How we progressed from being God fearing to fearing the idea that we may be Gods
“For God Knows that on the day you eat thereof your eyes should be opened and you shall be as Gods.”
In 1980 South African filmmaker Jamie Uys released the popular film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The film chronicled the improbable journey of a Bushman tribal leader who travels to the ends of the earth to return an errant empty Coke bottle that had fallen from the sky.
The villagers found numerous good uses for this object that was seemingly gifted to them from the Gods. However, over time its scarcity created tension in the tribe and they started to fight over it. Unnerved by the never-before-seen disharmony, the leader decides to return the unwanted gift to the Gods.
The film also shows that the origin of this Coke bottle was not the Gods but rather the human pilot of a small aeroplane who, whilst flying over the desert, finishes the Coke and promptly disposes of it through the window, allowing it to fall into the lives of the Bushmen.
What strikes me looking at the world as it is today is how prescient this movie was. Far from the maddening crowd in isolated apartheid South Africa, Uys prophetically tapped into a zeitgeist that would not arrive until almost forty years later with the advent of the digital age. Even more accurately, Uys portrayed how the human hand could be misconstrued for the hand of the Gods.
Six years later, in 1986, Diego Maradona would score one of the most controversial goals in soccer World Cup history. Playing against England, Maradona went up for a header but instead, cleverly disguised, used his left hand to put the ball in the back of the net, giving Argentina the victory. The goal was promptly named “the hand of God”, which has stood ever since.
Both Uys’s film and Maradona’s eponymously named goal opens a wider aperture to a social dilemma that is gripping us today as a species: The idea that we are playing God, or perhaps more accurately that we have progressed from being God-fearing to fearing the idea that we may be God!
We are living in a world that can seem to be spiralling out of control. Our patterns and sense of order are being radically challenged or totally disrupted. The status quo has been upset and the institutional systems of trust have failed or been found wanting. As these old systems fail we find ourselves looking for new corridors of trust — seeking consolation not based on facts but rather on a sense of non-abused credibility. There is a new uncertainty as we begin to capitalize on this loss of orthodoxy. We are no longer merely at the behest of the untrustworthy institution but rather the untrustworthy individual. We have created a society of undetermined character based on a culture seemingly fixated with self-value creation. Every situation is one that can be exploited, resulting in a deep unease fuelled by an extreme polarization of society. The idea of community today, or the tribe, is less a sense of aggregation around a common belief than it is a manipulation of an anxious majority.
The advent of modern technology has put us under a unique added pressure. For the first time we have a tool (technology) that can allow us to truly take care of ourselves. Free of our dependency on system thinking, we are seeing a split in society. We’re witnessing a rise of digital natives who are embracing this new power tool and in doing so rendering our systems mute. They are creating a new interdependent future, driven by people connected through technology. The Internet is a sprawling, man-made metaverse creating new beliefs, behaviors and even gods. A new culture of leaders and followers of biblical proportions. From Trump’s ‘I Am The Chosen One’ declaration to Kanye’s newest messianic album “Jesus is King” to Gywneth’s cult of wellness, the savoir messages of today’s self-appointed deities rely on the interface as pulpit.
So where did it go wrong? What did we do?
We are by nature a species of believers and our creation of belief systems has been foundational in the building and maintenance of culture. Religion is perhaps the most successful example of our ability to organize ourselves around shared doctrines. Psychologists will tell you that our faith in gods is an extension of our recognition of others and thereby creates the ability to both relate, and function, with others. Natural order emerging from the chaos of human nature.
As our populations have grown, the role of religion in establishing order through obedience has not been insignificant. Religion and power have always been linked. For most of our history one has thrived in concert with the other. The greater the religion’s ability to distance the Gods from the everyday people — physically, emotionally, and spiritually — the greater the chance of uniform obedience.
Religion was the comfort that there was a higher order of things, that we were not merely the products of our own doing but rather that of a higher being. We put our faith in this belief, the complete trust and confidence in the other relieving us of taking full responsibility for ourselves as well as the consequences of our actions.
We are born helpless; as a species we have created a belief that we need to be taken care of. We have designed a continuous sequence of systems to take care of us during our lives. In many ways religion was the backstop: if all else failed we had our faith, the notion that our fate was in the safe hands of our destiny, exercised by us but defined by another. It allowed us to make sense of our seemingly infinite nature. It softened the extreme paradox of being human, the fact that we possessed infinite capacity, yet our lives themselves were finite. As long as we had a God we could find comfort in the infinite, the ability to see our place both within it, and without it.
We put the fear of God to work creating our idea of civilization. Civilization was the great rebranding of human behavior. In many respects, our obedience to God put us at war with human nature. God working in mysterious ways was our way of forgiving the uncertainty and unpredictability, where in reality it gets closer to explaining our own untrustworthy nature.
Over time we began to play God and in turn challenge the idea of God. The Age of Reason saw us use science to make sense of nature, loosening our dependency on faith and questioning the dogma of religion. Our minds became a battleground for the understanding that would create an irreversible tear between fact and faith. We moved from being in awe of Nature, and in turn God, to becoming in awe of ourselves.
Today we are at a point of crisis. Our infinite belief seems challenged by the incomprehensible idea that nature is limited, if not dying, and our planet is in fact finite. This anxiety is only compounded by the uneasy truth that our situation appears self-inflicted. We have become the architects of our own destiny with nowhere to hide and no one else to blame. To an outsider looking in, we are self-sabotaging our own existence not as individuals but as a whole, a form of mass extinction.
The very foundation of the belief that life is eternal, and that we are merely servants of this assertion, is in question. What started as doubt is now taking on the appearance of certainty. A self-imposed conspiracy to test our own sense of control, the ability for our will to be that of a God.
We all now have access to a supernatural human power that is simultaneously bringing us closer whilst tearing us apart. The space between us and the Gods has decreased to such an extent that it has all but disappeared. We have been brought face to face with ourselves, confronting the unbearable idea that there is no longer anything between ourselves and our nature. All beliefs are being tested and found wanting. The stability upon which thousands of years of culture have been built has ruptured and the world has gone soft.
With each passing day we see polarized attempts to shape this new fluidity. Populism, a conflict between those who want to take care of themselves and those who fear that they are not being taken care of, has risen out of this dissolution. A careless culture of ‘care’ is being built around misinformation, ego and vulnerability. A battle of the Gods for the hearts and minds of the masses.
This ideological warfare is unmasking the simple truth that there is no longer a universal truth.
We have been exposed for what we are: an intelligent species whose infinite capacity for love, joy, pain, cruelty, creation, and destruction has lead us to the inevitable conclusion that, whilst buoyant, we are alone, alone in our thoughts, alone in our faith and perhaps alone in our salvation, a God of our own making.