happens that Catholic social teaching contains a rich vein of material in this regard, going back at least to Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII praised the role of associations set up to advance the interests of workers.

Celebrating this landmark publication a century later with his own encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II expanded upon this point.

Perhaps because of his experience living in a Communist dictatorship in which the State heavily restricted the rights of all civil society institutions, the Polish Pope had a gift for understanding the importance of community.

He wrote that intermediate communities “strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass.”

He could also see the true root cause of the alienation of modern life, writing that “man is alienated if he refuses to transcend himself and to live the experience of self-giving and of the formation of an authentic human community oriented towards his final destiny, which is God.”

Alienation is more likely in today’s secular world, and this leads to some ponderings about the need for withdrawal or even escape.

Prior to his conversion to Catholicism, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre identified a crucial moment in the period after the fall of Rome and Europe’s descent into darkness.

This was the point at which some Christians “turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium” and instead sought to construct “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”

In a later edition of After Virtue, MacIntyre elaborated on this idea somewhat, while explaining that Benedict’s genius had been in creating a “new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labour, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish.”

The Church in Ireland is going to change significantly in the coming decades.

The parish model which was built lovingly by our ancestors will fall into disrepair, and Irish Catholicism will revert to a monastic model based around a much smaller number of highly active religious communities.

It is a model which served earlier generations well and will need to work again.

As social atomisation continues to increase, the Church could eventually become the only form of real community which is focused on pursuing the good of the human person. There are certainly opportunities for the Church here.

In his book on the origins of Western liberalism and how respect for individual rights and dignity came to be a feature of our civilisation, Larry Siedentop had some interesting reflections about the role of monasteries not just in preserving a way of life in a decaying world, but in explaining how a different kind of life could be led by the men and women involved:

“Monasticism offered the glimpse of ‘another world,’ a world that at least approximated to Christian moral intuitions. Slowly, but surely, that glimpse of another world further eroded beliefs and practices surviving from the ancient world.”

The practices of the ancient world have reared their ugly heads again in recent times: the renewed acceptability for the destruction of innocent life being the most obvious example. Other newer and more deranged practices have been provided by the current generation.

Sooner rather than later, the good example of authentic Christian communities in pointing towards that “other world” will surely help to guide many more lost sheep back.

In the meantime, and to conclude, it is worth remembering that the monasteries of the Dark Ages were not merely places of safety for Christians to withdraw into for a time, but places which drew in those who had not yet come to Faith but who were seeking it.

They were communities led by men and women of authority, and those who became part of them were willing to accept that authority, and the trade-offs which that acceptance must always involve.

What we need are places of active encounter between the religious and the secular, which could take their example from the recent writings of two American Protestants who referred to the “metaphorical forecourt of the church…where people are still exploring, examining the faith, and in community with those with deep faith.”

There can be a bunker mentality in today’s Church, leading to a desire to treat our churches as fortified monasteries scattered across a fearsome waste ground.

It is not possible to think like that in the long-run without writing off a large proportion of the people around us. This would be both unwise and unChristian.

History shows us that the search for human community is eternal, and the degree to which people return to the Church in the future will depend to a considerable degree on the welcome which is extended to them when they make that first gesture of Faith, their first step on a return journey.

What is needed now is not a community which stands apart from the world but one which continues the apostolic mission to transform the world around us, for the good of each and every person.  

Do you feel that you are living in an atomised society, full of Eleanor Rigbys? Please leave a comment on James Bradshaw's article in the combox below! 

James Bradshaw writes on topics including history, culture, film and literature.

This article is based on a lecture delivered at the conference ‘Discovering the Mystery of the Human Person’ which took place in St. Mary’s Church in Cork city on January 27. The day-long conference was organised by the Dominican Order in honour of St. Thomas Aquinas.  

Image credit: Bigstock 


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  • Julian Farrows
    commented 2024-03-10 12:14:17 +1100
    @Steven Meyer: it started with the removal of religious texts from schools. If not taught a young age any religion will die out.
  • mrscracker
    Thank you so much for sharing this article. I think technology has replaced community to a great extent & people are more devoted to their screens than to face to face relationships. Mobility & shrinking marriage & birthrates don’t help either.
    I see a number of older folks becoming isolated, especially so if they have no children or grandchildren. It’s not a healthy thing to lose social contacts.
    I’m not just putting in a plug for the Latin Mass. I love the Traditional Rite but it’s not a deal breaker for me. But I will say that the places I’ve personally found ongoing old fashioned community & fellowship are in the Mennonite & Latin Mass communities. I’m sure there are other examples out there, too.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-03-04 22:37:08 +1100
    OK, one question.

    Why did people stop attending church?

    Whatever you may think of godless, Marxist, leftist, liberal, satan-worshipping (add cuss words of choice) commies like me, nobody in western countries stopped anybody attending church. Nobody hauled Christians off to the circus to be fed to the lions. Nobody even stopped the tax concessions religions get.

    So what happened?

    When I was growing up, weekly church attendance was a given across large swaths of society. Seminaries were full.

    Why did it all go pear shaped?

    Bradshaw writes:

    “Conversely, Trump did very well (and will continue to do well) in areas blighted by long-term unemployment, drug use and other social problems, including the decline of church and community.”

    That’s a description. It doesn’t explain why “church and community” declined.

    “The former Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin warned some years ago that there “is a real danger today that we will become a middle class church.”

    Except that the so-called “middle-class” is waning. So if you’re a middle-class church you’ll sink.

    I don’t know the reason why. But pontificating won’t help. You need to go out there and ask people why. And you need to take their answers seriously.

    When will I see articles here with reports of serious, in-depth research into the “why” question?
  • James Bradshaw
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-04 16:24:59 +1100