Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 13

Modern Materialism

 
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Analyzes the modern political power struggle and the emergence of secular beliefs like existentialism and humanism.

Many people think that social change occurs when innovative thinkers formulate new ideas which then gain widespread acceptance. This does occasionally happen, but it is probably more realistic to say that social change occurs whenever new inventions change the way that people behave and interact, or when new discoveries change the way that people see their place in the wider world.

Before the modern era, technological advancement was slow and new discoveries were rare. Cultures stayed the same or changed so slowly that the change was barely noticeable. Without having witnessed any significant change or even being able to imagine how change might happen, people formed the impression that the world would remain more or less the same forever. Any hope for change rested on the anticipation of divine intervention.

On the rare occasion when noticeable change did occur, and when this change led to advances in comfort or knowledge, people began to develop a sense that civilization was slowly but steadily improving and they grew hopeful of further change in the future.

The Modern Age

The invention of gunpowder revolutionized warfare. The invention of the printing press in Europe gave people exposure to ideas other than those presented in the Bible. The invention of the magnetic compass and other navigational aids allowed European ships to explore the world.

Improvements in the manufacture of lenses for reading glasses led to the invention of the telescope. Gravity was soon discovered by observing the orbits of the planets around the sun and this led to the formulation of scientific laws describing the motion of objects.

While discovery, invention, and economic growth were generally welcomed, conservative thinkers did not trust the social changes that often accompanied them. Organizations like the church and the aristocracy claimed that any change to the traditional way of living might lead to disaster. But their real motive for resisting change was that they feared losing their privileged positions of power and wealth.

By the middle of the 1600s, the Catholic Church had lost its grip on power. Over the following century, as the colonization of America fuelled an expansion of trade and commerce, the aristocracy began losing its grip on power too.

The momentum of scientific, technological, and economic progress now seemed unstoppable, and this caused a longing for political change, culminating in the American and French revolutions. The fate of the modern world was then sealed with the invention of the steam engine and the beginning of the industrial age.

The death of God

By the end of the 1800s, science was providing answers to many of the great mysteries of nature. Everything from the creation of the world to the workings of the human mind was gradually being explained without any reference to God. Science seemed to be successfully replacing religion as the final authority for truth. Among those who were fortunate enough to learn about science and were able to understand it, many became convinced that we should only believe in explanations that can be proven to be true by scientific methods.

In Europe and America, the picture of the universe painted by Christianity and its understanding of human nature had been completely discredited by science. As the influence of the churches began to decline, church leaders became fearful of scientific discovery and they struggled to resist social change.

Despite being seen by many as stubborn, outdated, and hypocritical institutions committed to a failing mythology, the churches continued to be supported by conservative community leaders. In a world where our animal instincts can lead us to overvalue sexual gratification, and where the pressures of daily survival can drive us to behave in selfish, aggressive, and uncaring ways, traditional religion was upheld as society's most reputable moral authority, reinforcing community and family values like generosity, self-sacrifice, and self-restraint.

Progressive churches struggled to compromise with scientific explanations, but the interpretation of religious scripture can only be stretched so far before people begin losing faith and start looking for new beliefs. Without any intellectual credibility and with their moral authority under serious question, conservative churches maintained their following by reinforcing herd conformity and hatred of difference, especially in rural communities.

Many educated people still believed in God, but no longer believed that traditional religion offered the best way to understand God. Others could see no reason to believe in God at all. Religion was perceived to be a hindrance to the progress of humankind, and there was widespread hope that it would slowly wither away and be replaced by a scientific understanding of existence. Many were beginning to feel that if the idea of God was not yet dead, then it was the duty of modern science and philosophy to kill him.

Existentialism

After centuries of groundbreaking scientific discovery, many scientifically minded people now see the universe as working like a mindless cosmic machine. Every component in the machine, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, is constrained to follow the laws of nature, and these laws can never be broken.

From a purely scientific point of view, human beings could be described as self-preserving, self-replicating, biological machines, responding to stimulus and adapting to change. An accident of nature sparked the first replication billions of years ago, and then through an accumulation of advantageous mutations, the unbroken chain of generations led to the rise of modern humans.

