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?