Values and Modernity

I’m currently teaching an online course over the winter break on German and Italian politics, a fun yet time consuming experience which limits my time writing and reading blogs.   Students are involved in various discussion groups posting and replying to each other on a myriad of issues.  One side issue that has come up involves religion and the state.  In Italy this took the form of discussion about a law potentially banning religious symbols like crosses from display on public property.  Would the home of Roman Catholicism, a country 95% Catholic, really ban crosses from public property?   In Germany an example of a couple found having sex during a church service, the man a local cop, caused an interesting conversation as well.   Does this warrant a three year sentence like the law suggests, or is it just “news from the weird?”   Do people react to this with disgust, recognizing the insult to Christians in the Church made by this couple, or will people be amused?   (The fact that this happened in Bavaria means the couple will probably get a harsh sentence, by the way.)

In referenda Italians have already overwhelmingly approved divorce laws and abortion rights, much to the chagrin of the Catholic church.   Since Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors made a final stand to try to protect tradition and religious faith from capitalism and modernism, the power of the Church and of faith has decreased dramatically.   Instead politics and society have become more secular, materialist, and self-interested.

I know I’ve written on this before (see posts on faith and philosophy).   Yet increasingly I’m convinced that the core problem faced by the modern world is that we’ve lost our spiritual faith, and as yet have found nothing to replace it.  The result is values-confusion, and a drift towards moral and scientific relativism, embraced by both the left and right, as they compete with narratives and “memes” to try to shape the future to fit their perspectives.

Values and principles are powerful things.   One who stands on principle, like Sophie Scholl against the Nazis, has a sense of strength and meaning that many never experience.   To sacrifice values and principles is to go into the world as a kind of narcissistic mercenary, looking to benefit oneself and finding meaning from whatever is able to drive away boredom at any given time.

So one might become a sports fanatic, join a cult, get caught up in having to compete in the business world, become a political junkie, get lost in fantasy worlds, or do something else to numb the meaninglessness of everyday existence.   Nothing really matters, yet everything is important.   The daily routine is dull, yet the daily routine is hectic and stressful.    We have more than we need, but want more than we can obtain.   We numb the pain with everything from alcohol to trips to the shopping mall, but yet there is always that sense that beneath all the stress, problems, and complexity of the modern world there lies nothing real.   A treadmill to nowhere.

From this kind of cultural pathology emerge our greatest problems.   Seeking meaning, we become very easily manipulated by advertisers wanting to get our money, politicians wanting our support, or demagogues saying that they have the answer.   We buy into the idea of “something for nothing” – easy money via the stock market or real estate market, or politicians to solve our problems with no pain to ourselves.  We want it all because what we have isn’t good enough.  Tiger Woods is emblematic of our culture woes.

The only way to answer these problems is to find a way to deal with the issue of values.   Religious conservatives think the answer is clear: return to tradition and faith.   They expect some kind of revival, noting the predicaments caused by value-less society.   This is true for Christians, Muslims and all faiths — they believe adhering to their traditions is important, lest their community slides into the abyss of crass materialism, amorality and meaningless existence.

For some, adherence to a traditional religion is enough.    There is a community of like minded people, aspiring to be their higher selves, working together, and finding a sense of meaning and ethical/moral values in their faith.  Many eschew purchasing on credit, give more to charity than people far wealthier than themselves, and live meaningful lives of value, looked down upon by secular hedonists living for the moment.

But for many of us, science and reason lead us to reject the notion that one religious faith can be embraced as true.  I no more can believe that Muhammad is the one true messenger from God than I can believe that Jesus is the son of God sent to save our souls.   Here is where I think more secular folk like myself often stumble.   We find the myth to be in-credible, so we reject it completely.  If Jesus isn’t the son of God, then all his teachings and all Christian traditions are just so much silliness.  If Muhammad didn’t really recite as the messenger of God, then all his teachings and traditions are summarily rejected.  If the Buddha is just a spiritual philosopher, there is no reason to take him seriously, and on and on…

Yet what binds these faiths are a clear set of common values.   Christianity, Judaism and Islam share the ten commandments, and those values are similar to ideals from other cultures.   All faiths see this world as not the true reality, and recognize that the delights of the corporeal mortal life can blind us from understanding our spiritual core.  All faiths emphasize community, helping those in need, treating others with love, and most importantly, putting a life lived according to principle and values first — even if that means extreme sacrifice.