In evolutionary terms, it could be said that we are still little more than clever monkeys clinging to a piece of space rock, floating near the edge of a galaxy, several billion years after the dawn of time. We have only just emerged from the forests and caves, confused and disorganized, chattering amongst ourselves and squabbling over trivialities, blissfully unaware of our impending fate.

We come from nothingness, each of us being born by mere chance. And at the end of our short and often miserable lives, our bodies decay and our minds dissolve away and become nothing. We return to nothingness, and forever we shall be as though we had never been. Our possessions will be dispersed, and in time, our names will be forgotten and nothing will remain of the world that we once knew. Finally, at the end of time, the universe will grow cold and die.

Our instincts and emotions might make us think that our lives are important, but it would not make the slightest difference in the grand scheme of things if the entire human race were to be wiped out by some unfortunate event. The stars would continue to shine and the galaxies would continue to drift aimlessly through space, completely oblivious to our passing. We are alone in an immense and unfeeling universe.

This way of thinking has led many to the agonizing realization that our lives are totally meaningless. But rather than surrendering to feelings of despair and depression over the meaninglessness of it all, existentialist philosophers tell us that our mission must be to find a way to give our lives some meaning by embracing those activities that generate a sense of value in our lives. While some people find their reason for living through hard work and achievement, others find comfort in their family and friends, or in the enjoyment of life's many pleasures.

The vast majority of people, however, will never accept that our world has no true purpose in nature. They are always going to want to believe that their lives have cosmic significance, and that humankind has some special relationship to the forces that created the universe.

For some people, like those who suffer through pain and misery and those who have no hope of ever being happy, the only reason for continuing to live, other than for the love of their family and friends, is for the anticipation of playing some small part in a meaningful greater scheme.

Science alone may not be able to provide people with a sense of universal purpose and guidance using logic and reason, but most people respond to shallow emotional sensationalism rather than cold logical reasoning anyway. Most people would rather believe in magical spirits than in mathematical relationships, and they would rather think that some mystical guru knew the answers to everything rather than try to make sense out of the conflicting opinions of skeptical academics.

Humanism

In the search for an alternative to traditional religious morality, the existentialist philosophers declared that we are all free to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves. They said that personal experience is the only reliable guide for our actions. But they also warned of the risks and responsibilities that come from being free to make our own choices. We define ourselves through our actions, and we all have to live with wherever our decisions lead us.

While some people wanted complete freedom from moral restraint, others anticipated the rise of a new moral order based upon a rational belief in the common good. As the industrialized world began to embrace political freedom, a new foundation for morality did emerge, widely known as ‘humanism’. Humanism can be described as an unquestioning faith in the inherent value of every human life and a belief in the fundamental rights of every person.

Humanism promotes all of the positive caring and sharing values that civilized society has developed over the centuries through the lessons of human experience and the power of human reason. Humanist values can easily be justified as being in the best long term interests of both the individual and the wider community by enhancing the quality of relationships and reducing the risk of conflict.

For many people today, ‘secular humanism’ offers an agreeable alternative to traditional religion. While rejecting religious superstition, secular humanists embrace the compassionate and caring values once preached by religion. In reaction to accusations by some religious groups that non-believers can have no real faith in universal goodness, secular humanists point out that virtues like kindness, justice, and generosity often work better when they are not associated with religious beliefs.

The secular humanist tradition has been growing steadily over the centuries, and like a religion, it has its own set of inspired writings, its own version of history, and its own collection of myths and heroes. But attempts by some secular humanist groups to define universal principles and values have only resulted in shallow and unconvincing documents that seem to change with the politics of the times.

Although secular humanism has gained an enormous following, especially among scientifically minded people, it still rests entirely upon blind faith in some convenient concept of goodness rather than solid reasoning based on scientific facts. Unless consciousness evolved for a higher purpose, then human life can only be said to have value if we choose to believe so.

However, there are plenty of examples of times and places where people have chosen not to believe in the value of human life. Even today, many politicians, military officers, criminals, and businessmen around the world consider human life to be a cheap commodity that can be thrown away like worthless trash when it no longer appears to be useful.

