As a species, we’re drifting away from religion. However, if we accept that there’s nothing greater out there, are we fine with being the sole occupants of the void? I think not.
Recently, I wrote an article approaching the topic of the ever-growing irreligiousness—the fact that over the course of the 20th century, and especially in the later few generations, a concept that was almost universal has been eroding at an increasing and compounding rate.
For millennia, humankind rested its sense of purpose upon a supernatural and paranormal understanding. We were taught one of a variety of narratives about transcendent beings which either loved or simply subjugated us, or both, and our lives were spent attempting to live by their perceived decrees. Wherever you were from, you had a version which had its rules and you needed to live by them. Polytheistic, Monotheistic or some odd Zoroastrian dualism (the precursor to the not-quite-Monotheistic Christianity, which has two “gods” who vie for control over people), it all imprinted an ideology upon the culture it was a part of.
But with these rules and narratives being stripped, along with the cultural and communal factors they imparted from society, I raised the question of what this leaves in its wake?
I’d venture that currently, we haven’t really replaced it with anything bar commercialism and a care-takerism (keeping things “as they were intended” and preserving the planet). Without a “God” or “gods” to please, we’re simply left with other people. The problem is, we’ve realised that other people are no more worthy of our subservience and acclaim than we are, generally. For a time kings, queens and emperors tried to shift focus to themselves from the churches, but again, we see them as just people. They’re making human mistakes and human decisions. We don’t seem to be able to easily transfer our religiosity to our leaders. The Windsors, Trumps and Putins all seem to have cults of their own, but it’s a splintered group at most, nothing like the all-consuming hold of organised religion at its height.
We have what I’d now call a drifting civilisation. In so many ways we’re more powerful and integrated than we’ve ever been, but ideologically and conceptually, we don’t really have a plan or vision of the future at all. We barely know what’s going to happen in a few months time.
This brings me back to religion itself, and what a “God” really is to people. Religion is not just a set of transcendent ideas and rules. I don’t think the human mind can actually function properly without religion. But here I want to deconstruct what I mean by religion.
It’s noted that at the turn of the 20th century from the 19th, there were new religions on the rise with the new prevalence of humanism, and these religions had nothing to do with gods or the paranormal, these were humanist religions—fascism and communism in particular, though you could argue that liberalism fit the same description. Fascism and communism were collectivist ideologies, and in many ways extremely similar. The idea was that there was a grand vision and a series of principles to follow, and that by doing so, a group or nation could achieve mythical status.
The key driver here though was the state, as the centralised embodiment of the people within it—the organising force that is able to make the people within it so much more than the sum of their parts. Grounded in a mixture of science and “destiny”, the collectivism ideologies tapped into what Islam and Christianity always had as well: that sense of commonality of purpose, that everyone was sacrificing to something greater than themselves. No one was exactly obeying a person in these instances, certainly—people like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Lenin were playing “shepherding” roles, but they were very much positioning themselves as prophets of a grand ideology, in the same way as the priests and imams had and have done for over millennia. In fact, these are the exact roles commissars filled in the Soviet Red Army—a chaplain for the Communist faith. Hitlerjugend were taught of the great history of the Aryan race and their grand, quasi-divine mission to reassert it upon Europe. Chinese Revolutionaries carried little red books with them, which extolled the virtues of the CCCP and the revolution. The Cultural Revolution was undertaken because Mao felt the revolutionary dogma had waned amongst the urbanised Chinese, and they were becoming too much akin to the bourgeoisie they were meant to replace. In the non-fascist and communist states, traditional religion still very much held the key power.
Human beings crave—in fact, I’d say need—a purpose and a community; without either, we become lost. I think in many ways, this is why we see the ever-increasing militarisation of the fascist-right. In a world that’s increasingly intermingled and less specifically defined, many people are feeling lost and isolated. Combined with a global economy that’s effectively at war with itself (due to its competing priorities for national job growth and global free trade), and you’ve got a lot of people who very much desire someone to blame.
In this case, a “grand vision” that involves reverting back to when things were more clear cut is holding more and more appeal. People see a largely imagined past and crime amongst minorities, believing reversion and protectionism will save our civilisation. But the world is not as it was when the European empires reigned, or when all our economic competition was in ruins in 1946. A retreat from the world will simply allow a dramatically more powerful China, India and Russia to take the reins on world trade and power-broking.
