New Gods for a New Age — Losing Our Religion and Finding it Again in (Unlikely) Places
“Belief sloshes around in the firmament like lumps of clay spiralling into a potter’s wheel. That’s how gods get created, for example. They clearly must be created by their own believers, because a brief resume of the lives of most gods suggests that their origins certainly couldn’t be divine. They tend to do exactly the things people would do if only they could, especially when it comes to nymphs, golden showers, and the smiting of your enemies.”
― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
Belief makes the world go around.After all, if money makes the world go around, and money is only what we believe it is… Well, there you are.
And humans need something to believe in.
As Blasé Pascal told us long ago:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?
This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself”
And, as Andrew Sullivan reminded us more recently:
“Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.
By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).”
So what happens when we have nothing left to believe in?
Losing our religion
The Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71% to 63%, while the majority of young people in Europe do not follow a religion at all. (There is much more data on this trend, but I’m not going to bore you with all the figures here. If you are interested in reading more, here is a good place to start.)
Today, even as the ancient monotheistic religions — which have drowned their meaningful significance in meaningless ritual and completely self-inflicted un-PC “isms” that render them redundant be default — are in decline (except for Islam, but that’s another observation for another day). That god-shaped hole in the heart of Western humankind is still there, hungry, starving for something to believe in.
“Belief shifts. People start out believing in the god and end up believing in the structure.” — Terry Pratchett, Small Gods
And, in the West, at least, hungry human hearts are replacing their old gods with new ones. Here follow a few of the new contenders:
Old gods for new people, new gods for old people
New gods, old gods, robot gods, alien gods, there is a god to fill every-shaped hole you may happen have…
Thor, Odin and Co.
In Iceland, the Norse Gods are officially back on the table (or in the temple, so to speak) after a thousand year hiatus.
“The worship of Odin, Thor, Freya and the other gods of the old Norse pantheon became an officially recognized religion exactly 973 years after Iceland’s official conversion to Christianity.” — Asatruarfelagid, the Icelandic Association which promotes faith in the Norse gods
Witches, Wiccans and Wizards
Across the world, Millennials and Generation Zs are reverting to naturalistic religions almost as fast as they are deserting their churches and synagogues. Witches, Wiccans and pagans are back in vogue, and no longer afraid of prosecution from passionate Christians, who they now outnumber in the USA.
“It makes sense that witchcraft and the occult would rise as society becomes increasingly postmodern. The rejection of Christianity has left a void that people, as inherently spiritual beings, will seek to fill.” — author Julie Roys
Apparently even avowed atheists are susceptible to belief in the unseen.
Atheists are actually more credulous than religious people when it comes to believing in aliens and UFO stories and sightings. Who knew. Everyone needs something to believe in.
“People who were not getting meaning from religion were vulnerable to deficits in meaning and these deficits inclined them to search for non-traditional sources of meaning.” — Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University
Silicon Valley, long-known for worshiping the new, now has an actual religion dedicated to worshiping the Singularity. The Way of the Future Church offers congregants way to worship all seeing, all knowing, all powerful artificial intelligence, and make sure that they get on the right side of the Roko’s Basilisk* conundrum before the Singularity achieves omniscience.
“The church is committed to the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.” — from the Way of the Future Church manifesto
Moral of the story? Robots will probably not replace your job, but they may replace your god.
The (Social) Justice League
Most concerning of all, political polarisation is also morphing into a new types of fervent religious communities. Political values are replacing religious values on a large scale. Extreme political views offer participating members of ideological groups a dogma, a set of rules and rituals, sense of community, a sense of self righteousness, and a sense of meaning in an otherwise meaningless, corrupt world populated by heathen non-believers.
“Social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself.” — Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine
Sounds a lot like church, doesn’t it?
“Fifty years ago, most people found identity through their family, church, neighbourhood and (if male) their job and trade union. But these identities have steadily weakened. In short, many Americans and Britons lost their tribes. But now politics is creating new ones.” — Financial Times
Just remember, belief is a powerful thing, All all beliefs can become dangerous when they turn into immovable dogma, when they call for conversions, penance and punishment of non believers.
People have proven over and over again that they are quite happy for others to die in order for them to hang onto what they believe in. Fiercely defended and aggressively promoted beliefs are responsible for many of the most atrocious human atrocities throughout human history: witch-hunts, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, Nazism, eugenics…you name the horror, and you will find someone who passionately believed it in.
When politics becomes religion there can be no separation of church and state. And that is the most dangerous belief of all.
“People believe… It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Roko’s Basilisk is a thought experiment which uses decision theory logic to argue that a sufficiently powerful AI agent (i.e. the Singularity) would have an incentive to torture anyone who imagined the agent but didn’t work to bring the agent into existence. The argument is a “basilisk” because by merely hearing (or reading about) the argument puts you at risk of torture from this hypothetical agent if it ever comes into being — In other words, you, dear reader, are now also at risk. You’re welcome. Details on how to join the Way of the Future Church helpfully provided above.
Originally published at whatthefuturenow.com on December 12, 2018.