The power struggle

Despite ongoing attempts to construct a cooperative moral philosophy based entirely upon reason rather than faith, no such philosophy has yet survived the scrutiny of the critics. It is easy to make bold statements about right and wrong but almost impossible to prove them to be true. It is not easy to convince people to restrain themselves against their own selfish interests unless some higher authority has the power and is prepared to use it to enforce restraint.

Nietzsche argued that unless our assertions about morals and values are based upon solid metaphysical foundations then they are just meaningless rhetoric. Now that the idea of God is dying, he wrote, we should abandon any sentimental notions of right and wrong. Such notions are merely the residual effects of baseless religious and philosophical moralizing. He said that the only solid foundation upon which we can build a system of morals and values is on the conscious struggle for power.

Without any cosmic plan to give us purpose, our lives become nothing more than the complex interactions between atoms and molecules. If there is no ultimate goal for these interactions, then any attempt to make moral judgments about human behavior would be the same as saying, “this chemical reaction is good, and this one is bad”. Without having been carved into the bedrock of existence by some ultimate authority, any ideas about right and wrong can only be described as whatever was in our best interests at the time.

But what is best for one person is not always best for others. The claim that we can make the best of our situation by seeking the greatest happiness for the most number of people might sound good to most people, but why should it be accepted by someone who would gladly seek their own happiness at the expense of everyone else?

The conflicting interests of competing groups often leads to differences of opinion about right and wrong, and these differences of opinion can easily escalate into political power struggles. The winners of these struggles usually get to impose their own ideas about right and wrong upon everyone else.

Claiming to be morally superior is a useful tactic when struggling for political power, but when such claims depend only upon blind faith, self interest, or misguided idealism, then they can easily be dismissed by opponents as nothing more than opinion or propaganda.

Philosophers in the 1700s wrote that all men are equal and have a right to be free. The American Declaration of Independence states that all men have a right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Such claims might have sounded good, and they did give inspiration to the oppressed masses struggling to free themselves from tyranny, but without being able to explain why we have these rights, other than arguing that they are ‘self-evident’ or using some other hollow form of logic, then they can only really be described as persuasive political propaganda.

Claims about equality, fairness, and the inherent value of each human life might be influential in the struggle for power, but when they are tested, they cannot be proven to be true. Having them as slogans embedded in the culture, or as political declarations written into national constitutions might give them extra power, but not everlasting legitimacy.

Human rights

The most important moral development in recent times has been the establishment of ‘human rights’. The human rights movement rose to prominence after the two world wars and the end of colonial racism. Human rights have now become the moral foundation of the modern age, written into the constitution of the United Nations and recognized by international law.

Although many people around the world now consider human rights to be sacred, the truth is that humans have no natural or God given rights. Whatever political rights we now enjoy, previous generations had to fight and sometimes die for. And these rights could be taken away from us at any time by imperialist superpowers, religious fundamentalists, industrial military elitists, or any other group that would try to deceive and enslave us if they could.

We will forever be forced to keep fighting for whatever political rights we have gained. If there is anything sacred about human rights, it comes from the hopes of those who have suffered, and from the blood of those who have died fighting for the cause of freedom in the historic struggle against self-serving opportunists and ideological extremists.

The fight to define human rights is a political battle in which persuasion is the key weapon. For people with progressive ideals, human rights include the right to food and shelter, the right to education and healthcare, and the right to free and fair elections. And the battle for these rights will not end until they have been enshrined in international law and are guaranteed for every person in the world.

Conservatism

At the other end of the political spectrum, for people with conservative ideals, accusations of human rights abuse might be useful when vilifying hostile governments, but conservative politicians in the industrialized world prefer to talk about freedom; like the freedom to compete in a free market economy, free from the restriction of any national or international regulation.

They reject the welfare oriented viewpoint of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, instead placing their faith in the power of market forces to determine right and wrong.

