The Bold Type and the Secular Default
Last September I wrote an article reflecting on the first complete season of The Bold Type and what the show indicates about contemporary womanhood and feminine boldness among city-dwelling elites. In that piece, I noted how to that point the series had been mostly silent on matters of real, enduring significance and meaning—including religion. Well, no longer. Four episodes into the second season, The Bold Type wove religion and faith into its storyline.
Just below the surface of talk about education, science, and rationality very often rest reactions against the idea of God which are emotional at bottom.Unfortunately—though not surprisingly given its nature and audience—the show broached faith in a way that made Christianity look strange, foreign, and halfhearted. One of the three main characters, Jane, finds herself with a budding new love interest in a young doctor named Ben. On their first date, a casual lunch, Ben prays briefly before his meal.
The awkward moment passes quickly and without comment from Jane, but later among her girlfriends, Kat and Sutton, she expresses her hesitancy: “He’s religious… Like, he prayed before we ate. You don’t see that around New York.”
Jane isn’t wrong. According to a recent analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute, the percentage of adults in Manhattan who are religiously unaffiliated is comparatively high at 38% (and another 5% weren’t even interested enough to provide an answer). Among Millennial New Yorkers that figure is certainly higher. And the percentage of adults in Manhattan who fit broadly within the evangelical Protestant tradition stands somewhere around 2%. These basic statistics, coupled with the powerful effect of peer networks, means a Millennial working and playing among the cultural elite in Manhattan could easily construct a daily experience completely devoid of religious ideas, religious practices, and religious people.
On their second date, Jane notices a tattoo of a cross on Ben’s forearm and the uncomfortable topic of his faith enters their relationship for the first time. Jane struggles to understand how Ben, “somebody that educated and scientific,” she says to him, can find religion compelling: “So, you, a rational human being with eight years of school under your belt, you actually think that up there sits a God who can not only hear your prayers but act on them and make sick people better?” Needless to say, their conversation ends up in tension.
This plotline, even if a little thin, brings to mind a real feature of many domains in the United States today: secularism and non-religiousness is the assumed default. This secular default is particularly the case in elite strata of society—those areas of modern life dominated by the upper-middle and upper classes. One can think of professional fields like academia or journalism, the secular mood of university towns across the United States (such as Ann Arbor, where I live), or the dating scene in global cities like New York or Los Angeles.
The secular default in the case of Jane and Ben operates on two levels, both of which are good to recognize. The first level is simply The Bold Type as a fictionalized TV show, the content of which reveals something that is paralleled in our actual “in real life” social world. But at a second, non-fiction level, this episode itself is a part of real life, and as a mass-consumer product that people had to write and produce, it reflects and reinforces the secular default.
The reason for making this observation isn’t to get bent out of shape about it. As leaders like Rod Dreher and Al Mohler have argued, Christians had better get used to living in a decidedly post-Christian society in which they are a marked and sometimes despised “cognitive minority.” The thing to see is only that it hasn’t always been this way. As Max Weber described in The Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism (not to be confused with his earlier essay titled with “Ethic” instead of “Sects”), businessmen and bankers in the 1800s in the United States made sure they were dealing with men who belonged to a church as a sign of trustworthiness and moral uprightness. “Church-mindedness” was the default.
Our new secular default in elite spheres is historically contingent and, as shown in The Secular Revolution, not the inevitable outcome of modernization or rationalization. Secularism is instead downstream from a concerted effort beginning around 1870 to minimize the presence and influence of Protestant religion in public life. Only after such a great revolution can “secular”—now the default—be confused with “neutral.”
Throughout the episode Kat and Sutton push back against Jane’s second thoughts about Ben, suggesting she may have “some unresolved issues” regarding religion. Their suspicion turns out to be exactly right. Jane realizes Ben is a good guy and she owes him an explanation for condescendingly questioning his faith. She invites Ben over and tells him:
When I was little, my mom got cancer, and she was pretty religious, but even more so after the diagnosis. I would go visit her and she would tell me to pray and that it would make it better. At the funeral, the priest came up to me and he took my hands, and he looked me in the eye and he said, “It’s okay, Jane. God has taken your mom to a better place.” And I just remember thinking, “I prayed to God to keep her here with me, because what better place is there?” So, yeah, that’s kind of when I stopped believing in the magic power of God.
With all the antagonism and spite easily attached to matters of faith versus secularism, this episode powerfully reminds viewers that rejection of religion is oftentimes bound up in very personal hurts and wounds. Just below the surface of talk about education, science, and rationality very often rest reactions against the idea of God which are emotional at bottom. Amid the skyscrapers and other impressive yet somewhat sterile achievements of modern urban life, there is a human side to the secular default. Jane’s revelation points toward how aggregate-level societal assumptions and patterns are tied to personal emotions, fragility, and pain.
Ben accepts Jane’s emotional apology, and they begin to kiss. But Jane stops: “Um, just before we take this relationship any further, what is your stance on premarital sex?”
“I think we’re good,” Ben reassures her.
Turns out he’s not that religious.