The Old Gods and the New

God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.

One of the many excellent parts of Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari concerns what we might call present-day Gods, which don’t exist in the external world nor the subjective one, but exist in the uniquely human inter-subjective world, by way of human decree. They are born from the stories we tell each other, the process of human meaning-making. These Gods have names like Google, the EU, the US Dollar, the Catholic Church.

There are of course astounding upsides to these collective imaginary constructs, which undertake immense collaborations, with results that include the Internet or the Notre Dame. And there are immense tragedies, or perhaps a continual disaster that unfolds in their wake.

The disaster originates when we think of these ideas as entities (companies considered legal persons, nation states considered sovereign).

We read, write, speak and think of Britain, for example, as an entity (a female in fact: we speak of ‘her’) with feelings and intentions and a capacity to suffer which she obviously lacks completely. In this pivotal sense Britain is totally different from the homo sapiens who constitute Britain in a transient, globally distributed web of nominal citizenhood — and who, crucially, suffer on behalf of their deity (which is to say nothing of the ways in which, say, Iraqi or Palestinian homo sapiens suffer on its behalf).

So much futile suffering born from a simple, grievous category error that leads to no end of trouble. Britain is the particular God on whose behalf we enact collective insanities like Brexit, or the colonisation of India. To speak of it as a present-day God is apt, because the dynamic is a religious one, just performed with a national content. Millions have lost their lives for these imaginary things, sometimes but hardly always willingly.

A second aspect that perpetuates the disasters committed on the Gods’ behalf is that they seem independent (the opposite of reality) while the humans who constitute them are definitely not. The boundary distinguishing a Belgian from a Brit is entirely man-made, with no basis in reality. And though they may live thousands of kilometres apart, they are linked by a fabric of causal interdependence in which the wellbeing of all on this planet rises and falls together. But the reality of interdependent humanity is obscured by the thought of British and Belgian, Arab and Jew.

When we look at this situation, it is clear that many of our Gods are entirely insane. (That’s no surprise, given their entire existence is the result of a collective act of human imagination and few of us could credibly claim to be sane.) Many are in their death throes, may their passing be swift. New ones are being born every moment.

Clearly this is an ancient state of things, though we may be able to notice it at a scale unprecedented in human history. The Gods have always been animated by the projection into nature of the human unconscious. We had an agrarian Old Testament for a newly agriculturalised people; a personal rule-role-reward New Testament when our species needed laws for greater social cohesion; a materialist science when we needed mastery over nature; an acquisitive individualism when we wanted wealth; and lately I would hope a collective humanism when we need peace (but which seems more and more to be a nihilism). We kill the Gods when we realise they are imaginary, when we become aware of what was formerly unconscious. They no longer enchant us when we realise we contain them, not vice versa.

Since we wish to suffer less, may we awaken from our collective insanity. May we kill all of the Gods, scrub their shadows from the walls, and place wisdom and compassion at the empty altar.

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