Since the early days of capitalism, conservative thinkers have believed that as long as the industrious are motivated by incentive and the poor are motivated by fear, then continued economic growth will be automatic, as if guided by some kind of invisible hand. Yet they rarely question the direction in which the hand is pushing or the reason for wanting to get there so quickly regardless of the human or environmental costs. They simply see continued development as an opportunity for profit, and they want to maximize development through unrestrained competition.

Some conservative business leaders dream of a world without welfare, where the workers are forced to compete for the lowest possible wages while the poor are left to starve and die. After all, there is no mercy in the cut throat world of business. Competition is fierce in the international marketplace. Staying in business requires stretching the rules as far as possible to minimize expenses and maximize profits. While buyers look for the best bargains, sellers try for the highest possible price while putting the least amount of effort into their products and services.

There may be widespread desire for ethical business practices, but it would be foolish to trust anyone in the business world. A person’s word is worthless without an ironclad contract and enough money to enforce it in a court of law. Maintaining a respectable reputation may help to attract customers, but in the end, business is business.

Many wealthy Westerners believe that their wealth is evidence of their superiority. They carry no shame that their family fortunes were largely built upon stolen land, stolen mineral wealth, mass murder, and slavery. Whenever the desire for profit has been stronger than feelings of moral restraint, imperialist opportunists have always considered it to be good business to subjugate foreign lands and harvest their resources.

When the European empires were finally forced to free their slave colonies, they did not free them, but instead left them suffering under the rule of egomaniac army officers. Imperialist profiteers then lent part of their ill-gotten gains to these dictators, knowing the money would be stolen and wasted.

As the plundered nations now struggle towards democracy, imperialist loansharks like the International Monetary Fund insist on the repayment of these loans under predatory economic conditions that leave the children of these plundered nations crippled forever by debt, vulnerable to be violated forever more.

While demanding that developing nations open their markets to unfettered foreign competition, Western governments use hostile patent laws and other indefensible forms of corporate welfare to ensure that those nations that were slow to industrialize can never catch up.

Still the wealthy Western nations continue to cheat on international trade. Because of European rivalries and the undemocratic distribution of United States senate seats, American and European farm subsidies force down world prices and destroy the incomes of many smaller agricultural nations.

Meanwhile, Western corporations exploit poverty stricken countries by paying slave wages to children working in factories producing luxury goods. They bribe corrupt government officials for permission to spoil the forest homelands of native people. They plunder the mineral wealth, poison the rivers with toxic waste, and harvest marine life to the point of extinction. They even fuel wars in order to profit from selling weapons. Share price is all that matters in the minds of their investors.

While many people feel outraged by the selfishness and lack of fairness, others realize that there are no reliable foundations for such idealistic armchair moralizing. We are all merely pawns in the evolutionary competition for survival and the conscious struggle for power. Everyone must fight for their own preservation.

As a general rule, whenever one group gains a position of power, they will almost always try to use it to further their own interests at the expense of everyone else. Other groups can try to resist, but unless they can effectively threaten those in power, then resistance is futile.

Memories of power abuse can breed lasting hostility, and so whenever those in power actually think about the consequences of their actions, then they will usually restrain themselves out of fear of losing respect or gaining enemies. But they will still try to get away with as much as they possibly can before resistance rises to a point where the costs start to outweigh the benefits.

Although many people dream of an ideal world based upon caring, sharing, and cooperation; such a dream world seems far from the practical world where people, companies, and nations must compete for limited resources. Claims about equality, fairness, human rights, or any other moral assertion can easily be rejected by greed-driven opportunists as ‘socialism’, which they condemn as nothing more than the selfish political expression of the jealousies and ambitions of the poor.

Progressivism

Conservative thinkers believe that selfishness is the key to progress and that competition is nature's way. They believe that history has clearly shown that only greed and fear can be relied upon to motivate and restrain us.

Progressive thinkers, on the other hand, have more faith in the power of human reason. They believe that we should always use our knowledge and historical experience to think carefully and make informed judgments about the direction in which the world is heading.

They believe that planning and cooperation must always be employed to oversee the blind competition for resources and profit. Greed must be restrained in order to minimize destructive outcomes. Economic growth works best when it benefits everyone and not just the aggressive few.

