Countering the Despair of Nihilism

It is not difficult to make the case that that advancement of Mankind has been greatly facilitated by the general agreement on a basic set of shared values by the various aggregations of its personnel in families, tribes, communities, states and nations.

In days gone by those beliefs and values were perpetuated through the institutions of religion, the state and the family. Except for the most precocious they were accepted as a given dictated by our circumstances. In some more traditional societies this is still the case.

This is of course a double-edged sword. Shared beliefs, even if they are unconsciously imposed on us, provide certainty and stability. Societies without a reasonable degree of shared belief do not long endure. Having faith brings with it comfort.

John Carroll from Monash University writes:

“True faith, or knowing, is a sort of poise of being, an ease of self in the world. With it a person is less likely to complain, hit out, and lament; more likely to face hardship with some higher detachment with philosophical acceptance that things happen as they do, and to respond to what life has in store with cheerfulness and gratitude.”

But on the other hand belief which is merely accepted because those around us believe similarly, because we have inherited such a tradition or because we know no better is an insubstantial foundation for life. How can we live an authentic life if our beliefs are merely accepted like hand-me-down clothing? Such belief might be convenient and provide a shallow comfort but we accept it at the risk of the loss of our own integrity.

[Perhaps this is an elitist point of view I am putting. In retrospect I know many people who seem to have taken on belief sets unquestioningly and still seem to live reasonably satisfactory lives. They are unwittingly subjugating their judgments to the judgments of others. And I suppose even though from my point of view they seem mistaken, their belief systems provide them with certainty and comfort even though to me they seem misguided.]

For the major part of the last couple of millennia most of us have had our belief systems fashioned by the dogma of the particular religion to which we subscribed. As I have described elsewhere, that paradigm began to be eroded by the growing influence of science. The world of mysticism and miracles collided with a world of reason, analysis and facts. The basic tenets of religious faith were challenged and the world became progressively more secular.

Nietzsche’s famous “Death of God” parable anticipated that Mankind without the guiding principles of religion would have no moral bearing and lapse into some immoral form of anarchy and hedonism. This was reinforced by the writing of Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky warned us that “without God everything will be permitted!” He saw civilisation morphing into an immoral anarchy if the mediating influence of God began to wane. Other philosophers also reinforced the notion that the decline in religion would automatically bring about a collapse of morality and meaning.

Another to express his concern about how society might be threatened by the erosion of traditional beliefs was the French sociologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim. He questioned how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in the face of declining religious influence and the diversification of ethnicity in modern societies. He championed the importance of social integration.

He wrote:

“For if society lacks the unity that derives from the fact that the relationships between its parts are exactly regulated, that unity resulting from the harmonious articulation of its various functions assured by effective discipline and if, in addition, society lacks the unity based upon the commitment of men’s wills to a common objective, then it is no more than a pile of sand that the least jolt or the slightest puff will suffice to scatter.”

In this way Durkheim was somewhat prescient. Despite the fact that in the modern world we have well-functioning societies that don’t rely on religious belief or ethnicity to maintain their coherence there are still many others that do. Unfortunately those in the latter category are often inimical to peaceful and productive relationships with many of their neighbours.

But Durkheim’s preoccupation was the pathological consequences in Western society of the decline of community. He believed there was a social breakdown that resulted from a weakening of community ties. He decried the growing emphasis on individualism. He believed that people who were not integrated into their community and prepared to subjugate themselves to the welfare of the community, its laws and mores, were a danger to modern society. And as he outlined in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life he believed that the collective conscience of a society was derived from its religious beliefs and consequently the passing of religious belief put at risk the integrity of community.

The German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber was also interested in the impact of religion on society. Weber was particularly interested in the interface between religion, community and economics. He pursued this theme in his major work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Although he was self-confessed irreligious, he nevertheless believed that religion was one of the core forces in society. Weber maintained that for Protestants, work was a pathway to salvation. Consequently he posited that with the decline of religion one of the prime drivers of capitalist society was waning as well. In Weber’s view, the futility and banality of modern life follows from the loss of the tie to the religious goal of salvation.

Western society’s retreat from the tradition and convention of earlier times was beginning to be reflected in its culture. As John Carroll again points out the literature of Beckett, Joyce and Camus portrays Mankind coming to grips with an amoral world. T S Elliott’s famous work The Wasteland depicts a world devoid of belief and certainty.

Art discarded its traditional focus on beauty and form to spawn Dadaism and the surreal works of Picasso.

Music eschewed harmony in favour of dissonance and atonality led by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

And of course, then, along came Freud! Freud challenged religious orthodoxy in a number of ways. To begin with, Freud believed that religion, in particular a belief in God, is an infantile neurosis. He theorised that we all as infants were in awe of our fathers who protected us, seemed infinitely powerful, were apparently omniscient, and determined the rules we lived by, cared for us and so on. As we grew older, bigger, stronger, and more knowledgeable we began to discover our father was less than we had believed in our ill-informed childhoods. That of course left a vacuum to be filled by someone or something that might have these characteristics we yearned for. This, according to Freud was the (my terminology) “God- space” that needed to be filled.

