Fitness Trackers, Dating Apps, and Other Ladders to Nowhere

Why secular substitutes for religion will always leave us exhausted and unhappy.

I wasn’t sure about reviewing this book, which the author, David Zahl, calls Seculosity. As you might guess, the term is a mashup of “religiosity” and “secularism.” Surely, I thought, this can’t be another screed against the creep of secularism into our churches. I could already hear it: What do you expect when you let the walls down and anything goes? Alcohol, movies, dancing. Where’s the line anymore? But once I actually read the subtitle (“How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It”) and the table of contents, I about-faced. What could be better than confirmation of my own observations about our culture’s false idols? I’m in!

For centuries, some humanists have promised that once we throw off the fetters of religion and its attendant guilt, we’ll be liberated to enter a new era of human flourishing. But that’s not happening. While capital-R Religion, institutionalized religion, is famously declining, small-r religion, what Zahl calls “replacement religion,” is more than filling the void. Rather than slipping the bonds of religion’s quest for righteousness, we’ve tightened the harness and shifted the venue from church to . . . well, nearly everywhere else.

The book has nine chapters, each dealing with a specific manifestation of seculosity: In order, they are Busyness, Romance, Parenting, Technology, Work, Leisure, Food, Politics, and lastly, Jesusland. Zahl’s thesis is clear: “The book sets out to look at how the promise of salvation has fastened onto more everyday pursuits like work, exercise, and romance—and how it’s making us anxious, …

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