Progressives believe that by developing a realistic vision about what we want our future to be, we should be able to unite the entire world to cooperate and work together towards the accomplishment of a common goal.

Democracy

Before the emergence of democracy, political disagreements were resolved through naked power, often unrestrained by reason or morality. Changes of government required popular uprisings, military coups, or foreign invasions. Short periods of violence were often followed by long periods of oppression.

Wealth was concentrated in the hands of those whose ancestors had wreaked the most terror and plundered the most riches. The only way for the poor to change this seemingly unfair arrangement was to overthrow the ruling class and redistribute the wealth.

The beauty of democracy is that it allows a nonviolent management of this power struggle. Brute force is replaced by the delicate art of persuasion. The health and success of a democracy can be measured by the degree to which conflict is minimized.

Whenever the capitalists forget that the masses need to have enough money to consume the junk that the supermarkets sell, then the socialists will be elected to redistribute the wealth. And when the socialists start throwing money away, and the greed and jealousy of the masses reaches a threshold, then the capitalists will be reelected to reward the profitable and punish the lazy.

This democratic tug of war between two selfish political ideologies, capitalism and socialism, results in a self adjusting system where national economies maintain the best possible balance of tax rates, corporate regulations, minimum wages, and welfare payments; providing conditions for maximum economic success as we continue to ride the highs and lows of the global economic rollercoaster towards some uncharted technological wonderland.

Every nation goes through periods when the political tension rises too high and the government is thrown out of office. Even in nations without effective democratic political systems, changes of government are inevitable. Without democracy, it is only a question of how it will happen, when it will happen, and how wisely the violence can be minimized.

As long as the nations of the world continue to compete against each other for limited resources then periodic global conflicts will be inevitable. Only when the political tensions between nations can be resolved and global resources can be agreeably distributed by an international assembly of elected representatives will world peace ever become achievable and lasting global prosperity be assured.

The twentieth century

By the beginning of the twentieth century, astonishing advancements in science and technology were inspiring a universal optimism for the coming of a golden age. But it soon became apparent that knowledge and invention do not always bring peace and prosperity, as many had anticipated, but sometimes also tyranny and slaughter. For much of the world's population, the wars, genocides, and oppressions of the twentieth century destroyed any comforting faith in man's inherent goodness or the healthy outcome of his passions.

With every advance in technology came the inevitable development of deadlier weapons. Military strength is a powerful temptation, and like all temptations, it has an irresistible quality that makes it impossible to restrain. All of the best intentions in the world cannot stop military strength from being used to gain a political and economic advantage. As long as the weapons and the opportunity to use them exist then it is just a matter of time before conditions permit the rise of warmongers whose ideology justifies their use.

After the Second World War, Europe's cities were in ruins, its empires had collapsed, and its commanding influence on the world stage had come to an end; too weak now to resist the ominous expansion of the Russian communist empire, the closing of the iron curtain, cold war spy games, and a massive buildup of nuclear weapons. For decades the world teetered on the brink of total annihilation. Generations of young were raised in a culture of fear for the seemingly inevitable launch of a global nuclear apocalypse.

Meanwhile, the capitalist industrial military machine was growing dangerously powerful. Driven by unrestrained greed and arrogance, it was lying to its people, starting wars for profit, poisoning the earth in a desperate bid to exploit every possible resource, and assembling enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. Long term survival meant little in the face of short term political and economic gain.

By the second half of the century, there was a growing loss of faith in mankind's ability to manage his own destiny. In spite of improving education, it was beginning to appear that our cultural and spiritual development was not keeping pace with our technological advancement. Fortunately for us, this troublesome imbalance began to change when improvements in electronics led to the mass production of affordable televisions.

The Great Social Revolution

No single invention has had a greater impact on world culture than television. As televisions filled the living rooms of family homes across the industrialized world, a new awareness began to take shape. Popular television show characters became role models for free-thinking humanist values. Nightly news reports exposed the rottenness and corruption of the old postwar industrial and military political establishment. New generations were beginning to learn more from watching television than they were from listening to their parents and teachers. Desire for change began to spread among many of the young.