Moreover, there’s also a resurgence of a kind of “soft” socialism in the vein of the Scandinavian countries. Mostly young people seeking to make their countries and their economies once more into the far more benevolent and proactive states that they were during the 1950s and ’60s. The ideology there, is that an ever-increasing free market and the endless acceleration of corporate power internationally has left most people in the dust. The belief is that if we empower the state again, we will be able to live comfortably in a way modern generations have simply heard about from their parents. The idea of a family being supported on a single income, with affordable housing, in the modern era, is like a pure fantasy amongst all but the most highly paid professionals. This democratic socialist position holds up much better functionally, as we have recent history and modern examples of this working well. Note, there is a massively broad spectrum of socialism, which causes a great deal of confusion. When the West experienced its economic high of the 1950s it was extremely socialist by today’s standards. Things didn’t get much worse until Republican and Conservative governments shifted everything to the right and workers lost all their rights and protections.
But all these visions, they hold an overwhelming focus on structure. Simply rearranging the living room so to speak. They don’t even come close to replacing the void left behind by organised religion or the collectivist ideologies.
The real question for us all, in the wake of a grand vision for the universe itself, is what do we do without any direction, now that we’re coming to terms with our being on one tiny planet amongst 10 sextillion? The comfort of knowing an all powerful, all-knowing being cared for us has been taken away. Size didn’t matter when we were effectively the special “chosen” species. But without that exceptionalism, now we’re just small.
Recently, the first ever image was rendered by the Event Horizon telescope team of a Black Hole. Its mass is about four million times the mass of our sun, and its size is greater than our solar system many times over. Seeing these kinds of things brought what were largely well-supported theories, into the realm of confirmed science. But moreover, they imply things about us as a species.
In the face of the universe so incredibly enormous as to be incomprehensible, where do we fit in? With no transcendent beings or forces to reassure us, to hold us and tell us we’re special, what are we? Our sense of community is splintering in the face of this awesome reality, which so very few of us like to even consider.
After God, after nations even and after Earth, what is our ideology? What concept do we have for ourselves and our role in the universe that can match up to this reality? Because so far, all of our ideas of ourselves seem to revolve around Earth’s atmosphere being the end of everything, in many ways.
The main things people seem to get up and fight about these days are the economy, immigration and global warming. I’d say one of those three things is worth getting up and fighting about because in the year 3000 we’ll still remember it. I hope which one I’m talking about is obvious here. Because this is the reality; without a God, we have to plan ahead for ourselves. We don’t have a path or a plan or anything at all laid out for us, we are our own unwitting masters. So we need to ask ourselves these kinds of questions. Because the year 3000 will come to pass; the question is just whether or not we will be here, and what we’ll be doing. Maybe we’ll still be arguing about immigration?
Earth has had five major extinction events in its history: 436 million years ago, 364 million years ago, 251 million years ago, 200 million years ago and 65 million years ago. These could have been gamma ray bursts, comets, ice ages or even a disease. But whatever they were, we can clearly identify them from the sudden changes in the fossil records. Each of these events wiped out 50-96% of the species on Earth. Given the gap between the 3rd and 4th, you could say we’re already 15 million years overdue for the next one. Will our children in the year 3000 be grateful we did nothing but tweak the economy? What if we still haven’t left Earth and an asteroid is just ten years away? What if we spend our last months fighting about oil rights and immigration?
It’s a major challenge for us, as a species, to think beyond the next few years. We are cognisant enough to be able to think on a grander scale if we want to.
The next challenge is to not let this simply overwhelm us and force us back into placidity. This is our normal response to anything too great, too complicated and extensive. Human history is filled with people surrendering to difficult circumstances far more than they overcame them, it’s easier to simply stop thinking about something bad than it is to deal with it, but we absolutely cannot allow ourselves to become desensitised.
How often have you asked a difficult question of someone and they’ve put up their hands and said, “Oh, no I don’t like to think about that”? Is that the response to the grand questions we want? Do we simply want to avoid that which is difficult?
In lieu of a religion to give us a sense of structure and purpose to the world, we’ve fallen into habits, but how often do they truly solve the problem in question? We buy things, we accrue collections, we watch television, films, our children follow suit. We entertain ourselves, we’re comfortable, but without that underlying narrative and purpose, we don’t seem to be fulfilled. So much of our culture puts happiness around the corner, of the next purchase or holiday, but when was the last time you bought anything and felt completely content? We lack purpose and associated community. The Internet is full of communities making a joke of their rampant depression, in many cases seemingly instigated by a sense of utter isolation and directionlessness. We have no mission, no task, no goal. And humanity needs these things. These things were taken with the loss of religion, and we are trying to replace them without realising that’s what we’re doing. We are the old man, recently retired and directionless, buying expensive toys to fill the nameless void. Brexit is the clutching of this old man at a distant and vague youth, when things seemed to make more sense.
I want to leave you with a quote from a film from the film Interstellar, which is the only film I’ve ever seen that’s made a good attempt at answering this question:
We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.
Because in 100 trillion years, all the stars will go out and the universe will go dark. If we have become our own gods through some kind of advancement and ascendancy, might we be able to turn them back on?