I do not see the modern world finding any kind of spiritual revival through the traditional organized religions.  As I’ve argued in the past, those religions stem from another era, and their exclusivity can be counter-productive in a global era.  Yet, those religious traditions are real, and should be embraced as reflecting our human encounter with the spiritual.   Because ultimately, unless we find a way to solve the problem of modernity — the lack of core values — society will continue a downward spiral.

Unfortunately confronting that value-crisis means asking difficult questions about who we are, what has value, and what does life mean.  Most people dismiss such “philosophizing” — we’ve got “real” things to do.  It also means learning about spiritual teachings, understanding our psychology, and respecting religious belief as something more than anachronistic mythology.  And, of course, those who go to church, synagogue or mosque, and who identify with a religion, need to reflect on what it really means for their lives — is it simply a Friday, Saturday or Sunday ritual, or does it help them live value-full lives?

We in the industrialized West are at a cross roads.   Modernism will self-destruct if it does not rest on core values and principles.    If we stay narcissistic mercenaries, not helping solve problems in the third world, clean up the environment, or take human rights seriously, we’ll ultimately set up a backlash that can be severe.   And I don’t just mean becoming sentimental mercenaries, living for ourselves and our pleasure while feeling bad about the third world and maybe giving a painless contribution to ease our conscience.  I mean shifting towards a new way of thinking, where love is not dismissed as sentimental mush, but the core purpose of life.   We have the science, the industry, and the drive we need.   But where are the poets and visionaries?

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on January 9, 2010 - 05:31

    I have to agree with you Scott. And I too fall with you, I am no man of god, I see the world through reason. I try to see and understand its complexities, nuances, and irrationality. I contemplate these things deeply everyday. Like you said, some would call that useless “philosophizing,” but I think reflection of our world and our places in it is essential to living a meaningful life.

    I also think one of the reasons we have this crisis of faith is this system we have built up, particularity capitalism. We don’t value other human beings for who they are, we don’t value ourselves for who we are. We allow ourselves to be objectified, and in turn we objectify our whole reality, including the existence of others. We are told to always consider the betterment on the self before the other. We are told to take no value in family, community, or love. Love is a waste of time, it doesn’t make money. Why do we need love when we can buy our happiness, love just clouds our judgment and prevents us from making the ‘right’ decisions in life.

    The problem with many religious faiths is they are often exclusive; love god, love the godly, love your family, but despise the nonbelievers, for they are not one of us. Increasingly this seems to be the attitude of the religions. Why can’t we just work towards making a better world? Why do we have to work towards personal success, or towards what god wants (what ever that might be). Why don’t we take value in others, why don’t we love?

    I know my thoughts may seem totally unreasonable, idealistic, and naive, but I see a system in place in our world that produces all these destructive human qualities. I think once we forget the cultivation of ourselves, we will be able to truly change the course of human history, we will be able to see every person for their true value. We will no longer justify human suffering and death. We will no longer see narcissism as an acceptable trait. We all work towards the greater good.

    Do I think any of this will happen, no. My only comfort is that I try everyday to free my mind, to find value in everything and everyone around me. That I will never stop my quest to question my reality, question the system that has been imposed on me. I only hope is that it will not cage me, that I will not be ensnared by its facade of happiness and meaning.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2010 - 03:53

      Thanks for the comment. I have found it helpful to try to maintain a sense of pragmatic idealism. See what kind of world we should have — value and love for each other as humans — and recognize that the complexity of the world and human weaknesses (be they from a fallen nature as per religion, or the evolutionary result of having a mind and emotional state designed for a life of hunting and gathering, put instead into a complex and stressful world) means it takes a long time to get there.

  2. #3 by Mike Lovell on January 9, 2010 - 17:04

    Scott and Jeff-

    This post is highly touching to me personally. It refelcts a lot on what I think about at night while driving my patrol and someitmes in discussions with a certain lonely patrolman who likes to call and talk all the time to help consume his own boredom and want for communication with someone who thinks.

    Spiritually I have spent my life on both sides of the line. I find conflict between how the world (economically and within humanity- both socially and spiritually) does operate and how it should operate.

    For instance- I don’t think capitalism itself is to blame for any sense of moral crisis, but by how it is operated by certain individuals who have attained a certain sense of power by using the system. Essentialy this problem can be found in all ideologies be they capitalism, communism, or whatever.