New musical instruments like the electric guitar and affordable home stereos led to a revolution in popular music. New forms of music like ‘rock and roll’ expressed a growing desire for freedom, and most young people liked what they were hearing. But conservative Christians were deeply disturbed by the growing popularity of rock music. Musicians like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were accused of promoting communism and leading young people into a sinful orgy of sex and drugs. One pope even called for world governments to ban rock music.

Meanwhile, the musicians themselves, being the poets of their time, preached that love was the answer. In a world that often makes no sense, love can seem like the only thing that has any meaning or value. Almost everyone wants to love and be loved. We grow so much through our experiences of love, and we often remember these experiences as being the most valuable of our lives. By convincing people to accept love as the core of their values, it was hoped that we could finally end the violence and oppression and find a new way to live together in peace and harmony.

A feeling of revolution filled the air. The increasingly rebellious youth were tired of the old culture of religious morality and unaccountable military aggression. The time had finally come to rid the world of discrimination and injustice. Students and other activist groups began protesting for racial equality, sexual freedom, gay liberation, and women's rights. Peace protestors marched the streets chanting slogans like “make love not war”. They no longer wanted to see young men being forced against their will to become cannon fodder for big business interests overseas.

The streets erupted into violence in many cities around the world as frightened governments used armed force to crush demonstrations. But street violence on television is always bad publicity for governments. The old postwar political establishment was soon thrown out of power and the cultural conservatives were forced to retreat. In the decades that followed, many of the laws were rewritten, many of the oppressed were liberated, and many of the old rivalries and hatreds were forgiven and forgotten.

The price of freedom

During the 1970s, mainstream television culture broke free from its traditional cultural restraints. The collective television consciousness was now floating freely from one marketable fashion to the next, driven by popular desires, and descending to the lowest common denominator, before eventually settling into a democratic equilibrium, with public opinion reflecting the prevailing political climate, periodically wavering between liberal and conservative attitudes.

Christianity was unable to sell itself on mainstream television in any credible way and it very quickly lost its dominating influence over mainstream western culture. Church leaders came under attack for their oppressive and often offensive views. They were forced to drop their fire and brimstone rhetoric, at least for a while, as they tried to rekindle Christianity's more loving forms of expression. While many still called themselves Christians out of loyalty to tradition, for the first time in more than a thousand years, real church-going Christians were in the minority.

Driven by a sense of urgency, a coalition of arms manufacturers, oil industry executives, investment bankers, Christian television evangelists, corporate media propagandists, and conservative politicians began using patriotism, nationalism, religious revivalism, and every other technique in the art of conservative political persuasion to try to reestablish control over the minds of the impressionable majority.

Having finally succeeded in liberating the oppressed, with no purpose left to unite them, socialist political forces disintegrated. As the natural representatives of relativism and skepticism, they inevitably lost faith in the notion of progress and were no longer able to attract a following by presenting an inspiring vision of the future. They only really exist now as an alternative to conservatism. But the conservatives have been able to exploit Islamic terrorism and East Asian communist aggression by arguing that socialism's humanist values and political correctness have left the western world blind and defenseless.

Postmodernism

With the spread of democracy and the end of institutionalized racism, governments around the world are becoming increasingly cooperative; and increased communication, trade, travel, and migration between nations has led to an intermingling of diverse cultures, and a growing acceptance that we are all citizens of a global community.

People from different cultural backgrounds often have widely differing beliefs. In order to promote peace and justice in a world that has historically known only war and discrimination, most countries are finally embracing the core democratic principles of ‘freedom of opinion’ and ‘tolerance for all beliefs’. Conflict between differing beliefs can no longer be used as an excuse for violence and war.

In order for democracy to work, everyone must be free to have their own opinion. If experience has taught us anything, it is that anyone who claims to know the absolute truth (especially the political or religious truth) must be looked upon with suspicion, as they are often driven to try to dominate others with their particular version of reality.