But perhaps even more telling, Freud challenged the notion of guilt. Christianity had thrived (and probably depended on) guilt. To Freud, guilt was a psychological, not a moral problem.

Christianity relies on guilt. Because of “original sin” we are all guilty and the only way to assuage our guilt is to be redeemed by the intervention of Jesus. So, perfectly able, competent, and largely good people have to acknowledge their sins and petition Jesus for forgiveness.

But Freud proposed that the awkward issue of guilt could be removed by therapy. If this is true the basic recruitment drawcard of Christianity is nullified.

[It is time I placed a disclaimer here. In many ways Freud is discredited as much as the Christian apologists. I am not suggesting that you subscribe to the views of Freud which are often abhorrent to me, just as I am not advocating Christianity!]

So we were now seeing Western societies move into uncharted territory. The influence of the two huge monolithic institutions on which our societies had been founded, the church and the nobility, was weakening. What sort of a society would result? Some writers, the aforementioned John Carroll among them have decried the erosion of traditional values in favour of liberal humanism. This mirrors the belief of the great conservative theorist, Edmund Burke. Historically he would argue that the French Revolution with its call to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity unleashed social forces that were quite inimical to civilised society. But what has finally developed in the wake of this liberalism in modern society? Let us examine the evidence.

On most criteria we would have to concede that modern Western societies (and indeed probably the majority of societies on earth) are better than their predecessors. They are certainly materially better off but even more importantly they (with some exceptions) allow their members better health, education, justice and opportunity. This seems counter to the prognostications of the early sociologists who predicted a collapse of civilisation post religion.

We have seen in recent decades (even more so than previously) an impassioned debate between those with traditional religious beliefs and professed atheists, each side trying to discredit and sometime demonise the other.

Interestingly, if I look broadly at religious traditions they largely agree on the desired values and behaviours of their respective adherents. It is universally agreed that:

  • We should not steal
  • We should not murder
  • We should care for each other, and so on.

When atheists write of their ethics and values they also seldom dispute these ubiquitous principles.

These values seem largely ingrained in our humanity. In this respect Dostoevsky was wrong. Without God, for most of us, there is still much not permitted! Of course there are exceptions and history is littered with the deeds of psychopaths. But in general, most collectivities of human beings are reasonably benign, caring and trustworthy. Consequently communities and societies continue to succeed without being subject to the doctrines and guilt of religion.

In the end, when you look at the human family, the differences we always seem to want to magnify as a result of our religions and nationalities, pale into insignificance compared to the underlying unity we share merely for belonging to homo sapiens.

2 Replies to “Countering the Despair of Nihilism”

  1. The unmentioned elephant in the room is the discovery of evolution by natural selection. Random mutation and non random selection changes the perspective of religion and culture.

  2. Ted, I was reading a historical series of novels about Alfred The Great. Prior to Alfred, England was really 4 separate kingdoms and around 850AD the Danes (Vikings) were well and truly in the process of conquering England. It is not stated in the books but it is fairly clear to me that the difference between the Danes and the English was their religions. The Danes believed in the pagan Gods of Thor, Oden and plenty of others where as the English were Christian. Through their Christian faith the English had a very different moral code. They supported and fought for a cause greater than themselves, where as the Danes believed they were there merely to entertain their Gods. The Danes fought like fiends and cared little about death for as long as they fought well and entertained their Gods they knew they would be well cared for in Valhalla. They were as a result very tough to beat. The problem they faced was they were fickle. They would support a leader as long as he looked after them and they were winning. In tough times though, they just went some where else. The English on the other hand had a constant. Their one God was always there and there was a lot of consistency in the moral code that come with it. Leaders, Kings, Bishops and so on could come and go but the duty to their faith continued. The net result of this was that the English prevailed and I am now writing this in English and not Danish.

    For my money society could not have evolved to be what it is today without religion and I suggest Christianity provided a moral code that was a huge contributor to the success of humanity as we know it. I appreciate that much harm has been done as a result of religion and a great deal of thought repression has slowed development in many areas of science and technology over the years. That said, I still think we would be subsistence farmers now without religion unifying us for a common good. Even today hospitals and schools are still provided to a large extent through religion.

    This of course does not mean that religion is still as relevant as it was or provides advantage to us in modern times. We have other ways of defining moral codes now. The courts were developed through religion but today they still seem to function OK with no substantive religious component. I do think caution should be taken here though. Our key institutions that keep society from destroying itself evolved from religion and a belief in something greater than all of us. I fear that our institutions can decay over time with out a powerful foundation from something like religion.

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