    I do think we have a lack of values in this world, as far as how we treat ourselves and those around us and those far away. I think religion helps us to regain or attain some sense of value in our lives. When Jeff mentioned that the religions such as Christianity teach us to love ourselves, our god, our church family, but not the unbelievers, I find myself on the fence. I just began to attend church again here in this last year with semi-regularity. It is a poor church located in the ‘ghetto’. The main meesage is love. And in most churches I find that we are taught to love everyone, including the sinners, but to hate the sins. But then you see examples of the god fearing and church going members who are pillars of the community while at church, but the other 5 or 6 days of the week are the biggest jerks you ever met. Or these church leaders who go out and preach hate against certain groups, like the gay rights movements in the case of evangelical-political groups. Yet, come sunday its back to loving everybody. Seems a bit hypocritical to see such conflicting messages intertwining with each other.

    I find it hard to reconcile life in the ‘real world’ versus the world the church puts forth. But at the same time, when I look to the secular leaders, I often find them falling far short as well.

    Its a tough world to negotiate. I use the church and its members for that support I dont always find anywhere else, but also try to use reason out in the world. For I don’t think God is all this magical and mystical mystery that conflicts with science. I think God created this wonderful mess we call the universe, and it is up to us to use our own ways and means, through science, math, philosophy and other studies to find the logic throughout it. And hopefully in the meantime we can figure each other out as well.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2010 - 03:51

      The God concept seems something we cannot comprehend. Religions use God because there is no word that could describe the kind of force or entity that has the capacity to exist within and outside space-time. I think the problem between religious and non-religious folks often comes down to false stereotypes. Atheists often see religious folk as akin to the conservative Christian movement, focused on trying to push their religious beliefs on the political system, beliefs that the non-religious find often irrational and authoritarian. Religious people often see those without religious as soulless materialist secularists who want to use reason to plan how everything should go, with disdain for faith.

      There are those who fit the stereotypes, but most Christians I know put love first, and are very tolerant of those with different beliefs — some of the strongest defenders of Muslim people and Islam’s reputation are Christians. And those who don’t have a religious belief usually try to respect those who do.

      I definitely can relate to the first part of the post — the world that is and the world that ought to be seem at times so far apart, yet it seems that it should be clear if only people would think! I agree that capitalism — or at least the operation of free markets — isn’t bad. But yes, humans find ways to manipulate the system and abuse power, either in the name of “government for the people” or “the free market in action.” Power can be abused in anybody’s name!

  3. #5 by Michael Arnis on January 11, 2010 - 02:02


    Your post reminds of Ben Wattenberg’s book, Values Matter Most. He contends that all political campaigns are about values. Even economic issues, which are thought to drive all elections, are really about values: pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we are all in this together, and Wattenberg’s favorite, no more something for nothing.

    Pundits say the next election will be about the economy. Scott, do you think Nov 2010 will be all about values? Also, in America, where do those values come from? Our government is secular but our laws and institutions are guided by faith. How does America develop a common sense of values?

    Switching gears to health care: a health care economist from the University of Washington has reminded me for years that the problem with our health care system is a lack of common values. Once we agree on those values, the solutions will flow from them. She stands in strong contrast to other economists who make elegant business cases (e.g., increased productivity or efficiencies) for covering everyone. Do you have any thoughts on what might have spurred us to finally move in the direction of providing a meaningful, minimum level of coverage for (nearly) everyone in America — assumming the House and Senate can agree on a bill soon?

    Thanks for an intriguing post, M.A.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2010 - 04:10

      I wrote a post in December 2008 about “Something for Nothing” – I haven’t read the book you mention, I’ll try to take a look at it.

      I absolutely agree with the U. of Washington health care economist. I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about how manipulated we’ve become as a culture, thanks to advertisers, and psychological techniques used in politics, marketing, and virtually every aspect of life. It’s almost like we’re being programmed or conditioned to replace reflection on/discussion of values with political posturing and narratives.

      I think the election will be about values, but will it be about real reflection of the state of the country and its values, or will it be a battle of left vs. right narratives about values, sold like a marketing campaign?

      Germany is having an interesting debate on health care. While across the spectrum left and right all agree that Germans should all have access to health care (very few would want the US system!), their society is aging, and its not clear how they can continue to provide quality care with short waits and some of the best health care in the world as this demographic trend continues. That means facing real questions about the role of pharmaceuticals, what things should be ‘optional’ and what should be ‘mandatory’ in coverage. Those are questions of values — and it’s opening up divides in a society that appeared to have a strong health care consensus.

  4. #7 by Eve on January 17, 2010 - 21:37

    What you wrote about the absence of spirituality in the modern world was interesting because I just returned from a weekend of Jungian seminars in which we studied Freud and Marx, and followed the divergent paths of atheists vs. people of faith and where their psychologies and ideologies have taken modern man.

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