Even the values that gave rise to the modern world, values like ‘progress’ and ‘science’ have been condemned by some special interest groups as being oppressive and dogmatic. By the end of the twentieth century, the rejection of any claims about absolute truths or values, even modern values, had evolved into a popular academic philosophy called ‘postmodernism’.

At its best, postmodernism provides a theoretical framework for describing diverse cultures, beliefs, and historical perspectives without discounting the value of any one group's experience. And it allows skeptical intellectuals to tactfully ignore the claims of Christian fundamentalists, Marxist academics, and other ideological absolutists without appearing rude or provocative.

At its worst though, postmodernism has turned into the very thing that it was originally opposed to, as some over-enthusiastic relativists have pushed it to the extreme, aggressively condemning any attempt to strive towards an actual truth. Postmodernism has even become an excuse for ignorance. According to some postmodern relativists, the modern world is no better than the prehistoric world, and scientific theories have no greater value than religious myths.

Despite its excesses, postmodernism is the philosophical embodiment of our democratic freedom to be skeptical and criticize everything. It plays a vital role in helping to prevent ideological extremism from gaining popular momentum and silencing all opposition like it has throughout most of human history.

Materialism

In the democratic world, different ideas about the meaning of life are now free to compete for a share of the market for popular beliefs. But in the absence of any appealing choices, with no coherent worldview worthy of capturing the popular imagination, people are left to form their own view of the world through scraps of information from here and there.

Superstitions like fortune telling, psychic phenomena, new age mysticism, extraterrestrial cults, and even witchcraft are on the rise as people take meaning from anywhere they can find it. Mainstream culture has fractured into a multitude of differing lifestyles and attitudes. While the variety of choices may suit individual tastes, families and communities are disintegrating as people become increasingly alienated from one another by differences of opinion and a lack of common understandings.

Asleep in the materialist dream where only money and beauty matter, many young people care only about what other people think of them, while trying to be what they think other people want them to be. Without the guidance of any believable moral authority, they look to movie stars, music idols, and sporting heroes as their role models. They take their values from fashionable pop culture trends, and they live their lives learning mostly from their mistakes. When the world fails to provide them with anything worth believing in, they often become cynical, suspicious of authority, rebellious, angry at life, and sometimes even self destructive.

As they stumble through one life-crisis after the next, disillusioned by society, isolated by failing relationships, and burdened by years of shameful memories and regrets, they become yet another lost generation, looking for comfort in the wisdom of television pop psychologists, or seeking guidance from the growing industry of self-help books and seminars. They are told to stay positive and not to focus on negatives; the path to happiness and financial success is through courage, discipline, self-respect, and commitment.

However, the pop psychologists cannot risk losing market share by challenging popular myths, and so they fail to provide any real answers to the deeper questions that people are asking. They treat the symptoms using motivational therapy rather than curing the disease by offering peace of mind through understanding.

Understanding

Seeing the need for greater social cohesion, political conservatives are becoming increasingly forceful in their efforts to encourage a return to traditional religious values. However, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism is only encouraging greater skepticism and social division as it threatens to undo the positive social changes of the last few centuries. And as hostility grows between conflicting fundamentalist beliefs, with escalating global conflict and increased military spending, the conservative vision is a recipe for disaster.

There is nothing to be gained by promoting religious myths over scientific knowledge, or by throwing away centuries of social progress to return to outdated and oppressive ideas of right and wrong. Yet there is everything to be gained by presenting the best of our scientific and moral knowledge in such a convincing way that it unites the entire world community behind a common sense of purpose.

Conservatives can do their best to resist it, and relativist skeptics can try to deny it, but as our technology continues to improve, as our knowledge and experience grows, and as our collective understanding becomes increasingly refined, eventually a single coherent worldview will emerge that is as near to the truth as possible, and it will be something that every clear-minded rational thinker can easily agree with.

The most admirable work of modern thinkers, writers, and filmmakers is to describe our situation here on earth as clearly and accurately as possible, using words that are simple enough for everybody to understand, while at the same time encouraging cooperation between both individuals and nations, to improve our chances of surviving through this period of rapid technological and social change.

Continue to chapter 14 ... Deepening Consciousness