Global warming is clearly the sharpener, the memento mori; like wartime or a pandemic, it forces a focus on a reality that might otherwise stay out of mind. But the reality itself — that all suffer, all die — seems more fundamental. In worrying about hypothetical kids faring badly under climate change, the secular imagination is letting itself be steered toward the harsh analysis of Blaise Pascal:
Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.
Or, rather, an image of men in a godless universe. Not that this pitiless conclusion is inevitable; certainly many serious nonbelievers would find reasons to dispute it. But the problem of meaning in a purposeless cosmos clearly hangs over the more secularized precincts of our society, lending surprising resilience to all kinds of spiritual impulses and ideas but also probably contributing to certain forms of existential dread.
I am not suggesting that secularization is the only factor in, say, rising rates of anxiety and unhappiness and suicidality among American teenagers. Explanations for the recent surge in teenage misery that focus on the effects of social media, the impact of the pandemic, overprotective parenting and other factors all make a lot of sense.
But religious shifts belong in that conversation, too, especially since depression and anxiety appear sharpest among the most liberal younger Americans. If some of the passions of progressivism have their origins in spiritual impulses and aspirations, the absence of ultimate religious hope may darken the shadows of despair over young-progressive souls. And to the extent that every child deliberately conceived is a direct wager against Pascal’s dire analysis, it would make sense that under such shadows, anxieties about the ethics of childbearing would be particularly acute.
Against these anxieties, my colleague’s column urges a belief in a future where human agency overcomes existential threats and ushers in a “welcoming” and even “thrilling” world. This is a welcome admonition; I believe in those possibilities myself.
But the promise of a purposive, divinely created universe — in which, I would stress, it remains more than reasonable to believe — is that life is worth living and worth conceiving even if the worst happens, the crisis comes, the hope of progress fails.
The child who lives to see the green future is infinitely valuable; so is the child who lives to see the apocalypse. For us, there is only the duty to give that child its chance to join the story; its destiny belongs to God.